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Classic vs molecular cooking: which is better?

Classical vs molecular cooking: which is better?

by Great British Chefs 23 March 2016

As Marcus Wareing's new television programme airs on BBC Four, we talk to his restaurant group's operations director Chantelle Nicholson about what it was like to work on the show.

Many chefs of the older generation are always decrying the new wave of chefs, proclaiming that they forego traditional cooking techniques, choosing to delve straight into all the high-tech gadgetry that now occupies the work surfaces of professional kitchens instead. But there’s a strong argument for science-led, modernist or ‘molecular’ cooking, with devotees believing it’s the best, most precise way of cooking.

This clash of beliefs is explored in Chef vs Science: The Ultimate Kitchen Challenge, a one-off programme on BBC Four (broadcast on Wednesday 23 March at 9pm) that pits Marcus Wareing against Professor Mark Miodownik, to see whether classical cooking techniques or modern scientific theory can produce the best finished dish. Chantelle Nicholson, the group operations director for Marcus’ restaurants, was heavily involved in making the show.

‘The show’s concept looks at how a scientist approaches cooking versus the way a chef approaches it, when both want the same outcome – the best version of a dish,’ she explains. ‘It sounded really interesting and something we wanted to be involved with. There were five different comparison dishes, such as the rib-eye steak – Marcus cooked it over high heat, basting it in butter, while Mark took the scientific approach by cooking it sous vide, freezing it in liquid nitrogen and then deep frying it.

‘I was involved with a lot of the preparation behind the scenes, and was tasked with cooking the warm chocolate fondant with a molten centre, which is something I used to make when I was a chef at The Savoy Grill all the time (albeit twelve years ago). I cooked it in a traditional way, while Mark used a packet chocolate cake mix and put it in the microwave.’

While the boxed cake mix had no chance against Chantelle’s proper pudding, the theory and science Mark tried to implement was certainly food for thought. ‘There were some surprises with the results,’ says Chantelle. ‘Obviously, the chocolate and butter I used was of much higher quality than the ingredients in the packet mix, but the texture of Mark’s pudding was incredibly light, as he put the batter through a foam gun before microwaving. If you look at the amount of time it took me to cook my traditional fondant versus the time it took Mark, that was also very interesting.’

But why did Mark use a microwave to cook his chocolate fondant? ‘His theory was based on the fact that a microwave cooks from the inside out, while an oven cooks from the outside in,’ explains Chantelle. ‘However, in practice it didn’t quite work, as the centre erupted from the inside. But it was interesting to hear the science behind it.’

While Mark went to the extremes of molecular cooking to try and prove a point, there were plenty of techniques and pieces of equipment that can already be found in Marcus’ restaurants. ‘Most of the techniques Mark used included elements that myself and Marcus were already familiar with – the foam gun, sous vide and liquid nitrogen are all things we’ve worked with before,’ says Chantelle. ‘But Marcus’ background is very classical, so he was the perfect fit for the show; he’s not as into all the molecular stuff as much as other modern chefs. A lot of the new techniques eliminate the risk factor in a professional kitchen, which is why we use them at the restaurant, but they can’t be used to completely replace classical cooking.’

It was texture that really seemed to let Mark down. While he was able to magnify flavours of ingredients and cook them to perfection, his dishes lacked the satisfying mouthfeel of traditionally cooked food. ‘Mark made a tomato soup in a centrifuge to try and get the perfect essence from the tomato, but it lacked the rich depth people want,’ says Chantelle. ‘In general, the scientific approach struggled to create the same satisfying texture as traditional methods. We’ll never see classical techniques completely replaced by molecular ones, but I think there’s a place for both. I think that’s what the show proves, and that today’s chefs are happy to embrace both schools of cooking. One isn’t better than the other, but when they’re used in unison a chef can get the very best out of a food product.’

Chef vs Science: The Ultimate Kitchen Challenge will be broadcast on Wednesday 23 March at 9pm on BBC Four.

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