Canned Soup and Molecular Cuisine Aren't All That Different

Canada's go-to molecular cuisine expert John Placko spent years as the corporate chef for chain restaurants and food companies. For him, the two worlds actually have a lot in common.

May 6 2015, 4:00pm

Photos courtesy Renée Suen.

Supermarket aisles and the kitchen at noma seem like they couldn't be more different in the world of food. It's low-brow versus high-brow, packaged versus fresh, and factories versus chefs. But for culinary instructor and food company consultant John Placko, these two ends of the food spectrum actually have a lot of overlap.

The Australian-Canadian chef, who also consulted at Bar 120 in Toronto's Pearson International Airport, is best-known as the expert that local chefs turn to when it comes to experimental cooking. But Placko has another side to him, having spent more than a decade working as the corporate chef for chain restaurants and giant food companies like Campbell's and Maple Leaf Foods. A lot of high-end chefs would shun their corporate past, but Placko says it actually helped him make the switch to teaching people how to make liquid pearls and jewel-toned edible gels.

Renee Suen - John Placko (2)

Before all that, Placko got into cooking as a way to make money as a teen in Australia. The surf shop he was working at was shutting down, so he went across the street to pick up a gig mopping floors at an Italian restaurant. He began moving up the ranks, making pizzas and Bolognese from scratch, and then working at other restaurants before enrolling in catering college. From there it snowballed into apprenticeships, competing at the Bocuse d'Or in 1989, and then moving to Canada where he began consulting for the country's biggest chain restaurant groups like Cara, which owns the national rotisserie chicken restaurant Swiss Chalet.

"It was one area of my career that I wasn't familiar with," he says. "A lot of product developers weren't necessarily good cooks; they were developers with a science background. So I brought some of that passion to the food and had them cook things that they haven't cooked before, like pastries."

'Working in the R&D department, you're working with things like carrageenan and sodium alginate, which restaurants like elBulli and The Fat Duck were using as well.'

"You're in an environment where you have 200 restaurants and you want each of them to duplicate a recipe the cooks have never done before," he says. "English may not also be their first language, so you have to do step-by-step photos but also push the envelope and not dumb down the recipes to where the food doesn't taste good."

He then spent three years as the corporate chef for the Campbell's soup company, trying to figure out ways to reduce the soups' sodium levels and coming up with recipes using its products. It might not sound like the culinary playground at a high-end restaurant, where chefs play with foams and hand-held smokers, but with limitation comes imagination.

"It's being creative but in a different way. It's challenging at times, when I was given a project to come up with specific consumer recipes. You have to think someone's coming home from work and they have 30, 40 minutes to make a meal for their family. You have to think [of] what will they always likely have in their pantry and how they can incorporate one product with what they already have."

While at a conference put on by the Culinary Institute of America in 2006, Placko was captivated by its keynote speaker, Ferran Adrià of elBulli. "I was blown away by the ingredients, the techniques. I had no idea what they were doing, but I knew it was the key in the top 50 restaurants in the world."

It was then that Placko started to buy the ingredients and equipment in hopes of replicating those dishes (and yes, he did eventually make the pilgrimage to elBulli). As he got more comfortable working with liquid nitrogen and creating spheres out of juices, he began teaching workshops and gave demonstrations to other chefs and culinary schools. Demand for his classes kept growing, so he quit the corporate side and went full-time teaching people how to cook modernist cuisine. While it seemed like a completely different world from cooking with Campbell's and luncheon meats, he found that those two extremes had a lot in common.

"I was exposed to a lot of ingredients used in food manufacturing that were also used a lot in molecular cuisine," he says. "Working in the R&D department, you're working with things like carrageenan and sodium alginate, which restaurants like elBulli and The Fat Duck were using as well."

"Ferran Adrià created melon caviar after visiting a factory where they were dropping sodium alginate-enhanced liquid into a calcium chloride bath, creating these little pearls," he continues. "The same principle is used by companies to create invisible sausage casing and seafood nuggets. A lot of the techniques came from manufacturing that are used today at a lot of these restaurants."

Placko later created a side company called Powder for Texture, selling starter kits for aspiring Grant Achatzs and ingredients like Crisp Film (to enhance the brittleness of batters), calcium chloride and sodium alginate (for liquid spheres), and Versawhip (for foams) in smaller amounts for the amateur home cook. "No one's going to buy a big jar of xanthan gum for $60, $70," he says. "So I made small tubs of molecular ingredients for students and people who just want to dabble. My goal is to educate people on molecular cuisine and let anyone who wants to try it do it, but at a lower cost."

Whether he's leading a classroom teaching people how to create foams or getting the cooks to work a new recipe across a hundred restaurants, Placko's goal is to demystify cooking at any level by getting at the fundamentals of food.