Las Vegas has gone from a place all about cheap eats to a culinary destination. In fact, you'll find some of the nation's top chefs on the Strip.
Part of that upgrade has seen local bars and restaurants pushing the envelope with innovative cooking techniques.
Science is making its way into bold kitchens, bringing out flavors you may have never encountered.
"Molecular gastronomy is the science of the physical changes that food does when it's cooked," said Chef Jill Mora, a professor of culinary arts at College of Southern Nevada (CSN). "A sauce on a savory dish, so that when you take a bite of your fish with this sauce, you get a Pop Rock feel in your mouth."
Inside the Wicked Spoon at Cosmopolitan Las Vegas, chefs are using fluid gels on dishes.
"Which is something where you use a hydrochloride, so we can pipe it to put on a plate and it tastes and feels in your mouth like liquid, but it will sit there like a solid," said Steve Gotham, Chef de Cuisine at the Cosmopolitan.
At the Cosmopolitan's Jose Andres' Jaleo, which is known for cutting-edge techniques, chefs use a process called spherification. It involves a seaweed-based bubble that captures liquids.
"Outside is just a delicate membrane. [We] create those to trap liquid sensations that will burst in your palate," said Juan Coronabo, cocktail innovator with Think Food Group.
Coronabo doesn't call it molecular gastronomy. He prefers avant-garde cooking.
"Or [we call it] modernist cuisine. You know, it goes by all sorts of different names, but basically what it boils down to is using science to make better food," Gotham said.
Gotham said using the new techniques actually makes cooking in mass quantities easier, and the food tastes better.
"We use it in all of our restaurants here, whether it be Book & Stage, where we're serving, basically, stadium food, or in The Henry," he said. "We use it in there for all kinds of different dishes, whether it be the eggs benedict in the morning or the omelets."
One of Gotham's favorite modernist cuisine recipes is for macaroni and cheese at Wicked Spoon.
"You can use an ingredient like sodium citrate, which is basically the same thing they used to make club soda," he said.
The additive is said to preserve more flavors than you would find in traditional macaroni and cheese.
"What it does is it adjusts the PH levels so that the cheese binds," Gotham said.
Mora said the idea to use additives such as sodium citrate started in the 1980s when French physicists began experimenting with the chemical properties of foods.
"In 1992, they put together a seminar where they were showing what chefs had learned," she said. "The chefs that you hear about – Ferran, Adria, Heston, Blumenthal – the ones in Europe that started this whole movement – were at those seminars. They moved from those seminars and took what they were learning and put it in the kitchen."
In fact, the techniques have moved beyond the kitchen, and into bars.
Mariena Mercer is the property mixologist at the Cosmopolitan. It wasn't just time in bars that earned her the title.
"In college, I started studying chemistry, and then I discovered tequila," she said.
Many of Mercer's drinks employ what she calls molecular mixology, including her Florentine at the Chandelier bar as well as her butter pecan ice cream, which is made from rum, vanilla vodka and liquid nitrogen.
Mercer's most extreme drink is her ramen noodle cocktail.
"The noodles themselves are made from lemon grass ginger, coconut cream and a coconut rum, with some different hydrochlorides and gelling agents," she said.
Coronabo has used molecular mixology in his drinks as well, including spheres filled with sangria.
While most admit modernist cuisine is a strange mix of art and science, chefs say there will always be a market for it, and Vegas is the perfect place for it.
"We have some very high-end people who are familiar with this because they've read about it, they've heard about it. They've been to Europe," Mora said. "Are we going to see it in mom-and-pop stores or Denny's? No, chances are you're not."
Chefs say this is all perfectly safe to eat because it includes chemicals and additives most Americans have been consuming for years in breads and cereals.
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