Seemingly insurmountable challenges are a regular source of grist to my culinary mill. I choose not to spend my evenings and weekends fiddling with the oily bits on my car, smacking a small ball around the countryside or risking repeats of previous knee-knackering experiences in a flimsy thing they call a dinghy. I cook and, barring the odd chuck-it-at-the-wall moment, do so with some success. I have conquered such kitchen Everests as Raymond Blanc's iced Grand Marnier soufflé with candied kumquats and his fish with saffron potatoes cooked en papillote, as well as Marco Pierre White's mullet with ratatouille, tapenade sauce and sage beignets and the cholesterol tsunami of double chicken stock, double cream and foie gras butter that is sauce Albufera.
But other than applying varying amounts of heat to all things raw, I have never felt moved to dabble in the science of cookery, tinkering around with all those strange powders and processes. When it comes to culinary alchemy, I'm much more Simon Hopkinson than Harry Potter.
I have eaten incandescently good molecular food in northern Spain, but at home I recoil at the first glimpse of dots, drizzles, sneezes and, by far the worst offender, the painted stripe across the middle of the plate, most of which pass from palate to gullet to no resonant effect. Thus I have remained a molecular virgin, a stranger to all those zeitgeist techniques touted by chefs who know much more than I ever will, yet seem incapable of believing that just taking the basic ingredients, treating them with the care and respect they deserve and dishing them up in a familiar form will be better than deconstructing them to look like the bastard progeny of a lab boffin and an architect.
So I read with trepidation the news that the usually conservative folk at Lakeland now sell R-Evolution Cuisine. For £44.99, here's your chance to "do a Heston" and have a go at molecular cookery in the comfort of your own kitchen. And if you're looking for the perfect present for a foodie chum or want your guests to give an admiring chuckle and still enjoy the resulting taste as you unveil the results of your kitchen magic, this is funky option. It's a grown-up magic kit.
It's cute, too, with 10 sachets of agar-agar (a vegetarian gelatin substitute produced from a variety of seaweed), sodium alginate (another seaweed extract that emulsifies and increases viscosity), calcium lactate (an antacid), soya lecithin (to make dissimilar substances blend) and xanthan gum (a thickener and stabiliser). There's a slotted spoon for lifting globules out of liquid, a set of measuring spoons, pipettes, a food-friendly syringe, silicone tubes and a 50-recipe DVD.
Let's start with the DVD – and you have to. There are no written recipes, no dialogue from a witty/informative/glamorous/annoying chef. There isn't even a friendly face – just a pair of hands showing you the various steps and little on-screen boxes telling you what and how much of it he/she is using, all backed by what sounds like the music from an Eighties' porn flick.
Remembering my last encounter with a pipette was prior to a rather nasty incident in the school science lab, I opted for something slightly more mediaeval in the form of a Crunchy Bloody Mary, which required the boiling of vodka, tomato juice, Worcester sauce, celery salt and the mysterious agar-agar. Once cooked, the resulting mix is spooned into upturned celery stalks and left to set. Here's a big tip: to guarantee success, buy the biggest, deepest stalks you can find, otherwise you'll wind up with a very skinny filling and a stiff red pool on the plate. The taste? If you're bored with the liquid version, this is a pretty sexy way to serve a cocktail. The same goes for the Deconstructed Tomato Soup, which involves cooking another potion, using a syringe to force it through a silicone tube, squeezed on to your plate like spaghetti.
Never fear. We now move on to creating their Deconstructed Burger, which is nothing of the sort. It is a guide to making ketchup and mustard "caviar", ie small pearls of each substance, which you then arrange in bowls.The snag is, the minute you apply them to your burger, they immediately revert to what they looked like in the first place – brightly coloured, glutinous dollops.
Taste? Well, what would you expect?
On to Spherical Tzatziki. Here, we mix milk, calcium lactate, seasoning, olive oil, rice vinegar, chopped dill, yoghurt and crushed garlic, before dropping spoonfuls of it into our sodium alginate bath. Hurrah! Spherical globules are indeed forming "underwater". But then, trying to transfer them to a plain-water bath results in the spheres rupturing one by one, leaving a horrid, gloopy white mess, as if a blender had done battle with a couple of oysters and some gelatin. But don't even think about putting it down the sink – it won't go.
Garlic Foam was more successful and rather good adorning a grilled lamb chop. Water, milk, garlic cloves and soya lecithin are blitzed, producing a cloud of bubblesome foam, which goes well with crab.
More rejoicing when my Salt Prisms turn out rather well. Water, salt and agar-agar are boiled and left to set, enabling you to cut the resulting gel into shapes. A small cube proved yummy with a glob of thick chocolate sauce and toasted waffle. But Raspberry Ravioli (more blobs) and Curry Wind (foam) prove a disappointment, while Quick and Easy Bechamel uses chopped hard-boiled eggs and winds up looking like a rather messy egg salad. As for their version of a Screwdriver – well, each layer has to set for quarter-of-an-hour. And if you can wait 75 minutes for a drink...
Molecular masters: What they say
"It can be used to invent an infinite number of dishes."
Hervé This, who coined the phrase "molecular cuisine"
"Could you imagine people eating a painting — if they could introduce a painting into their bodies? It's probably the artist's dream, and we have the opportunity to do so."
Ferran Adria of el Bulli
"We do not pursue novelty for its own sake... We may use modern thickeners, sugar substitutes, enzymes, liquid nitrogen, sous vide, dehydration and other non-traditional means but these do not define our cooking ...We believe that cooking can affect people in profound ways, and that a spirit of collaboration and sharing is essential to true progress in developing this potential."
Ferran Adria, Heston Blumenthal of the Fat Duck, Thomas Keller of the French Laundry and Per Se explaining why they are not "molecular gastronomists"
"We all use sugar. And sugar — sucrose — doesn't grow in the form of white grains. It has to be processed. Yet sugar is okay. Sucrose is okay. It's only when you get to maltodextrin that people start saying, 'Wait a minute, that's going too far.'"
Heston Blumenthal of the Fat Duck
"This style of cooking, is a language, a code, and it can be intimidating. But only if you don't try to understand it."
David Chang, of the Momofuku restaurants in New York
"We need to really examine food, emotions, the arc of the dining experience, and in doing so we utilise technology where appropriate."
Grant Achatz of Chicago restaurant Alinea
"You get chocolate cake with jalapeno sorbet, but it's actually mole and it's savoury and then you pop a Miracle Berry ... the chocolate cake which was mole turns into a chocolate velvet cake, with this jalapeno sorbet which then tastes sort of sweet."
Homaro Cantu of Ing and Moto
Compiled by Will Hamilton