Syfy unveils the future of food with a daring new hi-tech cooking series for the modern age, Marcel’s Quantum Kitchen, featuring Marcel Vigneron, one of America’s most notorious chefs on the cutting edge of the culinary field, on Tuesday, March 22 at 10 p.m. ET/PT. Chef Marcel pushes the limits of imagination with his bold style of cooking referred to as molecular gastronomy, which incorporates science into cuisine preparation.
Fresh off of Top Chef All Stars, 30-year-old Marcel has already made a name for himself with his polarizing turn on the Bravo series and as the former head chef at one of Los Angeles’ hottest bar/restaurants, Bar 210. Marcel is constantly reinventing himself with cuisine, never preparing food the same way twice through the use of modern tools, techniques and his own creative inspiration to serve up mind-blowing confections.
In my interview with Marcel Vigneron, he shares his special hair grooming secret, how he made eggs from mozzarella cheese and food porn.
How did you get interested in cooking initially, and at what point molecular gastronomy became your passion?
Marcel Vigneron: I got interested in cooking at a early on at a very young age, and that was partially because my mom was cooking when I was growing up. And she would take me into the kitchen with her. So I was kind of familiar with that whole environment. And then as I was growing up and I entered high school, it was time for me to get a job so I actually – it was a – it’s a – it was a normal progression for me to start cooking. And so I started cooking in high school. And then it wasn’t until I went to Europe and did a lot of soul searching after I graduated high school, that I decided I wanted to pursue, like becoming a chef as a career. And then I went to the Culinary Institute of America and got my Associate’s and Bachelor’s Degree in Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management. And I’ve just been cooking ever since. And I originally got interested in modern gastronomy when I was at culinary school and started researching elBulli, and a couple other chefs from around the world that were really just pushing the envelope and developing new techniques and creating food that was unlike anything else anybody was doing around the world. And it was just really inspirational for me. And so I started to do research and development on my own and just really kind of tried to use cooking as a creative outlet and trying to use science as like a foundation for understanding the phenomenon that is cooking.
How did the show originally come about?
Marcel Vigneron: This show has actually been maybe like three years in the making. And when I was living in Las Vegas I was approached by two different producers to start working on my own show, which we wrote up a couple of treatments and found a production company to help us create it. And then I took a meeting with SyFy, who seemed very intrigued and decided to undergo the pilot making process, which we did. And we re-cut the pilot a couple different times and shot some new footage. And they decided it was a show that they wanted to see made. And then the rest is history. We took the bull by the horns and made it actually. It seems kind of like an abstract fit. But once you actually see the show I feel like it’s totally going to make sense. And one of the ways we bridge that gap between SyFy and doing a cooking show and me being on it is the fact that we focus in on a lot of the same things; SyFy is all about imagining greater, which is essentially what me and my culinary team is all about. So we have the same basic philosophy. And we focus in on a lot of the scientific aspect of cooking as well. So you’ve got a lot of like science, and it’s kind of like educational. But at the same time it’s all about creativity and teamwork.
Liquid nitrogen was one of the things that you seem to use a lot, have there ever been accidents?
Marcel Vigneron: I’ve never had any accidents with – utilizing, working with liquid nitrogen. It is extremely cold. And whenever you’re dealing with extremely cold or extremely hot elements, there’s a level of danger involved. But I feel like cooking in and of itself in a kitchen is a very dangerous place to begin with. I mean think about it, you’re constantly wielding knives which are extremely sharp. The floors can be slippery, you’re doing with hot oil, that’s at 450 degrees sometimes. You’ve got ovens that are at 500 or 600 degrees. You have fire all around the place, which can instantly burn you. And then one of the ingredients that I utilize quite a bit inside of the kitchen is liquid nitrogen. And it’s basically just like the same thing. Any time you’re cooking you have to make sure that you’re taking great care and paying attention to what you’re doing. And it’s the same with liquid nitrogen. But I’ve never had any accidents with it. Safety first.It’s basically just like any other piece of equipment inside the kitchen. Needs to be inspected and, handled with care.
In a few of the clips you mentioned, “Size does matter,” and “Food porn.” Can you explain what you were referring to by that line please?
Marcel Vigneron: I think in the Size Does Matter clip I believe we were referring to the size of our tarot chip surf boards and if they were too big or too small. And then Food Porn is a term that’s kind of been adopted when we’re referring to what’s “beauty shots.” And Food Porn is just another term for describing these beauty shots. And often times when we’re doing a party – the same thing happens whether we’re doing Marcel’s Quantum Kitchen or Top Chef or any sort of cooking show, often times you’ll plate up one extra dish of whatever it is that you’re making so that way you can get like a nice, tight, like close up shot of the dish for the viewers at home. And we’re referring to beauty shots when we say food porn, which is not to be confused with some sort of porno made with food, I guess — which is definitely not what we’re doing.
So what was the most extraordinary client request you’ve had and was it executed exactly as intended?
Marcel Vigneron: Well I think that I don’t actually get that many strange requests on the show because of the mere fact that a lot of my clients are hiring me specifically because they want me to deliver an experience. And more often than not, they kind of give me free reign for the menu because they want me to go ahead and create these elaborate dishes. And so often times I don’t really get a lot of restriction, it’s usually more so like, “The sky’s the limit,” like “Marcel, here’s our story, go ahead and create.” So I don’t really get a lot of really crazy requests. Usually it’s – usually they kind of leave it up to me to go ahead and – it’s usually just some sort of like normal dietary restriction or something and then I just base the menu off of that.
And would you say what you’re doing, like fusing food with science, is the future of food?
Marcel Vigneron: I think that food will constantly be evolving so you can’t ever really put a tag on, like what the actual future of food is, because I don’t think anybody really knows. But at the same time we do utilize a lot of cutting-edge cooking techniques and equipment to create these dishes. So it is very avant-garde in nature. But I can, “It is actually the future of food?” I mean, that’s kind of a bold statement.
Can you talk about the challenge of overcoming the human element in what you do in order to make the science possible? It seems like that’s the hardest part.
Marcel Vigneron: Well yes. I mean I feel like it’s a combination of both. The thing about it is when we’re working with a lot of these new cooking techniques, it is kind of a, it’s a matter of like trial and error often times. Because a lot of the things that we’re trying to execute, a lot of these techniques, I’ve never even actually done before. So sometimes the science does come into play where we actually really need to figure something out and why something isn’t working the way that we had planned and what the effects are scientifically. But then also the shoe-in challenge I guess, or whatever you refer to it as, which is kind of like limitations physically sometimes. It can also be the limitations of our environment where we’re catering a party and we don’t have the necessary equipment or there isn’t a kitchen or whatever the case may be. So we’re constantly having to overcome all these different challenges, whether it’s the science of food, or whether it’s personality based, or whether it’s our environmental limitations. So I feel like it’s kind of a – we have to overcome a combination of all three, like for every single party that we cater.
In the series you said, “You can’t rush creativity.” How does the science give you more options to get there quicker?
Marcel Vigneron: I think that creativity obviously can’t be rushed. But at the same time you usually have a deadline for these sorts of things. And I think in that particular instance I was plating up a dish for the first time that I had had all of these components in front of me and I’d never actually – it was a dish that I frequently do, I’ll conceive these dishes in my head, like ahead of time because a lot of the dishes we’re actually creating for the first time specifically for a guest. Like a lot of the dishes that we make on the show are specifically inspired by that particular client or for that particular theme for that particular party. And when that happens, when you’re doing these things for the first time, it’s kind of challenging because like, I don’t really know which component is going to go where or whatever the case may be. And it’s kind of like having to do a painting for the first time for a guest who’s already bought the painting in front of them as there’s like a ticking clock. So it’s kind of challenging. And I try to utilize science and a lot of these avant-garde techniques to keep me grounded and to, and to also help me out with this. Because you have on one side you have like this creative, this whole like creative thing going on and then the science is actually concrete. So it provides like stability to the whole situation, if that makes any sense.
Do you expose any parts of your personal life on the show?
Marcel Vigneron: Yes totally. For every episode, for every event that we cater, I typically like to get together with my clients and spend a couple days with them doing whatever it is that they do. So that way I can kind of like get inside their head and find out what they’re all about. So that way when I go back and develop the menu and go through this brainstorming session with my team, we can actually create these dishes that are specifically designed for our client or specifically designed for this particular event. And so often times we’ll be going out and for example we cater a party for (Steve Walden), this legendary surfboard shaper and so I go out surfing with him to really develop inspiration for this party. And then for each episode every time that we meet with our clients, there will be these inspirational sessions where we go out into the world and we’re doing whatever it is that our clients do. And so we step outside of the kitchen a bit and you will get the opportunity to see, “like personal life” or what we do outside of the kitchen.
Tell me about your olive oil grooming secret.
Marcel Vigneron: I guess when you’re dealing – I’m constantly traveling so I’m going back and forth either between New York and LA. And I feel like often times we have these like drastic temperature changes, my scalp gets kind of dry. And occasionally a little drop of olive oil totally does wonders. And apparently rosemary is supposed to be really good too I guess. But yes, I mean try it out, see if it works for you.
Is Top Chef a big part of your success today and as a chef, do you have to be on TV to shine?
Marcel Vigneron: I think that there are several chefs out there right now that have just proven themselves inside of the kitchen and are just are amazing chefs. I don’t think that it’s a necessity to to go on television to be a successful chef. I think that it definitely helps, so to speak. And I think going on Top Chef provided a great platform for me and led me to doing my own TV show, Marcel’s Quantum Kitchen. But at the same time, I’ve also been cooking for over a decade and have worked for (Joe Roberson), I worked for Michael Mina in 2000 opening up The Bazarr by Jose Andres and working for all these amazing chefs, and for having cooked for over 10 years. And so I feel like that in and of itself is – I mean the hospitality industry; it’s not easy. You definitely have to pay your dues. And I’ve been fortunate enough to have these opportunities. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a necessity. I think that food is hotter now than it’s ever been. And I feel like people like Julia Child and celebrity chefs like Emeril Lagasse and Bobby Flay have fortunately propelled the industry and kind of like had the opportunity to not only educate the public but also kind of like spark this curiosity with the public about cooking and about food. And it makes people want to understand food a little bit more and where their food is coming from and who’s making their food. But I also don’t feel that I wouldn’t go so far as to say that like, “You have to do that to be a successful chef nowadays.” I mean there’s several chefs out there that are exactly that, that just continue to cook and have amazing restaurants and don’t do television. I don’t think it’s a necessity, I think that it may help. But it’s a completely different animal. I feel like, yes it’s a totally different animal.
Do you have any plans of doing a cookbook?
Marcel Vigneron: I’m actually still working on both the cook book and the restaurants. They’re kind of hold because the project of the catering company was something that I recently took on and was my primary focus. And now that I have the catering company sort of like up and going, I’m continuing to work on the book and the restaurant as well. And the book – I have two different ideas that I’m kind of like trying to write up right now and trying to get the format for. One of which is a cook book. And it’s actually for home cooks. And it’s kind of like demystifying a lot of these avant-garde techniques. And just showing cooks at home how to use science. And how a little bit of education, a little bit – I mean a little bit of know-how and a little bit of science and some creativity can really help the home cook create like awesome delicious dishes. And so that’s kind of the – where the cook book is focusing. And then there’s also another one that I’m working on which is more so like memoirs and just crazy stories of my life in the hospitality industry. But I think the cook book is the one that’s going to come out first. And then as far as restaurants go, I’m still kind of like working on locations and concepts because the catering company has been quite the undertaking here in Los Angeles. So it’s on hold but still kind of in the works. It’s on the backburner, so to speak.
In that first episode you inflated the mozzarella to make the egg for the wildlife sanctuary episode. What did you use to inflate that mozzarella?
Marcel Vigneron: So we actually did it a couple different ways. And I’ve since actually figured out how to make that. Which is often times, with a lot of these parties, we’re working on these new techniques we’ve never tried before. And so some of them work and some of them don’t. And often times you have like such a limited window because we’re actually catering these parties. And there’s a serious sort of like timeframe that we have to follow. And if something doesn’t work out, I’ll usually go back and try to re-work it and figure out where the mistake lied, or how I can actually fix something. So that way if I want to utilize that technique again in the future, and just for my own personal know-how. But so what I injected that mozzarella with was I – well, I’ll just go from the beginning and just basically explain the technique. So I took fresh, like cow’s milk curds, and actually made my own mozzarella. And then from that mozzarella, we injected it with a tomato water sort of foam, if you will. And what actually propelled the mozzarella to blow up like a balloon was the compressed gas that was inside of the siphon that we used to make the foam, essentially. So it was the nitrous oxide. So the gas is what – the gas is kind of like what propels the mozzarella to expand in a balloon. And then simultaneously, you’re also injecting the espuma inside of it. So it’s – you’re kind of like killing two birds with one stone; on one hand you have the gas that’s not only aerating the tomato water and giving it like this really nice sort of like fluffy light consistency; but it’s also propelling the curds or the mozzarella to expand like a balloon.
How have you grown as a chef since Top Chef, and what new stuff will you bring to the show?
Marcel Vigneron: Since I’ve been on Top Chef, I’ve had several pretty amazing cooking experiences. And I’ve grown as a chef and as a person in a couple different ways. My actual style of cooking has been a little bit refined. I feel as a chef I’ve kind of gone through this sort of phase where in the beginning I was curious about all these new cooking techniques. And in the beginning I might have been just been like, utilizing them to kind of like utilize them, and just because I could or just because it was new. And I feel like now as a chef, I show restraint and I don’t just utilize a technique just to do it. Everything has make sense and it has to taste delicious. And I feel like nowadays I’ll only use certain techniques where they’re appropriate. Because if it doesn’t make sense, then what’s the point? And so I feel like as a chef I’m a little bit wiser when it comes to actually composing dishes, so to speak. I guess one of the different things about Marcel’s Quantum Kitchen versus Top Chef is Top Chef we have all these quick fire challenges. And they’re exactly that; they’re challenges that have a lot of restraint. And with Marcel’s Quantum Kitchen the sky’s the limit. I have an amazing team behind me that’s helping me create these dishes. I’ve got inspiration where I’m working with these clients and really coming up with delicious menu items that’s inspired. But also I feel like we have a little bit more time. I’m not given like six minutes with one hand tied behind my back. And I’m given the time and the resources that I need to actually come up with some delicious dishes. So the food that you see me create on Marcel’s Quantum Kitchen is completely different than the food that I create on Top Chef just because I don’t have the same sort of limitations or restrictions that I had on Top Chef. And I’m also kind of like in a better space. I’m really inspired by the clients that I’m cooking for, and I have this amazing team. So yes, the food is completely different. I’m sure you’ll see a lot more – a lot cooler techniques when I’m actually given that – the time and the resources that I need to execute some of these very difficult and technical dishes that I’m trying to create.
What was your favorite experience from your time on Top Chef?
Marcel Vigneron: Favorite experience from my time on Top Chef. I think I have two; So one of my, like most memorable experiences from Top Chef was flying into Waipio Valley on a helicopter and having like a traditional luau with the other contestants and with (Tom) and (Padma) and (Allen Wong). And just to sit down in those like – the beautiful kind of like tarot farm in Waipio Valley. And seeing like the black sand beaches was just in and of itself was absolutely breathtaking. And to be able to get that sort of traditional Hawaiian, you know experience, was remarkable and something that I’ll never forget. And so that was really incredible and definitely up there as one of my – with my top experiences. And that was during the finale of Season 2. And then more recently, I really enjoyed fishing out at the lighthouse in Montauk Point. I thought that that was a really good, really fun challenge. I ended up catching three striped bass that day. As a chef any time that I get that close with my ingredients — like if I’m actually procuring them myself, or if I’m foraging or harvesting the vegetables, or catching the fish, or slaughtering the animal, I instantaneously get like this very, sort of like intimate relationship with the dish that I’m creating. Because you’re so closely connected to the ingredients, it’s very inspirational. And I get all emotional any time I’m that close to the ingredients for the dish that I’m trying to create. So and I love fishing. So that was a pretty remarkable experience.