UAE chefs warn of dangers of using liquid nitrogen after Dubai incident

While it's a great cooking tool, experts say utmost care and proper training are needed when handling the chemical

June 29, Dubai, UAE, 2015:

Scoopi Cafe has a new twist one ice cream. It takes the dish in liquid form and uses liquid nitrogen to freeze into the scoops we're all familiar with. 

Seen here is the freezing process. 

Lee Hoagland/ The National

 *** Local Caption ***  LH2906_NITROGEN_ICE_CREAM_0009.JPG
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Ever since the term "molecular gastronomy" was coined by French chemist Herve This and Hungarian physicist Nicholas Kurti in 1988, the food science, which focuses on the chemical processes of cooking as opposed to traditional means, has been rising in popularity.

The style of cooking went mainstream in the 1990s and early 2000s, popularised by famous names such as British celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal, known for his experimental take on food.

One popular tool used in molecular gastronomy is liquid nitrogen, which, due to its extremely low temperature, makes it ideal to flash freeze and add texture to food. It's also used to give dishes a smoky visual effect, and has become popular among restaurants with menus that include theatrical presentations.

However, liquid nitrogen can also result in severe cold burns if not handled with care. The cryogenic fluid also needs to be stored in a thermally insulated container, as it immediately freezes any living tissue.

A high-end restaurant in Dubai apologised this week after a waiter accidentally spilt liquid nitrogen on a diner. The guest suffered minor burns when the liquid nitrogen fell down her back as waiters served at a nearby table, and had to receive emergency hospital treatment.

Chefs and restaurant operators in the UAE say the utmost care needs to be taken if liquid nitrogen is used for cooking or serving.

"Any contact with the vapour of liquid nitrogen can rapidly freeze skin tissue and eye fluid, resulting in cold burns, frostbite and permanent damage even by brief exposure," says Sanjay Vazirani, chief executive of Foodlink Global Restaurants & Catering Services.

"Also, drinking the liquid without full vapourisation can also cause severe damage to the tissues in the mouth, oesophagus and stomach. So everyone must ensure that if it is used, the chefs and servers are absolutely trained and mindful of the hazards, as it can be extremely dangerous or deadly if not handled properly."

Kevin Joshi, the director of marketing and PR at Atelier House Hospitality, says restaurants should avoid it entirely "unless it adds a strong value to the concept of the dish".

"It's a trend that peaked a few years ago and is no longer a novelty," he tells The National.

Kevin Joshi of Atelier House Hospitality says liquid nitrogen is a trend that peaked a few years ago and is no longer a novelty. Photo: Atelier House Hospitality

Joshi's company operates a number of restaurants in the UAE, including the Michelin-starred 11 Woodfire, Indian restaurant Mohalla and Marea Dubai, which serves Italian fare.

While none of these venues use liquid nitrogen, he has worked with restaurants that did.

"It is imperative that the process of handling and serving a dish with liquid nitrogen is designed keeping in mind the hazards of contact with guests, servers and chefs," he adds.

Chef Claudio Cardoso, director of culinary at SLS Dubai Hotel & Residences, says that liquid nitrogen is a great cooking tool and should not be used as more than that.

"Liquid nitrogen is an amazing component to elaborate mind-blowing recipes. I see it as a more recent cooking technique, which is underrated but also misused in most cases," he says.

"Not everyone has had safety training or even the understanding of this component and how dangerous it can be for safety in the work environment or [for] guests in general. It's important that anyone planning to use it does some research and training, so there are no unfortunate incidents."

Chef Claudio Cardoso says liquid nitrogen is a great cooking tool and should not be used as more than that. Photo: SLS Dubai Hotel

According to chef Praveen Singh, group executive head of Goldmead Hospitality, Dubai Municipality has established a list of dos and don'ts for the F&B industry when it comes to using liquid nitrogen.

But, he says, professionals must be individually responsible.

"Being extremely cautious and adhering to certain practices is all that is required to guarantee that we do not end up in an unfortunate turn of events with our employees or customers, thereby jeopardising our brand's reputation," he says.

Chef Vanessa Bayma says she prefers using dry ice, which is a lot safer than liquid nitrogen. Photo: CBC Consultancy and Events

Chef Vanessa Bayma, who runs CBC Consultancy and Events, says she and her team do not use liquid nitrogen for food presentations due to the safety risks.

"My team and I prefer working with dry ice which is now our signature cloud presentation. As it is not the actual liquid nitrogen, it is a lot safer for guests and we can focus on the food," she says.

Bayma says should the need for use of liquid nitrogen arise, it's always done at a safe distance.

"When requested by a client, we use liquid nitrogen only for a dramatic effect poured directly into water on the outskirts of the event space," she says. "We do ensure that our team takes precautions when working with liquid nitrogen like wearing the appropriate cryogenic gloves and other protective gear."

Updated: January 26, 2023, 1:04 PM