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Thursday, Feb. 19, 2009

Don't call it molecular gastronomy — it's 'sensory design'

Chefs Heston Blumenthal and Grant Achatz look to redefine dining

Special to The Japan Times

A flaming sorbet served in a dish lined with red leather, a strip of clear film that releases the flavor of frankincense across the palate, a pressed wafer meant to smell of a newborn baby. I'm not talking about the sequel to "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory," but chef Heston Blumenthal's presentation at last week's Tokyo Taste event.

Heston Blumenthal, owner of The Fat Duck
Heston Blumenthal, owner of The Fat Duck ROBB SATTERWHITE PHOTO

Blumenthal — owner of The Fat Duck restaurant in Bray, England — dismisses the standard label of "molecular gastronomy" for his cooking and refers to his unique brand of dinner theater as "sensory design." His fanciful experiments stem from the belief that food should elicit an emotional response and his desire to introduce a sense of "wonderment" into a meal. Kaiseki — a Japanese light "tasting-menu" meal — he says, is one of the few culinary forms to retain this element of drama and spectacle.

Blumenthal's eccentric creations are elaborate and require context — as well as instructions. His mock turtle soup, for example, is based on both a revised Victorian recipe and the Mad Hatter's tea party from "Alice in Wonderland." Diners are directed to dip bouillon that is molded in the shape of a pocket watch, wrapped in gold-leaf and attached to a tea-bag string, into a teacup of steaming-hot water before pouring the contents over a melange of pressed calf's head and a mock turtle "egg" adorned with tiny enoki mushrooms.

In a dish he calls Sound of the Sea, Blumenthal constructs a sandy seascape of fresh shellfish and pickled seaweed perched atop a curious mixture of tapioca maltodextrin (a food starch), crushed shirasu (baby anchovies) and powdered konbu (seaweed), finished with a spray of dashi (soup stock) foam. The platter is served alongside an iPod nestled in a conch shell, through whose speakers the sounds of waves and sea gulls can be heard. Blumenthal hit upon this idea after working with a behavioral psychologist who showed him how sound can affect a person's perception of taste.

One of the most rewarding aspects of his job, he says, is being able to collaborate with creative people in different disciplines. At the moment, he's working with a magician to find a way to ignite his signature flaming sorbet with a snap of the fingers. And next? Blumenthal says that he's interested in working with a scriptwriter to explore the narrative potential of a meal.

While Blumenthal aims to dazzle with whimsy, Grant Achatz seeks to challenge with intellectual rigor. The 35-year-old owner and chef of Alinea restaurant in Chicago outlined design, food and service as the basic elements of the new wave of restaurants, where entertainment and the conjuring of emotions are among the primary objectives. Achatz and his team have become famous for their use of aroma "injections" to complement certain dishes. In one example, the chef introduced the scent of burning leaves to induce a nostalgic recollection of autumn.

Designer Martin Kastner, who manufactures cutlery and dishes expressly for Achatz's food, spoke with him about the importance of "challenging the vernacular of tableware" in order to expand the chef's ability to compose. His innovative designs establish new relationships between diners and the staff. One of his creations is a perfectly spherical bowl that can't be set down, requiring the dish to be handed directly from the server to the guest.

Service, Achatz asserts, can be utilized as an artistic tool. The guests could get directly involved in the creative process, for example, by choosing adjectives from a list that the kitchen staff would use to make a dish exhibiting those qualities. To break the rhythm of the service, diners could be led away from their tables midway through the meal to retrieve a morsel from a box set into the wall. The whole point is to "intimidate" people and cause them to question their concepts of food and the dining experience.

Chef Achatz concluded his demonstration by preparing a dish of thinly sliced wagyu beef topped with a vinegar reduction. As the room filled with the intoxicating aroma of rendered fat, we were reminded that — all intellectualizing aside — restaurants are still about food, and that, in the end, it has to taste good.

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