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October 14, 2008

Sam Mason and the World's Top Kitchen Labs

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Mason and his liquid nitrogen dispenser.
Photo: Melissa Hom for New York Magazine

by Michael Snyder

Marrow beads, miso butterscotch, beet parfait: these are dishes you might find on a typical night at Sam Mason's year-old restaurant, Tailor. So it was no surprise that the chef served a deconstructed PB&J at Food Network's Wine & Food Festival this past Sunday in New York. As he dripped grape juice into a bowl of liquid nitrogen, I thought I might be watching a kids' science show.  Then I noticed the tattoos and the slightly off-color language, and I realized that the beverage Mason was carbonating wasn't apple juice, it was sake, which he'll use in his Japanese riff on a classic Black Velvet cocktail. When I got my little cup of frozen grape juice beads with peanut butter powder and toast, the biggest shock was just how much it tasted like the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches I used to munch on as a kid. 

This kind of tongue-in-cheek culinary high jinx is par for the course for Mason and the growing ranks of chefs experimenting with molecular gastronomy (a term despised by some of its pioneers--but who wants to call it food science?). This year, the three top chefs in the world, according to the English Restaurant magazine, have all been influenced by this scientific approach to food; now is the time to put your taste buds (not to mention your sense of adventure) to the test. Here are some of the world's best places to sample molecular gastronomy at its most cutting edge:

* El Bulli: Ranked world's best restaurant time and time again, El Bulli is Ferran Adria's laboratory. Here in the Catalonian countryside of Barcelona, he spends half the year developing new techniques and half the year serving the mere 8,000 people who manage to nab tables during the six-month season.

* The Fat Duck: Heston Blumenthal's restaurant in the small English town of Bray vies with El Bulli for the top spot in the world, and has even managed to wrest that accolade from Adria's hands.

* Alinea: Home of Grant Achatz, winner of this year's James Beard Award for Best American Chef, Alinea has been showered with praise for what some consider the most creative food to be found on this side of the Atlantic.

* wd-50: New York's food science pioneer Wylie Dufresne works nightly from the kitchen of his casual 70-seat Lower East Side restaurant.

Further reading:
* Grant Achatz's take on the PB&J
* Wylie Dufresne plays with ingredients on Gourmet.com
* Ondine Cohane's gastronomic tour of Spain takes her to El Bulli
* Catch of the Day

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