For some places in the Grand Strand, the dining experience has become a lot more interesting when served with a heaping side of science.
Food with a science twist is a trend on the rise, already popular in big cities like New York and Chicago, and has reached the shores of Myrtle Beach. Known as molecular gastronomy but more commonly called modernist cuisine, new restaurants are popping up with this theme that allows chefs to be even more creative while providing a fun and unique dining experience.
Modernist cuisine is a branch of food science all about exploring techniques of creating food and the chemical processes that take place. There are three major components considered something of a foundation in this discipline: social, artistic, and technical. Chefs keep these three essentials in their mind while they work in the lab and investigate the science of cooking.
The Chemist in downtown Myrtle Beach was the first restaurant to put modernist cuisine on the Grand Strand’s culinary map when they opened in September 2015. The mad scientist in charge is Executive Chef Sean Thomas, who won the award for South Carolina Seafood Chef of the Year back in 2013.
Thomas has been a chef for many years now, and has been interested in modernist cuisine since the early 2000s. In 2005, he met Harold McGee, an author who helped set the pace for the growing trend of molecular gastronomy in the United States.
Since then, Thomas began to focus more on his passion of experimenting in the kitchen. With the help of Larry and Fabiana Bond of Bondfire Restaurant Group, The Chemist was born and he has been able to dedicate himself fully to the form.
Thomas works alongside Executive Chef Robert Steadham who has been in the restaurant business since the young age of 14. Only last year, when The Chemist opened, did Steadham delve into modernist cuisine. He dedicated much of his free time to researching and practicing the many techniques, and has become quite taken with this expressive cuisine.
To these two chefs, all cooking is a form of art, but especially so at The Chemist. Modernist cuisine has essentially freed to duo from the constraints that come with the classic culinary arts.
When it comes to classic cooking, the resulting meals are generally expected to be similar, with only little variations.
Modernist cuisine basically turns that all on its head.
“When it comes to the food,” Thomas said in regards to his work at The Chemist, “there’s isn’t a lot of right and wrong.” Just like a science lab, the team is constantly experimenting with different techniques and ingredients to end up with new creations – the way modernist cuisine intended it.
Despite the flexibility molecular gastronomy lends chefs, there is still a lot to learn. “If you can’t handle failure, this is probably not for you,” Thomas says, emphasizing just how much experimentation is involved.
Steadham agrees, even calling the restaurant itself an experiment. “Sometimes with failure,” he reiterates, both chefs laughing.
Thomas and Steadham also feel like the heavy science background involved doesn’t keep modernist cuisine from being elitist. Modernist cuisine was never meant to alienate those who are not science-minded, and instead draw in foodies and scientists alike.
Some of the ingredients they use to reform familiar foods do have chemical names, like sodium alginate which is a derivative of kelp used in spherification, such as to create faux caviar. Wasabi and siracha have both been made into tiny little spheres and topped on meals, looking from afar very much like caviar.
A similar process makes spheres – larger balls of a liquid enclosed by a gel membrane. Fresh strawberry, for example, can be liquefied and combined with a little bit of a soluble salt of calcium, that, when placed in an alginate bath, provides the reaction needed to encapsulate the liquid. The resulting sphere bursts in your mouth with a taste exactly like biting into a fresh strawberry.
Deconstruction is also a popular part of modernist cuisine, where meals are broken down and rearranged into a new form. Steadham describes deconstructed meals as simply, “A different composition instead of [ingredients] mixed together.”
One of his most recent experiments in deconstruction is a version of delicious chocolate cheesecake. Two circles of chocolate pie crust surround scoops of cheesecake that have been topped with spheres of strawberry.
Just like their cuisine, the restaurant is in constant flux. The Chemist regularly has specials, such as for holidays or simply to try new dishes. With molecular gastronomy becoming more accessible, thanks to publications, social media, and video sharing, both chefs appear confident that an increasing amount of chefs and students will delve into the medium.
“It’s fun, and the only limit is your imagination,” Thomas says. That being said, The Chemist remains the only modernist cuisine themed restaurant in the Grand Strand and much of the south.
However, other young restaurants in the area do not forgo the fun that science adds to dining. ART is just about a block away from their sister restaurant The Chemist and is known for their nitrogen bar. Cocktails and desserts can be flash frozen here into smooth and creamy deliciousness. Watching and enjoying the cool mist from the nitrogen makes the experience all the more enjoyable.
Bartender Richard Sterling is happy to talk a little about liquid nitrogen becoming more popular for cool treats and what it means for him as a bartender.
“I’m loving what I do,” he says, after twirling a bottle of rum around. “It’s fulfilling, and [nitrogen] adds another dimension to what already exists. It opens my mind to new techniques.”
Sterling has no background in science but is completely comfortable while using liquid nitrogen.
Because it evaporates so quickly, there is very little chance in someone getting hurt. Sterling even pours some of the nitrogen over the bar to demonstrate, laughing as the bubbling chemical disappears before even reaching the edge of the counter.
Down near Surfside, liquid nitrogen is the entire basis for a new ice cream shop. Sub Zero was founded in 2003 and got its big break on the ABC show “Shark Tank” back in 2013. In the three years since, dozens of shops throughout the nation have popped up. Richard Nicola has brought the Grand Strand’s first Sub Zero after retiring from over 30 years in the construction business and moving down from Connecticut.
Nicola had planned on moving to Myrtle Beach after retirement and wanted a job that was still interesting but less strenuous than construction. He fell in love with the idea after watching
Sub Zero on “Shark Tank” and found that even with a little science thrown in, an ice cream shop was well within reach.
Once the building was prepared and the first large nitrogen tanks delivered, a trainer came from Utah, where the company originated. Nicola says the training, which took place over four days with each of his employees, was very science-based so they could all have an understanding of the process.
Just like Sterling at ART, Nicola talks about how easy it is to use liquid nitrogen. His Sub Zero has had no incidents, and all the employees are now completely at ease with the chemical. Some of the creams used to make the dessert are a more difficult to work with, however.
“Every flavor is a little different… Some need more nitrogen, some need less. There’s a distinct noise too, so you can hear and you can see when it’s ready,” Nicola says when describing the process.
Guests pick out a base, such as regular, low-fat, or lactose-free, then can decide what sort of flavor they want. If the options are too many, there is a menu of Sensations that make the decision for you. Once the cream and toppings are in the bowl, it’s moved to an area with spouts over the counter. The cream gets a quick stir and a pedal under the counter is pressed, and liquid nitrogen comes steaming out.
From a few seconds to a few minutes, fresh ice cream is created right in front of your eyes, though it might be hard to see past the cool mist. Using liquid nitrogen to flash freeze the mixture results in an absolutely creamy and wonderfully decadent treat.
With smaller tanks of nitrogen, Nicola and his Sub Zero team can cater events large and small.
Half the fun of getting ice cream here is watching science happen, so the restaurant is also popular with school functions.
In the immediate future, there doesn’t seem to be any more additions to the modernist cuisine scene in the Grand Strand. The chefs at The Chemist would welcome the camaraderie and competition, while Nicola has a stake on future Sub Zero locations in the area (and is already entertaining the idea of opening a second shop in a few years).
From executive chefs to a retired construction worker, modernist cuisine is becoming increasingly accessible. The more popular it grows, the greater the amount of restaurants will begin to utilize the interesting techniques that come with it. Already there is a culinary school in Charleston with classes teaching molecular gastronomy to aspiring chefs.
Cooking has always been a science. What chemical reactions that happen in a kitchen are not dissimilar from other reactions in a lab. Molecular gastronomy simply takes the science of cooking to the extreme, exploring the reasons why chemicals react the way they do, and discovering new reactions that reinvent a previously familiar ingredient.
To Enjoy the Science
To enjoy a taste of delicious science, visit The Chemist at 300 9 th Avenue (chemistbar.com) and ART (artsushibar.com) at 706 N. Ocean Boulevard in Myrtle Beach. Sub Zero (SubZeroicecream.com) is located at 106 Sayebrook Parkway, and currently all restaurants are open 7 days a week, with the nitrogen keeping things cool into these hot summer nights.