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updated 5/20/2008 8:17:27 PM ET 2008-05-21T00:17:27

When you eat at a fancy restaurant, you don’t usually expect that your meal will come with a side of science lessons. But that’s exactly what you’ll get when you dine at a restaurant that features the art of molecular gastronomy. From white truffle ice cream spaghetti served in cold spoons and balanced on magnetic poles of a small steel platform to a scallop dish served with bitter orange and smoked tea, molecular gastronomy is a sort of kitchen wizardry now practiced across the globe. I had the opportunity to moderate a panel of “foodies” and met one of this genre’s biggest celebs — Chef Homaro Cantu of Moto restaurant in Chicago — and as a result find myself fascinated by the prospects of this new food culture.

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Typically defined as the application of scientific techniques and tools to cooking, molecular gastronomy is really about how diners interact with food, especially when it is presented in a surprising way. It also relates to how food formulas can be broken apart and then re-paired into literally billions of new and fascinating dishes — with the help of certain elemental powders, lab equipment and a working knowledge of a food’s natural chemistry.

Flash freezing (quickly freezing the outside of various foods, sometimes leaving a liquid center) and spherification (the spheres you get when you mix liquid food with sodium alginate, then drop them in a bath of calcium chloride) are just two of the techniques unique to the field. Other popular dishes are served on wires, made with “meat glue” (noodles made from shrimp meat), or enhanced by frothy foams produced with items like whip cream canisters and lecithin.

The trend is most often credited to Chef Ferran Adria of El Bulli restaurant in Spain, however, many other chefs have taken on the art form and made it their own. Chef Homaro Cantu of Moto restaurant in Chicago is one such visionary, having created the now famous edible paper with savory inks. Moto calls his food “postmodern cuisine”; his customers simply call it delicious.  

The science is not simply about producing unusual textures and flavors. It is about discovering why particular tastes and flavors appeal to our likes and dislikes and how our brains interpret culinary signals.

Phil Lempert is food editor of the TODAY show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to phil@supermarketguru.com. For more about the latest trends on the supermarket shelves, visit Phil’s Web site at SuperMarketGuru.com.

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