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Daniel Facen, the Scientific Chef

Chef Daniel Facen is known for using science in the kitchen, FDL went along to his restaurant in Italy to watch his molecular cuisine in action

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Lots of gourmands would give anything to become invisible, to spend a few hours watching their favourite chefs work in the kitchen. But there’s a restaurant that allows you – without any special powers – to do just that. It’s called Show Cooking Anteprima and it’s in Chiuduno, a small city near Bergamo in Northern Italy. 

Here, the Michelin starred Swiss chef Daniel Facen, together with his staff, has installed various screens in strategic areas of the dining room, in order that the clients, while remaining comfortably seated at the table, can follow the preparation of the dishes they’ve ordered. Which they can also do through the glass doors that separate the dining room from the kitchen. Let the show cooking commence!

After a moment’s indecision about what to order, unsure between themaccheroni made from carob flour with sea anemones and scallops and the suckling pig glazed with spruce honey, green mango and aloe vera, I choose the second option. And sit back to enjoy the performance of the chefs as they prepare what will be brought to my table.

Of course, the techniques they use aren’t exactly ones that most people are familiar with, but everything has been studied to keep customers surprised and intrigued – after all, seeing something unexpected is what the restaurant is known for. How often does someone get the chance to watch molecular cuisine in progress ?

Daniel claims that his approach to cooking is a little more nuanced than simply calling it ‘molecular’. «I don’t recognize myself in this definition, I prefer to use the expression ‘science in the kitchen’.» According to Facen – who was obviously the top student in his chemistry class at school – changing the state of material allows you to improve its taste and opens an infinite range of possible pairings between even the most unlikely ingredients. 

People don’t come to Anteprima just to eat, but also to dream, to be shocked, to be taken on a sensory adventure. But of course, this is something that naturally happens in any restaurant that successfully pulls off 'experimental' cuisine. Customers are curious to understand how these dishes get made, so I ask the chef if they are able to see everything – all of the steps in the process. 

«The preparations are very complex,» he answers, «and it would be impossible to show all of the phases; people can see the final finishing touches that precede the mise en place.» People love observing the hands of the chef as they quickly move over the dish and his movements give a general idea of transparency and cleanness. 

Facen admits «I’m neither a physicist nor a scientist, but rather a cook with some mad ideas and I like to play with base ingredients. My motto is, 'You’ll never discover new oceans if you’re afraid of losing sight of the beach'. I like to go to unexplored places.» 

Daniel Facen claims that what he does is «molecular gastronomy» and then adds. «I don’t understand why so many cooks deny the importance of a scientific subject like chemistry. It’s not something for aliens. Working with molecules means simply transforming a tomato into tomato water or tomato air. For me, ingredients come before anything else. I studied nutritional chemistry for years, and now I’m finally a chef with a team that can keep up with me.» 

It hasn’t been easy, Facen admits. His 'enemy' for years were the customers themselves, and I can believe it. In this part of Italy, there’s an abundance of good, old-fashioned trattorie that serve up polenta and casoncelli, the typical ravioli of this region, the antithesis of what Anteprima was proposing. And then, in 2009, the first Michelin star arrived, and he began to build up a loyal clientele. 

In Facen’s view, the kitchen is a laboratory. So when I ask him about what he’s working on, it’s no surprise that he says he’s conducting new experiments with a strange new appliance. «I’m trying out different kinds of bread that can be transformed into water by using the Fusion Vap.» says Daniel. «It’s a machine that transforms solid ingredients into a liquid state. And then I use the sonicator.» 

Can he explain what this means, exactly? «It’s a technique of mixing liquids that is done with an instrument that looks like a sort of drill, but with a titanium tip. You immerse it into a liquid together with any ingredient, and thanks to the electromagnetic waves, the sonicator manages to break apart the molecules in order to produce a perfectly smooth mix. It helps you “implode” molecules. The result is a splendidly solid structure that also expresses the hidden taste of the ingredients.» 

I’d love to know more, curious as a I am, but my suckling pig has arrived and, as we all know, there are certain dishes that need one’s full attention. But if you too are curious, here’s what he had to tell me about the process of sonication (after dinner, though!).

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