Over the past 20 years, molecular gastronomy has pushed boundaries and challenged chefs around the world. Whether you call it a revolution or a trend, it’s essentially shifted the international food scene into a new era. But what’s next? Three of South Africa’s top chefs – David Higgs, James Diack and Russell Armstrong – weigh in on how primitive cooking methods, quality ingredients and simple dishes are shaping plates around the country.
The death knell to molecular gastronomy was delivered by the pioneer himself, Heston Blumenthal who in an interview with The Guardian’s Observer earlier this year, stated that things are changing. He talks about a move to sensory design and the introduction of theatre into his restaurants.
Now, while few South African restaurants have moved to that extreme level, there are a handful of local simplicity-pioneers who are seeing the shift in tastes and consumer preferences as something completely different.
One such man is David Higgs. “There’s a global move away from very complex cooking to something more primitive.” As one of the founders of Marble, Higgs understands all too well the change in cooking and eating habits. He is still shaking off the coat-tails of fine dining, after spending years in the scene, first at Rust & Vrede and later at The Saxon’s fine-dining establishment, Five Hundred. The live-fire cooking at Marble takes its customers about as far away from molecular gastronomy as they can get.
“Cooking on fire is so primitive – rather than having 20 different flavours on one plate, you have fewer, more defined flavours. Fire also appeals to the senses – the smell, taste, sound and sight of the flame – it adds to the experience. However, the key to getting it right is to use the best ingredients.”
And this is essentially the foundation of the move to simplicity – the ingredients.
“It’s the concept of provenance,” explains Chef James Diack of Coobs, The National and The Federal. It’s the backbone of all three of his restaurants.
“We’re lucky to have our own farm, Brightside in the Magaliesburg, that supplies our restaurants with 95% of our ingredients. But across the world and specifically in the local restaurant industry, an increasing number of chefs and customers alike want to be able to accurately trace where their food is coming from. It’s essentially knowing who the butcher, the baker and the candlestick-maker is in your area.”
“Customers want to recognise what’s on their plates. There’s got to be purity of flavour – if a carrot is a carrot, it must taste like one. Chefs are now focusing on enhancing the flavour of the ingredients, rather than masking or augmenting them,” he adds.
In Spain, where Diack gained his initial inspiration to become a chef, an increasing number of restaurants are focusing on local ingredients and then plating them beautifully.
Chefs like Diack and Higgs are blazing a new trail and essentially turning the concept of molecular gastronomy on its head.
Australian-born chef Russell Armstrong, who has worked in Michelin-starred restaurants in England and France, moved to South Africa in 2015 to head up Exclusive Books’ Social Kitchen & Bar. Armstrong believes that while molecular gastronomy will always be necessary in order to push culinary boundaries to generate creativity and innovation, simple dishes are always better.
“In my opinion, taking a perfectly ripe tomato and then peeling, cutting, dehydrating it into a powder, only to reconstruct it and put it on a plate – as a tomato – is not really respecting the produce itself. It’s interesting, but I would rather spend my energy on sourcing the best possible tomato, the freshest basil and the most flavoursome olive oil. Or, better still, select produce from my own garden,” says Armstrong.
“There will always be a part of molecular gastronomy that will stay with us because it has opened our eyes to a whole new world. But I don’t want to eat bacon ice-cream. It doesn’t matter how fantastic it looks, it matters how good it tastes.”