Last night I had the opportunity to attend a lecture by the famed chef, Wylie Dufresne. Known for this his pioneering methods in the fields of molecular gastronomy, I was thrilled to have an opportunity to hear him speak. Molecular gastronomy looks at the different physical and chemical changes that take place during the cooking process. It takes a much more scientific eye to the development of dishes, rather than the rather artistic one that I am used to. Dufresne explained that for as long as he could remember he'd been told the proper length of time to roast a chicken, or bake a cake. He was taught the reactions that would occur with traditional ingredients, and the going answer to the question "why" as -"because". Curious as he is, Dufresne turned to the ideas of molecular gastronomy to help explain these ideas, and a whole new world of cooking opened.
In his restaurant, WD50 located in New York City, Dufresne spends much of his time experimenting with new ways to treat traditional ingredients to provide better results. Last night he concentrated on the use of meat glues- chemicals which would react with proteins to bind them together. Dufresne showed us several applications starting with shrimp pasta, noodles made entirely of shrimp, ground into paste and with the addition of a meat glue, and a little bit of fat. Dufresne stated that these noodles bore striking similarities to their starch laden counterparts, and uses them in a similar application, boiled, doused in tomato sauce enhanced with garlic and basil. Just like Grandma used to make, right?
Dufresne's next example was less radical perhaps, but just as remarkable. He used another meat glue compound, in slurry form, applied with a paint brush to join pieces of flank steak together, to make the typically thin and often tough meat, thick as a fillet and able to be treated similarly. Applications like this, and with the fillets of cod that he used next, allow for practical uses of meat glue. These uses show the ability to take often passed over pieces of protein and turn them into much more favorable selections, able to stand uniform cooking times, and serving applications.
However, I have to look at the full picture here. Yes, the ideas that Dufresne brought forth last night are fascinating. They are revolutionary even. I wonder though- are they really where we want the food world to be headed?
October, in the blog world at least, was Unprocessed Month- a month in which bloggers from all over the US gave up processed foods. They spent the month reading labels trying to keep themselves from eating unwanted chemicals in a goal to eat the purest possible foods. As a society we are constantly reminded that chemicals which we cannot pronounce the names of are probably best left outside of our bodies. I personally spend much of my time in my kitchen making things from scratch as a way to ensure that I know exactly what I am eating. I look for farm fresh produce, and locally sourced goods as another way to keep my brain and my stomach connected. Doesn't molecular gastronomy, used in this sense of meat glues, directly compete against those ideas? The application itself is adding chemicals directly to our foods. This chemical doesn't burn off during cooking, Dufresne was sure to mention that it maintains it's properties even in a fryer. So I have to wonder- what would it do inside my stomach?
Now if you know me, you know I am not the purists of purists. Far from it actually, I do the best that I can. I have those moments of weakness and enjoy a pack of M&M's, or a Twizzler or two-and lord knows there are some crazy chemicals in those items. Somehow though, it seems like an entirely different situation to me, to have a chemical slurry painted onto my cod, or combined into my shrimp for effect.
Still, as I debate this within myself, the possibilities that stem from these ideals are amazing. The feats possible with the assistance of these glues are endless, they are incredible, and they are mind blowing. As I sat last night, and watched as Dufresne torched a Terrine of Foie Gras and it maintained it's perfect shape, simply absorbing the caramelizing of its outer later, I heard my stomach grumble. This is a combination of flavor and texture not possible before.
So I guess the question remains-Meat Glues- good or bad? Experimentation gone too far or just the beginning of a whole new way to enhance our culinary experiences? What do you think?