Chef Phil Fanning

Phil Fanning on 'Modern Cookery'

by Great British Chefs 24 October 2014

Paris House's Phil Fanning discusses his approach to using modernist techniques, explaining how he overcame initial scepticism to adopt techniques like espuma, spherification and sous vide to great effect.

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Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews.

Firstly, what term should we be using to describe this type of cooking? Avant-garde? Modernist? Molecular?

Well, really, all cooking is molecular in some form or other… For me it’s just modern cookery – and even that’s a slight oxymoron because some of the techniques we are using are so bloody old! They’ve just been reinvented.

How do you use some of the techniques of ‘modern cookery’ at Paris House?

I think they’re used to add intrigue and interest and excitement to a dish. So there’s definitely a creative, theatrical element that you can’t achieve without them. And I would say it introduces a level of consistency that, again, is unachievable without them.

There is always a fine balance to be made between adjusting natural products, natural characteristics to achieve what is in essence an aesthetic improvement, without suffering the loss of flavour or the other negative effects that sometimes you get with these products. It is well documented that people eat with their eyes, and by improving the aesthetic appeal of a dish you make it more enjoyable and more of an occasion. So the trick is to improve its aesthetic appeal more than you decrease its flavour profile. It’s a bit like seasoning: if you put just the right amount of seasoning in you shouldn’t appreciate the seasoning is there but you are enhancing the dish.

Do you generally find that the chefs you employ at Paris House come in with a good grasp of these techniques already, or do you have to teach them on the job?

I’d say there’s a very small minority of people that are comfortable with it, especially at the youthful end of the scale. But we do have the odd one. I’ve got two who are very focussed on that kind of style of cookery. And on the flip side I’ve probably got four or five who have never heard of sodium alginate, let alone know how to use it.

As a country or cuisine we seem to be a little suspicious of modernist techniques whereas other countries seem to have embraced them. Why do you think this is?

I think there’s probably a lot of uncertainty; people don’t know how to use the products really well and they end up turning dishes into chemical collections of jelly that taste of plastic. And I suppose people’s misconception then is that they think that is what those products make.

I mean, to be fair, I was suspicious to a certain degree for many, many years. And only probably in the last 3-4 years have I embraced it. I suppose my philosophy is that if you can’t achieve it without it, why not use it? The prime example would be an ice cream stabiliser (or any powerful emulsifier that will give the overall product a better finish, a better eating experience or more consistency) - why would you not use that? I think there’s a lot of traditionalist viewpoints that say, ‘Well why do you need to put it in there? If you’re making an ice cream properly you don’t need to use it’. That’s bollocks: you cannot make an ice cream as stable, or as smooth or as fluffy without the addition of some kind of stabilising product.

But, again, if you’re not using it in that seasoning mentality then it very easily becomes the dish - and you end up with dishes built around the product rather than the product being used to enhance the dish.

Following on from that, then, do you think it is wise for people to bring these methods into the home kitchen?

Yeah, I’ve literally just done three sessions of modernist cooking for the home cook! And it’s been really, really well received. We touched on spherification, on sous vide, espuma and gelling agents. We went over all of the chemicals – xanthan gum, gluconolactates and alginates, all of that kind of stuff. In reality, I’ve got a little pot of xanthan gum at home and it’s not because I’m a chef, it’s because I’m a bread baker and I was making gluten free bread one day for my wife. If I’m making a mayonnaise or a dressing at home, one pinch of xanthan gum… it’s there!

Things like espuma through siphoning guns… that is a hugely practical, cost-efficient and time-saving piece of equipment. Same for the water bath, the number of people I speak to that want to get one is ever-growing. I think modern cookery is going to develop into a home cook’s repertoire very quickly.

So the trick is to improve its aesthetic appeal more than you decrease its flavour profile. It’s a bit like seasoning: if you put just the right amount of seasoning in you shouldn’t appreciate the seasoning is there but you are enhancing the dish.

I’m glad you mentioned espuma: what’s the difference between bubbles, air, foam and froth, and how do you play with different densities of foam in dishes?

Out of all of our dishes, over the four years of Paris House’s history, the one that has been most well received is a siphoned soup. It just totally changes the texture for the diner - so it’s that total mismatch of expectation to reality. Whether it is carrot and coriander or fennel and parsley or cucumber and yoghurt, it’s always been well received.

So, essentially, you are just aerating it?

That’s it. It’s just fluffy and hot!

We’ve actually stumbled across another product called Sugar Ester, which is an immensely powerful emulsifier. Prior to us using this product we used something called soy lecithin as an emulsifier, but it’s got a real back-flavour. So we tend to not use it unless it’s a really powerful… so we do a curry and lecithin bubble because you can’t taste the flavour. We tend to use lecithin bubbles to turn a powerful sauce that is runny and just doesn’t look good into a foam - so we can present it nicely. But we’ve now got another dish on - a fig and bacon with maple and Bourbon - and we’re making a cooking liquid from the fig with loads of butter and this Sugar Ester to create a really powerful, strong mousse.

Have you had any disasters?

Haha, many! The thing is, every time we put a new dish on… if we are applying a modernist technique to try and get a character change, you can be pretty much sure that it’s going to go wrong two or three times until you get it right.

A prime example: the fig and bacon dish that we have on. Up until our Bamix (immersion blender) broke, we were putting the Sugar Ester into the cooking liquor of the fig and bacon, adding butter, Sugar Ester and then just blending it so you get that froth that you can spoon on to the dish. The Bamix broke so we tried it without and it just didn’t look good - it was this kind of purply-browny liquid that tasted lovely but looked horrible. So we ended up taking the dish off until we had a better idea. Option two was a siphon gun… really light siphon bubble, basically – you get an espuma but a really soft, fluffy one. A bit of xanthan gum to add a bit of stability will achieve that result.

So we put the dish on, started doing that, and then halfway through service the young lady on larder had put what she thought was the right amount of xanthan gum in, put it in the siphon gun and then served the dish. And the product that came out of the siphon gun – because there was a tenth of a teaspoon too much xanthan gum - had turned from a really light froth into this kind of slimy, stodgy jelly… like wallpaper paste!