This month’s theme for skirt! magazine is oxygen, and I am excited about this because it gave me a reason to learn, research and explore the seemingly daunting topic of molecular gastronomy (read: how complexities and unique qualities and properties of elements/compounds/mixtures work together and create new, enhanced and exciting food items).
While on my quest to tackle this subject (about which I didn’t really know very much until recently) and help me answer these tough questions, I met with one of my favorite local Charleston Chefs, Nate Whiting. I have worked with him on several previous projects, and I am constantly impressed with his talent, humble nature, passion for the food industry and his continual pursuit to make delicious food for people who appreciate it.
I interviewed Chef Whiting to understand more about what molecular gastronomy is. I love food, but I’m still learning. It has been an amazing adventure of trying new things, going to new places and getting out of the proverbial ‘box.’ Enjoy!
Q: How would you define what molecular gastronomy is, to someone who has never heard of it before?
Chef Whiting: I want to make sure to say that all gastronomy is molecular, but to someone who’s never heard of it, I realize the term is probably not going anywhere—it’s already entrenched. But I would say it’s a modernist approach to cooking, where they would use some of the newer hydrocolloids, newer techniques, newer technologies… People who would have a more scientific approach to cooking, as opposed to traditional or intuitive.
Q: Explain what you mean by “all gastronomy is molecular.”
Chef Whiting: Cooking is nothing more than applied science—it’s physics, it’s chemistry, it’s biology, it’s all different kinds of applied sciences, whether you know it or not. I think people think of molecular gastronomy as looking deeper into the hows and whys. It’s so intriguing to me because I like the science of it, because the science is irrefutable; it’s absolute. There’s no debate, and it’s there whether you believe it or not. That’s pretty cool.
Q: How is this style of cooking important to you? How long have you been incorporating it in your cooking?
Chef Whiting: It’s important to me and everyone because I don’t see it as a be-all, end-all. It allows you to find more tools for your repertoire, more techniques, newer ingredients, if you will, to allow you to create or develop new flavors or new flavor-delivery systems.
Q: So the techniques are all in the service of enhancing flavor?
Chef Whiting: Ultimately, I feel like it is. But a lot of people, especially younger cooks, do it just because they can, or it’s new, or it’s different, or it’s cool. They just do it (with) a “hey, look what I can do” kind of mentality, which kind of gives a lot of these techniques a bad reputation, ‘cause they can be done poorly, just as with any other technique. I don’t feel like these techniques or these ingredients are ever gonna become the greatest thing ever, but they are gonna be another technique, and another thing to build upon, with which to grow cuisine. Traditional things are there for a reason, and classics are classics for a reason. Like the synergies of playing music and cooking—you gotta learn the basics, you gotta learn the fundamentals, you gotta be able to read the music, and then you can riff on your own. [Molecular gastronomy] is about using those traditions and building upon them and growing from them.
Q:. What are some key things that make it unique?
Chef Whiting: The uniqueness of it is probably the new textures that you can achieve, better flavor delivery through some of the newer hydrocolloids and things like that, where they don’t mute the flavors as much. Cleaner, purer flavors that you can achieve. Definitely low-temperature cooking is a big one. What else makes it unique? I would say how simple, how minimal the learning curve is on a lot of these techniques is really, really unique.
Q: How do you use molecular gastronomy techniques with current menu dishes?
Chef Whiting: I use fluid gels, we use hydrocolloids and enzymes, and things like that to make components. Like on my trout dish, we make the pepperoncini fluid gel, we make the lime “caviar.” We don’t want to use the same technique to death on every dish, but we make agar gelée. … We’ve got a whole pantry filled with different things that can help us develop new dishes. But it’s not going to be like, “Oh, this is the only way you could ever do this.” There are no dead ends to cooking. There’s not much that you’d be able to pick out of a lineup that’s just completely avant-garde, because it’s not all that familiar to people, either. We do more little fun kind of things like the encapsulated liquids and things like that, but it’s not on the menu. If we’ve got it, people can try it, and we’ll hand them out. The whole point of going out to eat is to have things you wouldn’t or can’t do at home.
Q: Are some of the dishes on the menu that don’t have the obvious markings of molecular gastronomy still made using some of those methods?
Chef Whiting: We look for every and any way possible to make a dish better, and if that means a new way or an old way, we’ll do it. If it means it takes longer, but it’s better, we’re gonna do it. That’s definitely more of a forward-thinking kind of way to progress your food and your cuisine. We learn about alkalinity, and pH, and the application of heats, and searing, and the Maillard reaction. It’s all relative, and we look closely at all those things to try to develop flavors—not just the hydrocolloids, and the powders, and enzymes, and things like that. We try to use those (techniques) to our advantage and our way of applying them to maximize flavor.
Q: Why should it not be intimidating?
Chef Whiting: It shouldn’t be intimidating at all. A lot of people think you’re putting chemicals in food and all that. These newer modernist ingredients are no more inorganic than anything else you would put in your body. In many cases, these things are all from certified organic sources. They’re mostly seaweeds, and gums, and barks, and fermentations through sugar and things like that. They’re no more foreign to your body than anything else. They can be intimidating to people just because they have this long, scientific, kind of unfamiliar jargon, but once you familiarize yourself with it, you’ll realize they’re in everything you drink or taste or eat all the time, whether you know that they’re there or not, and they’re no more harmful or detrimental to your body than anything else you eat. So, don’t be intimidated by some of the jargon and the words, the technique, the learning curve, is pretty minimal once you familiarize yourself with it. It’s just taking that leap and [being] willing to try something new that is the biggest intimidating factor. Just because Grandma doesn’t use it doesn’t mean it’s not good.