“You didn’t think technology wouldn’t completely overhaul our relationship with food did you? Revered Montreal Gazette food critic and Radio-Canada “chroniqueuse gastonomique” LESLEY CHESTERMAN has the techie foodie 411:
I’m sitting in a swanky Montreal bistro with an ambitious chef and a crowd of diners eager to be impressed. Looking down at my salad, a classic frisée aux lardons, I spot an unexpected ingredient. Traditionally, this salad is topped with a poached egg (some might make it a fried egg, although poached is de rigueur), but the egg on top of this salad seems a little odd. I slice through and notice that instead of the usual firm white and oozy yolk, this egg is equally gooshy from end to end. No normal oeuf poché, what I’m faced with here is the oh so trendy 63-degree egg, an egg that’s not cooked for the standard four minutes, but often up to two hours. And not in simple boiling water either, but with the aid of an immersion circulator, a temperature-controlled water bath beloved by chefs.
The technique involves placing the egg in a 63-degree water bath, in its shell, where it slowly cooks until it reaches the temperature of the continuously circulating warm water, the idea being, to promote slow, even cooking. Meat is cooked this way, fish too, even crème brûlée, yet because they have no shell, they’re vacuum-packed. Though some consider the 63-degree egg the epitome of egg cookery, the resulting gelatinous texture leaves the rest of us a little cold. But you can’t help but admire the thought process behind it, transforming this humble ingredient into something completely unexpected.
That happenin’ little egg is but a small example of the ways in which technology has transformed — and is continuously transforming — the way we eat. From the invention of the first kitchen appliances in the 20th century (electric ovens date back to the late 19th century, and the refrigerator, 1913) to the latest cutting-edge technique of making ice cream with dry ice, technology in the kitchen not only makes eating exciting, but also, easier. And while you sip that perfectly balanced espresso made with the aid of your chic Nespresso machine driven by “pod technology” imagine this: in New Zealand they’re already testing out pizza delivery not by car but drone technology. A pizza delivered to your door by drone? You betcha.
Technology in the kitchen has been a hot topic over the past decade thanks in good part to the popularity of molecular gastronomy. Spanish chef Ferran Adrià and British chef Heston Blumenthal are widely regarded as the fathers of this movement, which required an arsenal of kitchen equipment as well as gels, emulsifiers, taste enhancers and acidifiers to transform food into something utterly unexpected. In the world of molecular gastronomy, technology became the third player in the kitchen alongside beautiful ingredients and the intensely-creative chef manipulating them. As Adrià himself said, his cuisine was designed to, “provide unexpected contrasts of flavour, temperature and texture. Nothing is what it seems. The idea is to provoke, surprise and delight the diner.”
Yet despite its thrilling modernity, this trend was short-lived. Turns out few chefs had the talent, time and skill to make modernist cuisine come off as anything more than gimmicky. But the technological advances achieved carry on. You’d be hard-pressed to find a high-end restaurant kitchen today that doesn’t stock a vacuum-packing machine, siphons (for making all those fabulous foams), induction stovetops, convection/microwave-oven hybrids, silicone-coated baking sheets, immersion hand blenders, and the sort of precise digital scales favoured by chemists, pharmacists and drug dealers. That soft-serve ice cream we’re all lapping up in restaurants of late requires the use of an elaborate machine, and let’s not forget, the gadget located in most chef’s pockets to tell them when the custard is set, the sugar is caramelized, the meat is medium-rare and whether the oven or fridge are at the right temperature: the humble thermometer — though chances are today it’ll be digital and attached to a monitor that sounds an alarm if the fridge or freezer temperatures veer off by even a few degrees.
Such elaborate machinery is slowly making its way from commercial kitchens to home kitchens, yet sales of induction stovetops, combi ovens and vacuum-packing machines have a ways to go to replace gas burners, convection ovens and good ol’ plastic wrap. But take a closer look at your own kitchen, and you’re bound to find plenty of equipment that relies greatly on technology to simplify the cooking task. Microwaves are pretty standard and, no matter what the Facebook naysayers may say, absolutely brilliant! But how about crock pots, bread machines, rice machines, espresso machines and food processors? Think of how often we rely on hand blenders, stand blenders, and juicers?\ And let’s not forget the pressure cooker, a pot your grandmother probably used more than you do to make risottos, polentas, pulses, vegetables, soups and stocks in half the time of traditional boiling. Now there’s a piece of vintage kitchen equipment worth pulling out of cold storage! Yet, alas, in this age of processed and ready-made foods, when the top cooking catch-word is “easy,” cooking for many simply means reheating. While facilitating the tasks, technology has also made it easier to be lazy.
In this computer age of cooking, technology has also had a massive influence on the world outside the kitchen. Just think about how and where you’re acquiring recipes. Scanning cookbooks? Consulting food mags? Reaching out to your food-obsessed neighbour who makes the best burgers? Probably not. Cookbooks may be still selling well, but the majority of cooks are turning to search engines to find their curries, cakes and casseroles, as recipe searches are now outperforming books, magazines and even word-of-mouth recommendations. And the sheer choice boggles the mind. Even with over a thousand cookbooks in my personal collection, chances are, if I’m looking for a mac ’n cheese recipe, the first place I’ll head is Google.
And how about those apps? In search of tonight’s dinner recipe, why not click on a favourite food personality’s app, be it Jamie Oliver’s, Mark Bittman’s or that of the eternally inspiring domestic goddess herself, Nigella Lawson. Cooking with Nigella by your side… how lovely. When on her app, click on her recipe for — say — roasted chicken salad, and you’ll find the method, as well as an option to create a shopping list and a delightful video.
Ahh videos… I can recall not so long ago when food world mega stars like Julia Child and Wolfgang Puck were releasing CD-ROMs featuring cooking demonstrations. I myself purchased an entire series of VHS tapes starring Jacques Pépin explaining classic cooking techniques back in the mid-nineties. Today those tapes of mine — once the envy of countless foodie friends — are covered in dust as the destination for such displays is not so much the Food Network or PBS on weekends but YouTube, where you will find those very technique videos as well as probably any series Pépin has hosted as well as any interview he has given.
Yearning to make a Salzburger Nockerl, chocolate mousse made with chickpea water or simply learn how the heck to cook kale? It’s all there, yours for the taking. And if not YouTube, how about all those videos tied to newspapers, magazines, and edgy food-centred sites like Grub Street, Eater, Serious Eats and Munchies. Some days I’m convinced I could go all Marie Kondo and chuck my entire cooking library in favour of wonderful web sites like Food 52, Epicurious, the still-sharp Martha Stewart or, closer to home, Canada’s most widely consulted recipe website, the always fabulous, ricardocuisine.com.
As for dining out, the most recent advances in technology have allowed us to manage and surmount all sorts of previous obstacles as well, beginning with the most basic: actually locating a restaurant. Who among us — especially when on foreign soil — has not circled time and again looking for our chosen eating destination only to end up facing a field, an empty locale or some place that’s not our chosen resto branché? Google Maps has pointed me to more than one obscurely-located restaurant, out-of-the way boulangerie and little-known organic farm. And though I’m endlessly weary of the sometimes dodgy information provided by sites like Trip Advisor and Yelp, I cannot deny that when travelling I have relied heavily on crowd-sourced reviews to find a last-minute spot for a meal.
Die-hard foodies have always prided themselves on their ability to nab a spot in the most exclusive of restaurants. Happily, booking a table has never been less of a hassle. Instead of leaving a message on a restaurant answering machine and biting your nails waiting for a call back, you can now reserve online thanks to sites like Open Table, which even allows you make requests for say, a spot at the bar or birthday cake for a loved one. Yet even the veteran restaurant hound may have trouble acquiring a table at the world’s most sought-after restos, as in World’s 50 Best or triple-Michelin-starred. For last minute reservations in Canada’s best restos you can try a great new app called DINR, or in the States, there’s the app RESY. But with RESY there’s a catch: that reservation will cost you between $10 and $50. Ouch for some who think reservations should come free of charge, but hooray for others willing to shell out for that hard-to-get banquette.
Once you’re seated and facing an especially comely scallop carpaccio or foie gras au torchon, who can resist sharing such delicacies with your sure-to-be-envious friends? One could argue that the photo sharing site, Instagram, was invented solely for the purpose of showing off everything from your beautiful children to your abs of steel. But when scanning the site, some of the most gawker-worthy images are actually of food. Find the top Parisian pastry chefs and you’ll see éclairs topped with edible renditions of the Mona Lisa. Click on to chef Mario Batali’s page and follow him as he wines and dines around Italy. Want to see what Gwyneth Paltrow made for supper or which celebrity chef she visited last summer? With Instagram, you can. Or how about just checking out the Instagram feed of the restaurant you’ll be visiting that night. The menu might list both guinea hen and sea bass, but you’ll enter already knowing which dish looks more appealing.
When the foodies aren’t showing off their lobster ravioli appetizer or pizza sampled directly from the top wood-burning oven in Naples, the oenophiles are posting envy-inducing pictures of pricey Bordeaux, rare Burgundies and cult bottles of vin nature only the most devout aficionados can get their wine-stained fingers on. And the next morning, after the party’s over, and the only memory you have of that great Barolo you downed is a picture on your phone, you can turn to the latest technology to help you discover just what you drank. A new app called WineAdvisor (nicknamed the Shazam of wine after the app that identifies the music playing around you) can help you identify, read up on, rate and purchase a wine based solely on a picture of the label. Now how cool is that?
And when you do locate that Barolo, put in an order, and wait for your Château fabulous to arrive, here’s hoping it will make an appearance just as that drone-delivered pizza lands somewhere near your front door. We may chuckle imagining such a fantasy scenario, but estimates place the pizza drone delivery system at between two-and-a-half to three years from today. Whoa.
Come to think of it, at the rate we’re going on the food scene, technology might be making things a little too easy for the eager eater. Now if only it could find a way for us to avoid piling on the pounds. Here’s an idea: how about a treadmill to power all the eating apparatus? Score!