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Food Science

Learning to make creative cuisine ... with chemicals


Published June 9, 2009 at 6:55 p.m.

“Some people understand it, some people don’t,” says Chef Mark Timms of Norma’s at Topnotch Resort and Spa in Stowe. He’s talking about “molecular gastronomy,” the movement that brings diners such inventions as “tomato foam,” “shitake toffee” and “cantaloupe caviar.”

“Food to me is art,” Timms continues. “You either like Picasso, or you like Monet or you like Van Gogh. It’s just your interpretation of food.”

Some may see molecular gastronomy as edible art, or even a plated fashion statement. But first and foremost it’s about technology. The term was coined in 1988 to describe a series of forums in Erice, Italy, where foodies, physicists and physical chemists met to experiment in areas of food science. For the first time, they would apply its lessons not just to the industrial kitchen, but to the restaurant and home.

Early experiments sought to resolve enduring culinary debates such as “Does meat need to be seared to lock in the juices?” The scientists’ answer: Hell, no. Just throw it in a bag. From Erice emerged the now-popular sous-vide method, in which foods are vacuum sealed and slow cooked in a water bath at very low temperatures to soften them while retaining fats and juices. Other innovations included using chemical emulsifiers to produce everything from gelées to pastas; deploying air and nitrogen oxide to “foam” liquids into a cloud of flavor; and even adding a sodium bicarbonate mixture to make dessert pop — literally.

What on earth does this high-tech trend — which many purveyors call “postmodern cuisine” — have to do with all-natural Vermont?

You’d be surprised. While postmodern food may not be on every plate, it’s out there. Butler’s in Essex has been sous-viding lamb for years. Chef Ted Ask of the super chichi Twin Farms in Barnard surprises guests with foams and spherified liquids on their plates.

Then there’s Timms at Topnotch. Though his daily fare consists of modern classics such as tuna tartare with avocado salad and a soy-citrus vinaigrette, or filet mignon with prosciutto and cheddar crèpes, Timms and his staff are most excited when they’re experimenting.

Enchanted with the work of postmodern heavyweights such as Ferran Adriá of elBulli in Catalonia (considered by many to be the father of “molecular gastronomy”) and Grant Achatz of Alinea in Chicago, Timms still considers himself a student of the craft. A kindred spirit in that respect, I’ve set myself a life goal of learning and perfecting a single molecular technique. I ask Timms if he would be willing to share one of his discoveries with me. Sure, he replies — but why stop with just one?

That’s how I find myself in the basement kitchen at Norma’s, participating in a molecular boot camp designed just for me. While most other folks are enjoying their Memorial Day hot dogs and burgers, I am learning to make cantaloupe caviar with the help of Timms’ sous-chef, Aaron Martin.

When it comes to postmodern cuisine, Timms says, his priority is finding ways to produce it quickly and “without a lot of weights and measures.” The more intricate stuff, he says, he’ll leave to those who are “more into the science of it.”

Martin certainly fits that bill. Before we begin, he explains that he has already spent hours rendering the meat of a cantaloupe. Now he’ll add Algin, a brown algae extract harvested from waters off the coast of Scotland.

The plant matter visibly emulsifies the cantaloupe essence as Martin smooths it with an immersion blender. Next, he helps me feed the mixture into a syringe big enough to put a horse out for surgery, and instructs me to inject small blobs of the compound into a vessel containing water mixed with Calcic, or calcium salt, commonly used in cheesemaking. This mild acid bath — which Martin says “feels like slimy water” — “cooks” the caviar. It takes just 30 seconds to a minute to seal the irregular orbs I produced, really more akin to a pond full of tadpoles — or sperm — than real fish eggs.

Timms also makes “maple caviar” that pops at first bite just like the real thing. He sees it as a uniquely Green Mountain addition to the avant-garde canon: “My twist on molecular cuisine is taking maple syrup — a Vermont product — and turning it into this funky caviar that people can appreciate.”

While most chefs who dabble in chemical processes are curious about the minutiae of food science, Timms says he is “absolutely not. My interests as a kid were art, history, geography. I was horrible at math, horrible at science.” Rather, the frustrated art student says he thrives on “finding another art form for your regular ingredients and presenting them in a very artistic fashion on a plate — finding the different beauty in things that you have every day. To me,” he adds, “it’s a very sexy way to present different foods.”

What’s not so sexy is the unreliability of the processes. Today Timms abandons his attempts to spin candied olive oil around a broomstick, a feat he’s managed several times in the past. “A recipe can work perfectly one day,” he says, noting that factors such as outside temperature play a role. “And then the next ... it can fail on you pretty fast.”

To replace the broomstick trick, Martin jumps in with a hands-on demonstration in ... making air?

Basil air, that is. Unlike the fare at a late-’90s oxygen bar, this vapor isn’t for inhaling. “You put it in your mouth and let it dissolve,” Martin explains.

Making it isn’t much harder. We toss basil leaves in boiling water and add a tablespoon of one of the many emulsifying agents from Ferran Adriá’s Texturas line, the pricey source of the chemicals used at Norma’s. (A single can of Gellan, for example, goes for nearly $130.) Then we blend the stuff into something of an astronaut’s basil latte. Separate the foam from the top with a spoon, freeze and ta-da! You’ve got a summery puff of basil to enjoy.

Timms isn’t just performing these tricks for the hell of it: Both the cantaloupe caviar and the basil air belong in the “molecular summer salad” we are preparing. For presentation, Timms instructs me to apply carrot paint (reduced carrot with olive oil and sugar) to a white plate with a wide brush. He’s very particular about this final detail: “To me a white plate is a canvas,” Timms explains, then adds a surprisingly down-to-earth comparison: “They use a white plate at Al’s to showcase the best burgers in town.”

The tomato terrine we place atop the smear of paint is surely the best in its town, too. Timms keeps the dish vegetarian by substituting agar agar for gelatin. Beyond that, the process of turning tomatoes and basil into a pâté is not that different from creating an Escoffier-style aspic dish — hold the hooves.

Next, Timms brings out pans of cucumber and pineapple gelées he prepared earlier. Cut in tiny cubes, the cucumber is a knockout punch — like tasting the whole vegetable at once — condensed into a few centimeters. Parsley and tarragon give the pineapple-juice version more complexity. Timms lets me place the bits around our “canvas” like jewels.

Timms hands me a squeeze bottle of parsley bisque with olive oil and parmesan, with which I liberally dot the remaining surface area. We wrap the terrine in a sheet of shitake toffee (exactly what it sounds like) and cover it in the caviar, which has been resting in pure water to rinse off the Calcic. The final touch? Paper.

Actually, edamame paper. Timms points this out as a prime example of a chemical-free repurposing of a common ingredient. Though he admits to sometimes using Metil (a methylcellulose powder) to help stabilize the product, Timms treasures the dish for its simplicity. He rattles off the recipe: “Cook it down into a paste and then spread out the pulp onto a baking tray and bake that at 250° for an hour and a half and then you have a perfect piece of paper.” (See sidebar to make your own.) The salad now contains nine discrete elements, but it comes together perfectly, appealing to intellect and senses alike. Eating has never been such serious fun.

I know I like it. But are other Vermonters hopping on the molecular-gastronomy bandwagon? “It’s mixed reviews,” Timms admits. “I’m OK with people critiquing or loving it.”

The chef keeps his regular menu on the more approachable side — his primary clientele consists, after all, of hungry guests at an outdoorsy resort. However, Timms says many of his diners, who tend to be “well traveled” and “Internet savvy,” are willing to experiment. While all but the most adventurous eaters might still balk at “an 18-course molecular dinner,” Timms has found ways to work his new skills into more approachable meals. Take one of Norma’s seafood selections, based on an “awesome technique” Timms adapted from elBulli: “We take the halibut and wrap it up in plastic wrap, almost like a very quick sous-vide method ... What you have by cooking it that way is a very moist piece of fish.”

Timms believes that one day, demand for his unique techniques will increase enough to let him explore them more than once or twice a month. He’s currently planning a tapas menu that will showcase some Adriá-inspired dishes in small portions.

For now, he and his staff are happy to experiment. “We have a long way to go,” he says. “There’s still a few dishes that I want to perfect. Like a beer jelly roll.”