Pino Maffeo throws on plastic safety goggles and vanishes in a puff of smoke as he pours liquid nitrogen out of a large metallic canister. But appearances aside, Maffeo is no mad scientist.
His experiments are of the culinary kind, and his lab is the basement kitchen at Boston’s swank Restaurant L, where he is the chef — and where dinner for two with wine averages about $130.
Maffeo, who describes his cuisine as mainly European with Asian accents, is one of a new breed of American cooks who practice what has become known as molecular gastronomy.
Using liquid nitrogen, emulsifiers and an arsenal of equipment typically stocked in scientific laboratories, Maffeo creates what he calls “one-bite wonders.”
“If science can make my cuisine better, then I’ll use it,” he said, while putting ravioli made from mango and dry cured ham on skewers alongside aloe vera and muscato grape juice gelatin cubes. “I’ve opened my doors to anything.”
Magnetic resonance for risotto?
To create unusual and original recipes — such as pairing fried calamari with watermelon and cantaloupe — Maffeo analyzes the molecular makeup of the ingredients with an infrared spectrometer nuclear magnetic resonance machine, equipment usually used by synthetic chemists and physicists. He believes foods with similar composition pair well together.
He meets weekly to discuss projects with Angela Buffone, a visiting professor of organic chemistry at Suffolk University and partner in Maffeo’s culinary experiments.
For his signature dish, seared foie gras with a 24-carat golden egg, Maffeo pulls out a keg of liquid nitrogen — a gas more commonly used to zap away skin growths such as warts.
The browned foie gras is placed on a bed of shaved pickled fennel, and a small oblong and airy meringue is then dredged in lightly whipped cream and dunked into the liquid nitrogen.
The gas — a cool 300 or more degrees Fahrenheit below zero (-185 degrees Celsius) — flash-freezes the cream, creating a texture resembling an eggshell. Using a syringe, Maffeo then injects mango sauce into the meringue, which is then dipped into the frigid bath.
As a finishing touch, the egg is wrapped in 24-carat gold leaf and placed on the plate, where once cracked it oozes with yolklike mango sauce.
Thin line between taste and absurdity
As creative and innovative as molecular cuisine can be, the line separating it from overkill or the absurd is thin, said food writer Michael Ruhlman, author of “Soul of a Chef” and ”The Making of a Chef.”
“Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you have to,” he said. “Do it if it’s a pleasure to taste.”
Maffeo agreed, saying “it’s all about flavor.”
“If people don’t say ‘Wow, this is bloody delicious,’ then all this is unnecessary.”
While modern science provides room for more tricks, it’s no replacement for traditional technique. “No matter how you do it, cooking comes down to fundamentals,” Ruhlman said.
Molecular gastronomy was spearheaded by Spanish chef Ferran Adria, who spends half the year testing his world-acclaimed dishes and the rest cooking at El Bulli on Spain’s Mediterranean coast. Other world-renowned chefs such as Heston Blumenthal of Fat Duck in the English town of Bray have joined the ranks of molecular cooks.
In the United States, few have ventured into molecular gastronomy, but the style is here to stay, said Ruhlman, even if the market is relatively small and restricted to more discerning diners.
Not every dish is a science project
“I wouldn’t make every dish on my menu a science project, but it’s way exciting,” said celebrity chef David Burke of davidburke & donatella in New York City. “It’s like going back to school, and I find it naturally appealing.”
The avant-garde type of cooking could give chefs a deeper understanding of how foods work together, making the final dish more creative and better tasting, he said.
Burke has taken his experimenting outside the kitchen and sells spray bottles for $5.95 containing flavorings ranging from bacon to Memphis barbecue and chocolate fudge, designed to flavor food while cutting on calories.
In New York City, Shea Gallante, executive chef of Cru, uses a medical machine known as a thermo-circulator to cook foods in a vacuum, a technique known as “sous-vide.” The device is typically used to grow cultures and bacteria.
While the sous-vide method isn’t novel, Gallante’s use of the thermo-circulator breaks the norms. Because the machine can maintain an exact temperature better than a stove, Gallante says he can pack in all the natural flavors of the foods he cooks sous-vide while retaining their juices and nutrients.
He also uses emulsifiers to make hot foams and has experimented with carbonating ingredients, such as whole gooseberries.
While he admitted that some of it was “kind of noveltyish,” he sees an important role for molecular cooking in a still-maturing American cuisine.
“Food is going to turn very simplistic,” Gallante said. “So these techniques will play a greater role, because you can’t pack that much emphasis into something as simple as a carrot.”