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Using Functional Ingredients to Drive Menu Trends

BY: Melanie Zanoza Bartelme
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From fried mayonnaise to edible menus, it seems like the boundaries for chefs are expanding ever more each year. Food innovations such as these are driven by Culinology, the blending of culinary arts and food science, to create amazing new menu items that will eventually inspire the future of consumer packaged products. These techniques, of course, have been used within scientific labs for years, but more and more restaurant chefs are embracing scientific techniques and functional ingredients to create consistent, safe, and surprising dishes.

Molecular gastronomyIn this Sunday morning session, Catherine Proper, senior director of product development and quality assurance at SUPERVALU and past president of the Research Chefs Assoc., shared information about the history and role of the organization before introducing John Draz, research chef at Ed Miniat. In a lecture called “Food Science Is Haute,” Draz reviewed the history of the modernist cuisine movement, also known as molecular gastronomy, which uses scientific techniques and tools to create interesting, surprising foods. These include creating foams using gums, turning flavored liquids into spheres through the use of an alginate bath, and employing vacuum sealing and sous vide—or precise temperature cooking—to tenderize meats and create perfectly poached eggs by cooking them low and slow.

Restaurant chefs popularizing this method include Ferran Adria, Heston Blumenthal, and Grant Achatz, who have used these techniques in their fine dining restaurants. Recently, though, more casual eateries have begun to adopt some of these techniques, and Blumenthal sells a molecular gastronomy kit for home cooks that includes many of the ingredients available in a food scientist’s toolkit, including xanthan gum, agar-agar, and carrageenan, and sous vide machines are advertised on late-night TV.

While consumers shy away from these ingredients in their packaged foods, they embrace them in restaurants. The session’s second speaker, Christopher Warsow, corporate executive chef at Bell Flavors & Fragrances, said that diners are looking for an experience they can tell their friends about, and modernist techniques have created a “new romance” they associate with modern restaurant kitchens. Warsow, who worked in restaurants before discovering food science, said that for today’s high school students, the jobs they will eventually have haven’t even been created yet, just as Culinology didn’t exist when he was choosing a career path. He explained how restaurant chefs and research chefs alike can benefit from the same tools, such as reaction vessels and water baths, which can help both create consistent, delicious foods time after time.

Warsow also took attendees through Bell’s process for creating the dish it served at IFT15, a bo kò beef that was created using flavors, fresh ingredients, and sous vide to deliver a consistent product across all of its tastings; the beef was cooked and stored in vacuum-sealed bags that were reheated at the booth using a series of water baths. He also noted that there are many restaurant chefs currently using flavors, such as incorporating a lemongrass flavor into ice cream because fresh lemongrass is not as strong. While he recognizes that these techniques have become mainstream—there’s even a food truck using sous vide methods onboard—chefs could benefit from better training in these techniques to ensure that they are still preparing safe foods at the proper temperatures.

And for those consumers who do worry about certain ingredients, Warsow advised food creators to tell a story about the ingredients that they are using, such as relating autolyzed yeast—a sometimes controversial ingredient for clean labels—to the other more familiar products that use this kind of ingredient, such as bread and beer.

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