The first practical chemists on the face of the Earth were cooks. They were the first creatures to take natural materials—the stuff that they found all around them—and transform the substances into something different: something better, something more interesting, something more flavorful, something safer to eat, something safe to keep.
Cooks have been pursuing these transformations for thousands of years. The great traditional cuisines—classic French cooking, classic Chinese cooking, Japanese, Italian—all arose as the cultures evolved in particular places and largely in isolation from each other, working with a limited set of local ingredients and resources for transforming them. And that’s how these distinctive but narrow cuisines were honed to a kind of perfection.
The twenty-first century is a very different time in human history. Cultures are no longer isolated from one another, and ingredients flow all over the world. So now the questions for many cooks are: What can you do with a whole planet’s worth of ingredients? What can you do with all the discoveries that different cultures have made about how ingredients can be transformed, and how people can be touched by the experience of eating? The same restless, creative, ambitious cooks who would have contributed to the refinement of well-defined classic cuisines are now exploring the possibilities of open-ended, open-minded cooking.
The term molecular gastronomy gets thrown around a lot these days. It sounds kind of cool, but it’s an empty phrase. I was around when the term was born. (And at this point, I wish it had never been.) Molecular gastronomy was originally a marketing term, coined in the early 1990s to sell the idea of a meeting that would bring chefs and scientists together at a scientific conference center in Sicily. The Ettore Majorana Centre, in Erice, normally held meetings having to do with things like the origin of the universe or the biology of cancer—big, important, meaty subjects. We were a group of people interested in presenting a scientific meeting about cooking. Cooking was not as big a deal as it is now. Academics looked down on it as a domestic activity, not something worth paying attention to.
So, to justify the conference, two of the organizers came up with the fanciest-sounding multisyllabic term they could think of to describe what we were interested in: molecular gastronomy. Gastronomy is the understanding and enjoyment of good food and drink. And molecular biology and molecular medicine—the actual cutting-edge study of specific molecules in life and disease—were in academic vogue at the time. So molecular gastronomy it was—even though there wasn’t the slightest resemblance between true molecular science and what we were doing, which was applying standard industry-focused food chemistry to understand and improve cooking.
The conference center was sold. They scheduled us in, and we ended up holding several meetings over the course of ten or so years. But the term still never really meant anything. We would get together and talk about ingredients and techniques, not about molecules.
Chefs today are very interested in the science of cooking, but few if any of them actually think about molecules. They think about ingredients, because that’s what you have to work with in the kitchen. Molecular scientists use sophisticated and expensive instruments to study and manipulate the behavior of single molecules, or small numbers of them. That’s molecular science. Food chemistry may get there eventually. But cooking won’t, because the goal of cooking isn’t understanding or manipulation for its own sake. It’s deliciousness, and there’s more to deliciousness than molecules. Some of the most relevant science for cooks nowadays is less about chemistry in the kitchen and more about perception and emotion in the dining room.
The food and restaurant and science writers who bought into the marketing term molecular gastronomy have turned it into shorthand for novelty cooking, or cooking that makes food look like a science experiment. It conjures up a caricature of what is most exciting and significant about modern cooking, which is its exploratory nature. Cooks today are asking questions about food and eating that have never been asked before, and so we’re tasting and experiencing all kinds of things that we’ve never seen. Not many of them are great, but that’s to be expected exactly because this is exploration, rather than slight variations on the tried and true.
There are a number of good, substantive terms for naming this exploration of the edible world. Experimental cooking. Open cooking. Modernist cuisine. And the word gastronomy itself doesn’t need faux dignifying or seriousing-up anymore. It’s been current for two hundred years, goes back two thousand, and has come to encompass everything to do with the preparation and enjoyment of food and drink, from the chemical to the historical to the psychological and philosophical. It comes from the Greek word for “belly,” which came from an Indo-European root meaning “devour.” Gastronomy, it’s got the molecules covered.