In the past 20 years molecular gastronomy has pushed boundaries and challenged chefs around the world. Call it a revolution, or call it a trend, it’s essentially shifted the international food scene into a new era.
Sunday Times Food – But what’s next? What new food era will dawn in its place? Three of South Africa’s top chefs – David Higgs, James Diack and Russell Armstrong – weigh in on how primitive cooking methods, quality ingredients and simple dishes are shaping plates around the country.
The hype about molecular gastronomy is dying down and the biggest knell came from the pioneer himself, Heston Blumenthal.
In March 2017, in an interview with The Guardian’s Observer, Blumenthal talked about a move to sensory design and the introduction of theatre into his restaurants – by including table-side magicians in his offering.
Few South African restaurants have moved to that level of extreme. In fact, there are a handful of local simplicity pioneers that are seeing the shift in tastes and consumer preferences to something simpler.
Higgs, from Marble, says: “There’s a global move away from very complex cooking to something more primitive.”
As one of the founders of Marble, Higgs understands the recent change in cooking and eating habits.
He is still shaking off his reputation for fine dining after spending years in the scene, first at Rust & Vrede and later at The Saxon’s fine-dining establishment, Five Hundred.
The live-fire cooking at Marble takes its customers about as far away from molecular gastronomy as they can get.
“Cooking on fire is so primitive – rather than having 20 different flavours on one plate you have fewer flavours, but they’re more defined.
“Fire also appeals to the senses. The smell, taste, sound and sight of the flame add to the experience.
“The key to getting this right is using the best ingredients.”
This is the foundation of the move to simplicity – the ingredients.
“It’s the concept of provenance,” says James Diack (pictured above) of Coobs, The National and The Federal. It’s the backbone to all three of his restaurants.
“We’re lucky to have our own farm – Brightside in the Magaliesburg, which supplies our restaurants with 95% of our ingredients. But across the world, and in the local restaurant industry, an increasing number of chefs and customers alike want to be able to trace where their food is coming from. It’s essentially knowing who the butcher, the baker and the candlestick- maker are in your area.
“Customers want to recognise what’s on their plates. There’s got to be purity of flavour – if a carrot is a carrot, it must taste like a carrot. Chefs are now focusing on enhancing the flavour of the ingredients rather than masking or augmenting them.”
In Spain, where Diack gained his initial inspiration to become a chef, an increasing number of restaurants are focusing on what ingredients are local to them, and then plating them beautifully.
It’s chefs like Diack and Higgs who are blazing a new trail and turning the concept of molecular gastronomy on its head.
Australia-born chef Russell Armstrong (pictured above), who’s worked in Michelin star restaurants in England and France, moved to South Africa in 2015 to head Exclusive Books’ Social Kitchen & Bar.
Armstrong believes that while molecular gastronomy will always be necessary to push culinary boundaries to generate creativity and innovation, simple dishes are always better.
“In my opinion, taking a perfectly ripe tomato and then peeling, cutting, dehydrating it into a powder, only to reconstruct it and put it on a plate as a tomato, is not really respecting the produce itself. It’s interesting, but I would rather spend my energy on sourcing the best possible tomato, the freshest basil and the most flavoursome olive oil.
“Or, better still, select produce from my own garden.
“There’ll always be a part of molecular gastronomy that will stay with us because it’s opened our eyes to a whole new world. But I don’t want to eat bacon ice-cream. It doesn’t matter how fantastic it looks, it matters how good it tastes,” says Armstrong.