Top Chef: Episode 4.2 What the Professional Chef Thinks
Once again, Dana Cree, pastry chef at Seattle’s Veil restaurant, took some time out to chat with us about the most recent episode of Top Chef 4. It was an especially great episode to talk about with Dana, since she’s actually completed an internship at WD-50, the restaurant of this episode’s guest judge and chef Wylie Dufresne.

As it’s been noted in his appearances on Top Chef, Wylie is one of the big names of molecular gastronomy. Top Chef viewers who don’t follow the world of fine dining too closely outside of the show might be forgiven for thinking that being a molecular gastronomy chef mainly means that you a) use some unusual chemicals in your food and b) have a quirky hair-do a la Marcel Vigneron or this season’s Richard.

To those in that world, there’s a lot more to it, though, and Dana gave us her insider perspective.

While molecular gastronomy does involve manipulating textures, frequently with the use of gums, gels and other chemicals originating from the commercial food processing industry, fundamentally, Dana says, it’s really about the chef “understanding what their ingredients are doing at a molecular level [and using] that information to build their cuisine in a more creative manner.” This echoes the comments of Richard, who, as Wylie noted, “plays in the same sandbox” of molecular gastronomy as he does. Richard’s take was that it’s really about using scientific knowledge to better the dish.

Dana’s additional perspective is that this focus on food science is just one part of what makes someone like Wylie such a great chef. She also pointed out that Wylie might be a big name now in modern cuisine, but his experience is rooted in a deep understanding of and years of experience in classic cuisine. He worked for years for classically-trained, three-Michelin-starred Jean-Georges Vongerichten (a previous employer of this season’s Dale, as well), and so his experimentation is grounded in respect for tradition. She has noted, “Modern cooking comes from chefs who have a deep understanding of cuisine as a whole.”

Wylie and other modern chefs might be initially excited by an exciting presentation like Andrew’s “glacier,” but these roots in tradition mean they will ultimately still seek that upon which traditional cuisine is grounded: tastes that delight and satisfy the diner. Andrew was successful in this, following up the creativity of his glacier with a squid dish that the judges found delicious.

(And in case you were wondering if all molecular gastronomy chefs were are irritating and arrogant as many found Marcel, Dana said that Wylie is actually a nice and humble guy in person.)

If Marcel and Richard have made you more curious about than annoyed by molecular gastronomy, Dana offers up some ways for the home chef to give it a shot. For one, you can try to recreate Andrew’s glacier – the recipe is on Bravo’s website – but Dana offers a few cautions.

For one, that ingredient that kept the glacier stable at room temperature – agar-agar – is a seaweed-based thickener, similar to gelatin. Because it is created from seaweed, improperly-deodorized agar-agar can lend a less-than-desirable seaweed flavor to a dish, rather than simply being a neutral thickener. She recommends a brand called “Telephone” which can be found in Asian markets, saying she finds it consistently flavor-neutral.

And although agar-agar is similar to gelatin, it’s still a little different, so she also cautions not to expect the mouth feel of a dish using agar-agar to melt in the mouth in the same pleasant way that your favorite Jell-o dessert does.  

She also notes that the yuzu juice Andrew used is an incredibly delicious and unique citrus flavoring agent. However, it’s also pretty expensive. Dana pointed out that Lee Ann Wong grumbled on her Bravo blog that Andrew used the $100 bottle of concentrate she’d stocked for the whole Top Chef kitchen for the one dish. So if you want to make your own yuzu glacier, be prepared to shell out some bucks.

Dana also suggested that xantham gum and soy lecithin are two other ingredients frequently used in molecular gastronomy that could be available to the home chef. Health or natural food stores will often carry them, sometimes in the bulk food section. Xantham gum can be used to thicken and emulsify liquids; Dana gave the example of making a sauce stay in a more consolidated shape rather than spreading all over the plate. Soy lecithin can be used to make those famous foams, like a frozen chocolate “air” that’s made by combining unsweetened hot chocolate with lecithin, foaming it up with an immersion blender and freezing.

If Top Chef has got you curious to learn more about molecular gastronomy, check out Dana’s blog, and this post, in particular, which has an interesting description of Wylie’s restaurant’s version of the classic French Onion Soup for those who are curious to know what a guest judge’s own food might be like.

- Leslie Seaton, BuddyTV Staff Columnist

(Image courtesy of Bravo)