Molecular Cuisine 101

While browsing recently at Tuscan food fair Saveurs Toscanes I noticed that one of the stands, a shop called Les Secrets Du Chef, also offered cookery courses. I’ve only ever done two cookery courses before: one in Thailand and one with a group of friends in Brussels, organised by my wife for my birthday. What caught my eye this time was the fact that they offered a one-evening introduction to molecular cuisine.

Now I’m a big fan of the kind of restaurants that fall into this category, but I had my doubts about someone of my limited (i.e. non-existant) culinary skills attempting some of the most unusual and technically challenging dishes around. Did I let that stop me? Of course not. Wife and I signed up and went along to their Brussels branch last Monday night, full of curiosity and more than slightly nervous.

We were a group of 11 people, and apart from one student we were the youngest in the room, everyone else being in their fifties or sixties. We donned our aprons and sat around the large table in the kitchen at the back of the shop as our chef/host gave us a brief overview of culinary trends of the last few decades. I was quite surprised to learn that, with one exception, we were the only ones in the room who’d ever been to a molecular cuisine restaurant.

We were to prepare a four course meal between us. A group of five handled the starter, my wife and I did the main course, one guy on his own was given responsibility for the cheese course, and the remaining three prepared the dessert. We all did our preparation and some of the cooking, under the chef’s guidance and following the printed recipes, paused to consume each course as it was completed, then going back to finish our work in between. I was surprised at how little supervision we actually had; we were basically given our ingredients, the guiding principles were introduced, and then we were left to get on with it. Now obviously in a three-hour lesson you can’t do any of the more elaborate, time-consuming or dangerous experiments for which the likes of Heston Blumenthal have become known, but we did get to play with agar agar, lecithin, emulsion-making and spherification.

The first course: oysters. I don’t really like oysters (although I can bear them if they’re covered in passion fruit), but I was willing to give them another try. The oyster team, after being schooled in the safest way to open an oyster shell,  had to create a creamy sauce out of chopped shallots, cider vinegar, smoked fish and water from the oysters and then spray that out of a canister into the shells, and add some tiny balls, created using a spherification technique which involves dripping liquidised fennel mixed with alginate from a pipette into a bowl of water and lactate, then after a few seconds scooping them out and cooling them in a bowl of cold water.

Creating spheres:

Finished spheres. OK, ovoids:

Finished dish:

I still don’t like oysters, but it was fun to watch the spherification process, and the cream was nice. At the end many people delcared this to have been their favourite dish of the evening, but I think that was just because they’re weirdo oyster-lovers.

Next up was our main course. Here’s the recipe, for those of you who read French:

Basically it’s smoked duck with a dessert wine foam and potato and artichoke purée. What this meant was that while the oyster team were having fun with with siphons and spheres, we were peeling, boiling and mashing vegetables. Then, after we’d eaten the oysters, we created the foam by mixing white French dessert wine with egg white and a few grams of soy lecithin. The duck came in the form of vacuum-packed smoked slices. Yes, I’d have loved to have gone out and shot my own duck, plucked it, smoked it and sliced it up myself, but we didn’t have time for any of that. Top chefs use ready-made ingredients all the time, right?

Then it was time to plate up: ten carefully aligned slices of duck per person, two swooshes of purée (yes, OK, I need to work a little on my swooshing technique), a line of foam on the duck and a sprinkle of black salt. Pretty damn yummy it was too. Some felt that the wine sauce was too strong, but I loved it and in fact for me it was the best dish of the evening, and not just because I’d made it myself.

Next up was a cheesy dessert consisting of strawberries and figs in a little pot:

covered with an “air” of roquefort. The air was quite something; incredibly light and fluffy, yet retaining all the salty tang of the roquefort.

And then came the final dessert: a “virtual cannelloni” made with basil and agar, filled with a white wine and szechuan pepper cream, and placed on top of a rather large bowl of chopped strawberries which had been marinated in a mixture of honey and balsamic vinegar. Interesting, but I have to say that the basil and pepper flavours didn’t come through as strongly as I’d have liked.

All in all a pleasant and productive evening. Now you know what to expect if we ever invite you to dinner.