Food Science: Molecular cooking demonstration highlights creativity in culinary arts


Chef Ross Warhol demonstrates how Xanthan gum can be used to thicken liquids as he mixes up the ingredients for a Mojito sorbet. Photo by Ellie Haugsby.

Catherine Pomiecko | Staff Writer

Ross Warhol, executive chef of the President’s Cottage, and sous chef Alex Gray led guests through a six-course sampling of dishes that explored how a dash of science can flavor, texture and otherwise manipulate food.

About 30 people attended “Molecular Gastronomy: A Demonstration of Molecular Cooking” Tuesday in the ballroom of the Athenaeum Hotel. Molecular gastronomy studies the chemistry behind cooking and is an exciting development for haute cuisine, Warhol said.

“This type of cuisine is on the rise,” he said. “It is the cutting edge for culinary arts.”

Warhol began the casual afternoon by preparing a white chocolate pea soup. The dish demonstrated spherification, a chemical process that uses sodium alginate, a seaweed-based chemical, to shape liquid into spheres resembling caviar. Warhol dipped the sodium alginate and pea soup mixture in calcium chloride until it set in the shape of a sphere. The spheres then were rinsed in a water bath and plated before being garnished with grated white chocolate. The final product was a delicate sphere that burst easily if dropped or when placed on the tongue.

Meanwhile, a New York strip steak cooked in a sous vide temperature regulator, a device used to cook vacuum-sealed meats to a precise, even finish. The sous vide prepares meat at a low temperature for hours to days, depending on thickness of the meat. The process yields an exceptionally juicy, tender product, because the vacuum seal breaks the food’s cell structure, allowing it to better absorb flavors, and the device eliminates exposure to high heat.

The steak was paired with sweet tomato marmalade, cooked down with sugar and red wine vinegar to taste and small, flavor-packed honey mustard pearls. Warhol used a gelling technique involving agar solution, also a seaweed derivative, and cold olive oil to prepare the honey mustard pearls. As soon as the agar solution hits the cold oil, it sets as a gel and shapes to a pea-sized sphere.

“You have to be precise, demanding and patient in this type of cooking,” Warhol said. “If one thing is off, you have to start all over.”

The importance of accuracy was exemplified in Warhol’s next recipe, when an attempted Mojito sorbet became more of a cocktail after the canister released too little liquid nitrogen. Warhol added some of the chemical to a base mixture of rum, spearmint, sugar, lime juice and a little Xanthan gum to thicken the base, but it wasn’t enough to freeze the alcohol. Guests ended up spooning the minty liquid from their plates or, as one particular guest suggested, adding it to the glass of iced tea included with admission.

Attendees were served breakfast in Warhol’s next dish — aerated scrambled eggs over bacon. Warhol used a whipper, an airtight canister holding nitrogen oxide, to aerate a mixture of soft-boiled eggs and cream. A whipper also can be filled with carbon dioxide used to carbonate fruit or liquids, Warhol said.

“These will be the lightest scrambled eggs you’ve ever had,” he said.

The truffle-whipped eggs were placed on top of curry-cured, pork belly bacon. Warhol used the last parts of a locally raised hog for the dish, an application of the farm-to-table movement with which Warhol is heavily involved.

In the next dish, Warhol created a sweeter aerated product. He topped cardamom-seasoned yogurt and blackberry risotto with aerated chocolate. By combining soy lecithin, an emulsifier with the texture of tofu, to a chocolate base of milk and cocoa powder, Warhol created a bubbly substance that held a rich accent of flavor. Warhol tilted his mixing bowl so that the electric mixer would only hit the surface, creating air bubbles that remained stable when plated due to the soy lecithin.

In a similar dish and a crowd favorite, Warhol paired unexpected flavors and textures in the last sample of the day — frozen Parmesan aerated over strawberries and Nutella powder. To prepare this dessert, Warhol steamed grated Parmesan cheese in water, adding soy lecithin to maintain the frothy state. He created a Nutella powder by mixing the Nutella with tapioca maltodextrin, a modified food starch that absorbs the high fat content of the hazelnut spread, in a food processor. The resulting dish had layers of surprise: once placed on the tongue, the Nutella powder turned back into a creamy substance, and the airy Parmesan dissolved with intense flavor, all combined with the tartness of the strawberries.

The possibilities of this type of cooking are seemingly endless and open the doors for creative and innovative culinary art, said Jason Toczydlowski, director of sales and marketing for the Athenaeum Hotel.

“Molecular cooking is at the forefront of creativity in culinary arts,” Toczydlowski said. “We hope to create opportunities for (the discipline) with events like this.”

While the technique is still relatively new, Warhol anticipates that demonstrations like this one can revive the art in culinary arts.

“This technique has never been seen in this area before, and it’s fun to do for an audience that is interested in it,” Warhol said.

In fact, the subjects of horticulture and culinary art were taught to parishioners in Chautauqua Institution’s early years, and this event was designed to mirror that, Toczydlowski said.

“(The event) was a great fit for the week’s theme and fulfilled the pillars of education and arts that the Institution has always been about,” he said. “We wanted to highlight this modern technique and also the expertise of our chefs. It’s a chance to demonstrate the behind-the-scenes work to guests.”

Warhol, 23, graduated from the Culinary Institute of America with a degree in culinary arts in 2008 and a degree in baking and pastry in 2009. He has worked at the El Bulli restaurant in Spain, said to be the No. 1 restaurant in the world, and Le Fleur Restaurant in Chautauqua. He will host several farm-to-table events at the Athenaeum next week.

Aerated scrambled eggs over bacon
Warhol uses a whipper filled with nitrogen oxide to aerate eggs, seen here dispensing atop bacon slices.
Chocolate air over blackberry risotto and cardamom yogurt
Blackberry risotto sets in a mixing bowl before being plated with cardamom yogurt and chocolate air.
Frozen Parmesan air, strawberries and Nutella powder
Parmesan air is added to the final dish. The cheese was steamed in water with soy lecithin, frothed and frozen.
White chocolate pea soup
Gray grates white chocolate over pea spheres, which were mixed with sodium alginate in a process called spherification.
Steak and tomato marmalade with honey mustard pearls
By mixing agar solution and cold olive oil, honey mustard set as a gelled pearls to garnish plated steak slices.
Mojito sorbet
Liquid nitrogen vaporizes in the electric mixer while combining with Mojito ingredients.