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Just don’t call it molecular

You’ll have heard several ways of describing the dishes that came from El Bulli and the kitchens of its peers – some less welcomed than others. Ben McCormack instead explores the idea of ‘techno-emotional cuisine’, speaking to key proponents of the movement

Words by Ben McCormack

A pigeon dish at Juan Amador's restaurant
The Collection
Juan Amador, a proponent of 'techno-emotional cuisine', serves a pigeon dish featuring mango and curry flavours at his eponymous restaurant, (Photo: Lukas Kirchgasser)

Molecular gastronomy is what comes out of the microwave,’ says Spanish writer Pau Arenós, which might make you feel better about dinner the next time your ready meal goes ping. The term came to prominence in the early years of this century, thanks in large part to the label being applied to restaurants such as El Bulli in Spain, The Fat Duck in the UK and The French Laundry in California. All were top-ten regulars in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, which launched in 2002.

The concept originally bubbled to the surface in 1988, when Hungarian-British physicist Nicholas Kurti and French chemist Hervé This coined the term ‘molecular and physical gastronomy’. Soon, the trio of chefs that the public had begun to associate most closely with molecular gastronomy – El Bulli’s Ferran Adrià, The Fat Duck’s Heston Blumenthal and The French Laundry’s Thomas Keller – were distancing themselves from such labels. They published a ‘Statement on the “New Cookery’ in The Observer in 2006, setting out what they saw as the tenets of modern cuisine. The article amounted to a manifesto for contemporary creativity, stating that the label ‘molecular gastronomy’ neither influenced them nor described any style of cooking. Instead, they embraced an interdisciplinary and collaborative approach to dining. The final point on their agenda was, ‘We believe that cooking can affect people in profound ways,’ stressing the social as much as the scientific and emphasising the multisensory aspect of eating.

Pau Arenós, who coined the term 'techno-emotional cuisine'
Spanish writer Pau Arenós coined the term 'techno-emotional cuisine'

One year earlier, Arenós suggested in his book La Cocina de los Valientes (The Kitchen of the Brave) a more expansive term for the style of cuisine: techno-emotional. It is an expression that has been embraced by chefs who feel – like Albert Raurich, the chef-patron of Michelin-starred Dos Palillos in Barcelona – that molecular gastronomy was meant as an insult.


The term molecular gastronomy is not the name of a movement in cooking; it is the science that analyses cooking in general
— Quique Dacosta

‘Molecular was used as the worst kind of adjective for what was going on in Spanish kitchens like El Bulli in the early 2000s,’ Raurich says. He should know: he was head chef of El Bulli for ten years before opening Dos Palillos in 2008. Raurich suggests the term was popularised by French and Italian chefs piqued that their cuisines were no longer pre-eminent. ‘Molecular gastronomy was definitely not used in a positive sense.’

For others, molecular was simply too narrow a description. ‘The term molecular gastronomy is not the name of a movement in cooking; it is the science that analyses cooking in general,’ says Quique Dacosta, chef-patron of his eponymous three-Michelin starred restaurant at Dénia, on the Costa Blanca. ‘Hervé This is a scientist who analysed the physical and chemical processes that occur in traditional and modern cuisine: why water boils, why gelatin gels, why an egg is emulsified with oil. It’s not wrong in itself– it’s just that the term was used incorrectly.’

What’s more, Arenós suggests that by focusing purely on process, molecular gastronomy isolates a chef’s creations from any context except the scientific. ‘Technique and technology have to be at the service of emotions,’ he says. ‘Techno-emotional cuisine addresses both the head and the heart, with the stomach as an intermediary. The most important thing is what the cuisine feels like. Everything else is a vehicle for this.’

Chef Albert Raurich in Dos Palillos
Albert Raurich, the chef-patron of Michelin-starred Dos Palillos in Barcelona, was head chef of El Bulli for ten years

If technique is merely a conduit for feelings, does the techno deserve equal billing with the emotional? ‘Technology is a tool to achieve regularity, perfection, evolution and improvement,’ Dacosta says. ‘Technology is bought, and the technique is learned. But this must be articulated with ingenuity, authorship and creation. The techno-emotional concept has a lot to do with what happens in the experience at the table. It is no longer just about eating or drinking; it is also about appealing to emotions.’

Dacosta cites a dish he created in 2003 called The Living Forest as emblematic of this. The assembly of mushrooms, truffle, herbs and fruits is inspired by childhood memories of walking with his father and grandfather in the woods around his hometown of Jarandilla de la Vera in Extremadura; the eating sensation is as much about how the ingredients smell as how they taste. ‘It enchanted all my diners, because it took them back to similar memories from their own childhoods.’

Piluka's box dessert dish on Dacosta's menu
Piluka's box, a dessert dish on Dacosta's menu made to evoke childhood memories

Sound is employed, too. A more recent Dacosta dish, the rosewater-scented dessert Piluka’s Box, aims to recreate the aromas encountered by a child playing with the jewellery and perfumes of their mother’s music box, though this one is filled with yuzu marshmallow pearls and fragrant sorbets.

Techno-emotional cuisine addresses both the head and the heart, with the stomach as intermediary
— Pau Arenós

Other chefs play with temperature and texture. Raurich’s tasting menu features a dish called Curry Verde de Guisantitos Lágrima, based on the tiny Basque teardrop peas known as ‘green caviar’ for their burst-on-the-tongue texture and steep price. Raurich layers the peas with a spheri­fied green curry and serves them with lightly salted coconut ice cream. ‘It’s a surprise to taste the curry, because it’s the same colour as the peas,’ Raurich says, ‘and to ­find the cold ice cream served with something hot. The ice cream takes diners back to their childhood– but not entirely, because the ice cream is salty.’

Like many techno-emotional chefs, Raurich favours a tasting menu because the intricacy of multi-component dishes allows him to evoke different sensations on each plate; it also provides space to include dishes that provoke as much as they entertain. The chef is currently serving a Japanese-inspired ‘­filet mignon’ of chicken tenderloin, which is lightly cured and macerated ‘but pretty much raw’. The reason? ‘To challenge stereotypes of the sorts of food we can eat raw, but also to raise awareness of the quality of the product.’

Raurich claims one of the best things he has eaten was chicken solomillo, the meat between the breasts, cooked at 50° to melting tenderness. It is the goal of techno-emotional cuisine to transmit the pleasure of such speci­fic chef memories. ‘It is essential that the guest has both challenging and enjoyable experiences,’ says Juan Amador, chef-patron of the three- Michelin-starred Amador in Vienna. ‘Ultimately, the focus is on enjoyment, but the goal is to also reach the guest intellectually and emotionally.’

Brittany Turbot with Jerusalem artichoke boudin noir and lovage dish at Amador that showcases 'techno-emotional cuisine'
Juan Amador's Brittany Turbot with Jerusalem artichoke boudin noir and lovage (Photo: Lukas Kirchgasser)

This ambition requires an equal effort from the guest as the chef, because diners must bring their own experiences to bear on each dish. What’s more, Amador says, it also demands a greater intimacy. ‘In techno-emotional cuisine, the interaction with the guest is more intense, because the dishes encourage thinking beyond the traditional learned taste experiences. And it has fostered a closer relationship between guests and chefs by encouraging chefs to leave their kitchens to explain their dishes.’

Or as Arenós puts it, ‘The diner is a participant. They are invited to taste certain dishes in a speci­fic way, to collaborate, to take ownership of them. It is the diner who ­finishes the dish.’

Amador was born to Spanish parents in the southern German town of Strümpfelbach and had a classically French training, working as sous-chef to Albert Bouley at the Michelin-starred Waldhorn in Ravensburg. But he admits that it was eating at El Bulli 20 years ago that ‘became part of my cooking DNA’, a transformative experience he has brought to his restaurant.

We can both surprise and deeply touch diners with a completely new cuisine
— Juan Amador

This borderless approach to cooking is key to the worldwide success of the techno-emotional style. Previous culinary movements, such as nouvelle cuisine, were firmly rooted in the country that created them– usually France. Techno-emotional may have initially taken off at El Bulli, but the method of deconstructing and reinventing received eating habits can be applied to any cuisine. ‘This allows chefs to expand their own culinary language and create dishes that did not exist before,’ Amador says. ‘We can both surprise and deeply touch diners with a completely new cuisine.’

Colourful cuisine at Brazil's Maní
At Maní, Helena Rizzo merges world cuisines and techniques on a colourful and evocative tasting menu that features ingredients indigenous to Brazil, from chayote to cambuci

What, then, defines a techno-emotional restaurant? ‘The will of the cook, who does not necessarily have to be an inventor, but rather a follower,’ Arenós says. ‘Chefs who take from other concepts and techniques and apply them to their kitchen. This is why the techno-emotional revolution has expanded so much: it does not need countries or specific ingredients. Whoever makes French cuisine has to use French products and techniques; those who make techno-emotional cuisine do not have to use Spanish products or techniques. That made it easy for chefs around the world to join the movement. A Canadian or a Korean or a Finn can make techno-emotional cuisine using those ideas and techniques in the ingredients typical of their territory.”

That includes, according to Raurich, Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, and René Redzepi in Copenhagen– to say nothing of the legions of chefs who passed through Redzepi’s Noma kitchen. Other notable practitioners include Helena Rizzo of Maní in São Paulo, Brazil, and Andoni Luis Aduriz of Mugaritz near San Sebastián in Spain. To put it another way, the most famous and respected chefs cooking in the world today, those whose star-spangled restaurants not only shine brightest in the Michelin galaxy but have scaled the summit of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, too.

Techno-emotional chefs Helena Rizzo and Willem Vandeven of Maní in São Paulo
Helena Rizzo and Willem Vandeven of Maní in São Paulo

There is a lot of techno-emotional cuisine in Peruvian, Nordic, Mexican, Colombian and Japanese cuisine,’ Dacosta says. ‘The future is to continue being honest with the cuisine and the values of those who want to innovate, but without forgetting the diner. I could make a very salty dish because I believe in something specific, but it would be inedible. The basic parameters of the kitchen lie in harmony, in beauty and in constructing dishes that can be very creative from a technical and intellectual perspective, but it is important to always keep the client in mind.’

For as with any emotion, it is far better to share one’s feelings than to keep them to oneself.