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Leisure: Weird Science, Fine Dining: Europe’s Early Experimenters

Sheila Gibson Stoodley

Grant Achatz, Homaro Cantu, and Wylie Dufresne are the leading proponents of molecular gastronomy cuisine in the United States, but long before these three opened their restaurants, European chefs Ferran Adrià and Heston Blumenthal were experimenting with this form of chemistry in their kitchens.

Adrià, 43, is the reigning king of molecular gastronomy, which he practices at El Bulli (www.elbulli.com), the restaurant he has been operating for 22 years in a seaside town located about two hours from Barcelona. Imaginative and innovative, Adrià introduced the world to warm gelatin and ingredients rendered as foam. His efforts have been rewarded with three Michelin stars every year since 1997. Past tasting menus have included warm quail’s egg yolk encased in a caramel shell and also foie gras ice cream. Because the 50-seat restaurant runs on a seasonal schedule (this year, it opens March 29 and closes October 1), a seat at El Bulli might be the world’s most elusive, as hundreds of thousands of would-be patrons vie for the 8,000 available reservations. Seatings for 2006 were filled long ago; the restaurant will begin accepting reservations for 2007 in October.

Before opening the Fat Duck (www.fatduck.co.uk) 11 years ago in Bray, Berkshire, England, the 39-year-old Blumenthal had served only one stint in a professional kitchen: a week at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, a two-star Michelin restaurant in Oxfordshire, England. He acquired most of his knowledge about cooking from reading, especially Harold McGee’s seminal 1984 kitchen science tome, On Food and Cooking. Perhaps the lack of a formal culinary education freed Blumenthal to invent such unorthodox dishes as sardine on toast sorbet, snail porridge, and mango and Douglas fir puree, all of which are offered on his current tasting menu. The Fat Duck earned its third Michelin star in 2004, and Queen Elizabeth II bestowed an Order of the British Empire (OBE) honor on Blumenthal late last year.

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