Although we are often unaware of it, the creative process is something that is present in practically everything we do. It is part of human nature. Not all of us have the surname "da Vinci", "Einstein" or "Newton", but one thing is for certain – even in more basic tasks such as managing household bills, planning holidays or even lying, cognitive neuroscience tells us that creating is part of us. Intrinsically.

 

Molecular gastronomy, a trend which is increasingly invading the tables of many chefs, is also an example of the wonderful world of the creative process. In short, it can be defined as the "manipulation of ingredients by techniques that exploit their physical or chemical properties". It sounds complicated, but trying to simplify it we can say that it is nothing more than taking something which has always been done in a more or less empirical way, and making it scientific, opening a universe of new possibilities with the use of avant-garde techniques and technology.

 

But the question has to be asked: is it really so important in practice, from the "user's point of view" (or the diner's, in this case), to understand the metaphysics of Grandma's soup or the unmatched chocolate mousse that Auntie used to bring to Christmas parties? To understand how the beans react chemically with the cabbage inside the pot or the chocolate with the “stiff peak" egg whites? Not really, but only as consumers of the final product. The kitchen is, and always has been, molecular, because in truth everything that is matter is composed of molecules and chemical reactions have always existed. Even in Grandma's very refined soup, which had the gift of awakening the senses.

For those who study this phenomenon, at some point it became important to take a new step, to open a new window of knowledge. And it was a long time ago that this journey began with the discovery and study of a new world of techniques that take advantage of the physical or chemical properties of food and their interactions. A path that sought to bring modernity and technology to the traditional, reset prejudices and join hands with science.

 

Although there are reports of older and somewhat scattered experiences of science applied to cooking, the duo made up of Nicholas Kurti, Hungarian chemist (1908-1998), and Hervé This, French physicist and chemist (born in 1955), is almost unanimously credited with being the father of molecular gastronomy, with the publication of various studies on the subject and its definitive affirmation in 1988, after jointly analysing over 10,000 (!) recipes from traditional cuisine. "It is worrying that we know more about the temperature inside the stars than about the temperature inside a soufflé dish“ is a well-known statement from Nicholas Kurti, revealing that something new was on the way, after having devoted much of his life to seeking to understand the nature of food. Their work has shattered many myths, some ancient, about the way food is prepared. In reality, what is also at stake is demonstrating scientifically whether the practices applied over generations are correct or not. And for that you have to test foods and recipes thoroughly, in order to understand what is right or wrong in the preparation process.

 

Simple tasks like applying heat to a food have a chemical complexity that is not visible to the naked eye. When we apply heat, there is a reaction at the level of the molecules – we increase their speed, forcing them to collide with each other and change their molecular structure. New molecules then emerge and there are changes in colour, taste and texture. A Spanish chemist has studied, for example, the influence that cooking has on green beans from a molecular point of view.

The rise of molecular gastronomy (or “techno-emotional cuisine" as some call it) had its heyday in the 1990s and 2000s. The great promoters of this movement, who contributed decisively to consolidating its presence in the kitchens of many restaurants throughout the world, were Ferran Adriá, owner of El Bulli (on the outskirts of Barcelona, which has since closed) and Heston Blumenthal, in charge of The Fat Duck (west of London).

 

More like laboratories, his kitchens were the stage for creations that have gone down in the history of world gastronomy, and their techniques are now used in many restaurants around the globe. "Gelification", "spherification", "liquid nitrogen" or the "siphon" technique are some of the tools used to create innovative and surprising shapes and textures, respecting the virtues and flavour of each ingredient as much as possible.

 

Just as a carpenter needs nails and a hammer, so chefs have had to equip themselves with new tools to produce their creations. Torches, precision scales, rotary evaporators, beechwood sawdust for smoking or even a pan that automatically turns meat when the temperature inside reaches a certain temperature, making it softer and cooked perfectly in less time, are some of the examples that make up the set of utensils that exist today in many kitchens around the world.

It didn’t take long for Portugal to catch on either. Not only are there already several restaurants and chefs who practise molecular gastronomy, but there are also various ways of learning and getting started.

 

The Ciência Viva Agency, an entity that is part of the National Agency for Scientific and Technological Culture, is one of the most active entities in this area. On their website you can find support materials produced by researchers, including recipes.

 

For those who want to take the subject more seriously, there are several training opportunities on the subject, either in Portugal or in other countries such as Germany, Australia, Denmark, Spain, France, Italy and Switzerland.

On the kitchen counter or on the plate, in whatever form, it is now time to experience the brave new world of molecular gastronomy!