Experimenting with Molecule-R

Salvatore July 9, 2012 0

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I’ve had exactly one experience with molecular gastronomy. It was by far the most expensive meal I’ve ever paid for. It was, however, also one of the most memorable, in so much as it felt as if I was hallucinating the entire time.

The meal in question was a 23-course extravaganza at la Terraza Del Casino in Madrid, a near Alice in Wonderland-like restaurant based on the ideas of the famed Ferrán Adrìa. With inventiveness, beautiful plating and a real sense of fun among the formality (our waiters were dressed in white tuxes), it felt like an elaborate acid trip. I think the restaurant is aware of this sensation: they print out your menu at meal’s end, as if providing proof that it really happened.

Check out this travel video to get a sense of some of the dishes we were served that night (note: I am not in the person eating in the video):

There was, in short, a real sense of magic to the meal. After all, how often do you leave a restaurant completely bewildered by what you just ate (I say that in a good way)? A great restaurant can fill you with ideas: recipes and techniques to try at home, unique flavor combinations you never thought of, a wine-plate pairing that you never considered. That night, however, my head was filled with questions:

  • “What did I just eat?
  • “How do I compare this to other restaurants?”
  • “Where does one get liquid nitrogen?”

None of it, in other words, felt like something you can do at home.

Enter Montreal-based Molecule-R. Established in 2010, Molecule-R sells kits that let the “curious chef and regular foodie” experiment with molecular gastronomy. More than that, the company – which now takes up three large loft spaces in a vast industrial building meant to confuse writers – has built a profitable business on the idea that anyone can in fact do this.

We were ready to try.

Molecule R Cuisine Kit Test

Molecule-R founders Jonathan Coutu and Jerome De Champlain are not cooks by trade. The former was an investment banker, the latter something of a serial entrepreneur, who most recently ran a gourmet food shop. Their cuisine kits, however, were well received right from the start, particularly in France and England, where the company put an emphasis on the experience. Think of it like an arts and crafts class with food.

“It’s not just about presenting food,” Coutu told me, “it’s about entertaining your guests.”

Fittingly, our team of four had no experience preparing these kinds of foods. More than that, we’re what you’d call scientifically inept (full disclosure, the only class I’ve ever failed was a science class). We were, however, up for a good time (even though my wife seemed intent on having a fire extinguisher on hand. “Just in case,” she said.) Somewhat ambitiously, we decided on the following menu based on Molecule-R recipes:

–        Spherical tzaziki

–        Yogurt ravioles

–        Raspberry ravioles

–        Rum sheets

–        Lemon cloud foam

–        Frozen parmesan

–        Arugula spaghetti

–        Coco-almond fondant

As we would find out, this was a ridiculous thing to expect to accomplish.

Getting Molecular

The idea for Molecule-R began with a trip to England.

“I saw one of our competitors’ kit there,” Coutu said. “I thought it was a good idea, but it was not well executed.”

It took the partners nearly two years to develop what they deemed a better product, with essential ingredients and tools and a set of clear, easy-to-follow instructions. The resulting CUISINE R-EVOLUTION kit, which retails at $58.95, includes the following materials:

–        5 food additives (50 sachets)

–        5 pipettes

–        1 slotted spoon

–        1 set of measuring spoons

–        1 food grade syringe

–        3 silicone tubes

–        1 DVD of 50 recipes

It doesn’t, however, mention how many servings each recipe makes. Coming from Mediterranean stock, we assumed, then, that we’d starve. We were wrong, oh so wrong.

Spherical Tzatziki

We started with the spherical tzatziki. Check out the loungy recipe video:

This didn’t quite work out the same way for us.

For one thing, the square glass container we used was difficult to drop the spheres into, creating what can only be called oddly shaped balls (that’s what she said). We called them “Frankenballs”.

Here’s what they looked like:

Frankenballs

So, we failed somewhat at reproducing the balls created in the Molecule-R video. It was, however, completely our fault. I have no doubt that the perfect spherical tzaziki shape can be produced with practice. If anything, though, our failure only serves to highlight the skill needed in producing high-level molecular fare.

The taste of the spheres, meanwhile, was interesting and tangy. It had a faint tzatziki feel to it, but it wasn’t quite tzatziki either. It did raise a few questions, though, namely, “What are we eating?” and “Are these additives safe to eat?”

When I spoke to him, Coutu was quick to shoot down any safety cuisines, stating that, “People are not aware that they eat these kinds of things every single day.” He then cited mayonnaise as an example of a regular consumed food that uses additives. I checked the back of our jar of mayo and found Calcium Disodium EDTA listed as an ingredient. Thankfully, this is not in the cuisine kit, as the FDA want to study Calcium disodium EDTA for “mutagenic, teratogenic, subsacute, and reproductive effects.” Sounds delicious.

In any case, we each ate a couple spheres and were ready to move on when we realized we had barely made a dent into the yoghurt/food additive mixture we’d prepared.

Making Frankenballs

We kept at it for another 45 minutes before giving up. How many Frankenballs can you eat?

Arugula Spaghetti

We were most excited about this recipe, as it involves pushing a blended arugula concoction through a plastic tube.

Making Arugula Spaghetti

Here’s the video recipe:

Like the spherical tzatziki, the recipe was easy to follow. Just make sure you point the tube downwards. The first noodle I pushed out ended up across the table and up someone’s sleeve (N.B. if you’d rather not aim downward, get a sense of who would be most comfortable with having a green noodle on their body, and then aim accordingly).

With just a few minor screw-ups, we managed to replicate the spaghetti:

Unfortunately, we’re what you would call “fat bastards”. When we say the word “spaghetti”, we picture a nice big plate of noodles, something that is hard to produce when you only have three plastic cylinders to work with. I spent the next hour working, but was only able to crank out a very meagre pile of green noodles. Making this worse was the fact that there is very little taste to them. We tried adding sea salt, but this quickly overpowered the whole thing.

It’s hard, therefore, to escape the feeling that we did something wrong. Still, if you can figure out the seasoning, this could be a fun side dish (provided you have a few hours to prepare them).

Lemon Cloud

The term “molecular gastronomy” first appeared in 1992. It was used by Nicholas Kurti and chemist Hervé This for a series of workshops held in Erice, Italy. The intent of the workshops was to bring scientists and professional cooks together for discussions on the science behind traditional cooking preparations.

For one reason or another, many of the chefs best known for these kinds of techniques tend to bristle at the term. They prefer things like “culinary physics,” “experimental cuisine” and my favorite, “modernist cuisine.”

Of all the recipes we tried, the lemon cloud is the only one that I think actually fits the vibe conjured by the last term, offering a modern twist on traditional garnishes.

Check out the video for the lemon cloud recipe:

We paired this with some rather unimpressive salmon burgers, which we grilled on the barbecue. It worked nicely with the fish, but it didn’t turn out exactly as the video indicated. In our case it seemed more like foamy sauce than a “cloud”. Check it out:

Lemon Cloud

Again, though, I think this “failure” is more a matter of technique and skill, and not a measure of the kit’s quality.

Tale of the Tape

Because of the amount of time required to make each recipe, we fell very very short of our initial meal plan.

We failed. Utterly and completely. Our failure, however, shouldn’t be a knock against Molecule-R’s products. If anything, our weak attempts highlight everything that’s good about it: we spent a whole night preparing food as a team. And while it wasn’t cooking in the traditional sense, it still was a night in among friends, food and booze, which aligns with the company’s goals.

In short, if you’re looking for something fun to do with your foodie friends, get yourself a Molecule-R kit. Just be prepared to send arugula spaghetti halfway across the room.

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