Many chefs of the older generation are always decrying the new wave of chefs, proclaiming that they forego traditional cooking techniques, choosing to delve straight into all the high-tech gadgetry that now occupies the work surfaces of professional kitchens instead. But there’s a strong argument for science-led, modernist or ‘molecular’ cooking, with devotees believing it’s the best, most precise way of cooking.
This clash of beliefs is explored in Chef vs Science: The Ultimate Kitchen Challenge, a one-off programme on BBC Four (broadcast on Wednesday 23 March at 9pm) that pits Marcus Wareing against Professor Mark Miodownik, to see whether classical cooking techniques or modern scientific theory can produce the best finished dish. Chantelle Nicholson, the group operations director for Marcus’ restaurants, was heavily involved in making the show.
‘The show’s concept looks at how a scientist approaches cooking versus the way a chef approaches it, when both want the same outcome – the best version of a dish,’ she explains. ‘It sounded really interesting and something we wanted to be involved with. There were five different comparison dishes, such as the rib-eye steak – Marcus cooked it over high heat, basting it in butter, while Mark took the scientific approach by cooking it sous vide, freezing it in liquid nitrogen and then deep frying it.
‘I was involved with a lot of the preparation behind the scenes, and was tasked with cooking the warm chocolate fondant with a molten centre, which is something I used to make when I was a chef at The Savoy Grill all the time (albeit twelve years ago). I cooked it in a traditional way, while Mark used a packet chocolate cake mix and put it in the microwave.’
While the boxed cake mix had no chance against Chantelle’s proper pudding, the theory and science Mark tried to implement was certainly food for thought. ‘There were some surprises with the results,’ says Chantelle. ‘Obviously, the chocolate and butter I used was of much higher quality than the ingredients in the packet mix, but the texture of Mark’s pudding was incredibly light, as he put the batter through a foam gun before microwaving. If you look at the amount of time it took me to cook my traditional fondant versus the time it took Mark, that was also very interesting.’