Fuse Food Commentary: The Fauvists of Cuisine — Test Tube or Taste Test?

Molecular gastronomy, the application of scientific principles to the understanding of domestic and gastronomic food principles is shaking up the food world harder than Shake ‘n Bake.

Science and Cooking

Science & Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to the Science of Soft Matter — Harvard Chows Down on the Future.

By Stuart Kurtz

Your waiter has just arrived to prepare your bacon and eggs at tableside…don’t scream when he pulls out the tank of liquid nitro to fog up your table. No, you are not on a movie set. And the dish is far from your usual breakfast grub — it is bacon ice cream on a slice of real bacon sitting on slices of caramelized French toast. And those eggs are cooked right there in the nitro. Heston Blumenthal is getting away with this at The Fat Duck, his palace of degustation in Bray, England. Maybe the Euro Set is eating up (so to speak) the new molecular gastronomy, but how does it dish out in proper Boston, the place of Fannie Farmer and Julia Child?

“Molecular gastronomy is a catchy term, but this is applications of food science going on for years. Only now are they applied to cooking unique dishes that fetch a hefty price,” says Guy Crosby, science editor for TV’s America’s Test Kitchen.

Molecular gastronomy, the application of scientific principles to the understanding of domestic and gastronomic food principles is shaking up the food world harder than Shake ‘n Bake.

First used by Nicholas Kurti in workshops he led and that were organized by Elizabeth Cawdry Thomas in Erice, Sicily in 1992 and called ‘molecular gastronomy’ by Hungarian physicist, Hervé This, the practices have transcended the realm of fad and may be the wave of the future. Blumenthal, Ferran Adrià, Harold McGee, Thomas Keller, and other future chefs have become the Fauvists of cuisine.

And there is now a rush to find a seat in the classroom as well as in the restaurants. For the third year Harvard is finishing up its Science & Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to the Science of Soft Matter class through the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the Alicia Foundation. The celebrity appeal posed by visiting wizards of the stew pot forced the professor to admonish students, “This is a science class!” In case students didn’t catch the drift, week nine’s subject was the delectable Soils & Microbes. If that doesn’t start your engines how about — Catalytic Conversion: Enzymes in the Kitchen? That was offered on Monday, November 11 as part of this year’s Science and Cooking Lecture Series, which was attached to the class but open to the public. Ferran Adrià of elBulli Foundation, José Andrés of minibar and Jaleo, and Bill Yosses, White House pastry chef, have appeared as guest speakers. elBulli was considered the finest restaurant in the world and a leader in the new methods until its closing in 2011.

Skeptics who may not want to exchange their sterno can for a Bunsen Burner, should speak to Paula Waxman of Wiches of Boston in Weston, a purveyor (strictly for parties) of liquid nitrogen ice cream. The tank of smoking nitro brings in the crowds, she says, but the taste appeal comes from the rapid process of creating dessert at minus 320° Fahrenheit, which eliminates the need for stabilizers, starches, and eggs, preventing air and ice crystals from taking hold. And, no, the nitro will not freeze your tongue.

Hydrocolloid gels and foams, pressure probes, melting powders, vacuum cooking, and blow torch cooking evoke Jimmy Neutron rather than James Beard. The Fat Duck goes beyond that, offering to strap on a pair of headphones playing sounds of the sea while you suck down bay oysters. The aural sensation is supposed to “amplify” the taste of the oysters. That is also part of the new-fangled groove – the appeal to other senses than taste. It’s the way Adria expected his patrons to play with their coils of oil as if they were Slinkies. It’s the diabolical sound the foam on your margarita makes when waiters grate Himalayan salt into it.

In an era when computer programs plan buildings down to the last bolt, it was only a matter of time before science made its way into the kitchen. And if you think humans have reached their gustatory limits, read the November 23, 2009 issue of The New Yorker called “The Taste Makers: The Secret World of Factory Flavors,” that serves up the news that scientists have discovered taste receptors in the intestines.

With the trend-setting Blumenthal teasing diners with grain mustard ice cream, diners in Boston must choose between trad and rad.

As The New Yorker article states, Givaudan, a flavoring company in Cincinnati, created a line of “melting powders” that chemically approximate the flavor (via molecular breakdown) of the entrées of Boston chef Todd English. The powders liquefy when sprinkled on food. That is the rad.

The trad would be the likes of Baked George’s Bank Scrod at Henrietta’s Table in the Charles Hotel, Cambridge, MA. Bridging this opposition is the approach of Crosby. Host Christopher Kimball calls upon Crosby for science factoids.

Dr. Crosby introduced Gabriel Axel’s film, Babette’s Feast in 2009, to a Coolidge Theater audience in Brookline, a suburb of Boston and home to the show America’s Test Kitchen. He described how the film has all the earmarks of Auguste Escoffier, who codified French cookery in 1903. The film, he explains, represents the five tastes of sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami – a late addition describing the savory flavor you get by combining glutamates and nucleotides. Glutamates are in Parmesan and mushrooms; nucleotides are in foul or meats.

In the science segments of the show, Dr. Crosby and his predecessor present short lessons on kitchen science that are a far cry from the cryogenics across The Pond. They explain we all have different numbers of taste buds. Some of us hardly taste, and some are super tasters. The lesson in one segment was on how fat molecules make meat seem tender when they slip between the fibers of meat, making the flesh easier to pull apart.

On the new Weird Science of food, the good doctor takes a practical approach, worthy of the Yankee setting of the show. He believes home cooks can apply some of the general principles of scientific cooking. “Passion and intuition will always be important. We all have certain comfort foods we like. It doesn’t matter how they’re made. If foods have good appeal, texture, flavor, people will always eat them,” argues Crosby, responding to the question of whether the new techniques will leave traditional cooking behind.

At Clio restaurant in The Eliot Hotel Sous Chef, Zach Watkins explains how a chicken dish is prepared by compressing (cryo-vac-ing) it in a vacuum bag at 72° with buttermilk under sous–vide (vacuum). “For our Foie gras Torchon,” he goes on, “We take the foie and cure it overnight with a salt mixture. Then we cryo-vac and sous-vide it for a short cooking time. Then it comes out of the bag, and we roll it into the circular torchon shape and then chill it. You can apply that to anything to get evenly cooked food. Cryo-vac circulates the flavors so much better than any other method.” Fish or meat are cooked at the same temperature, so you don’t have a tender (or pink for meat) inside and gray outside.

Then there is the issue of whether laboratory techniques will be able to perfectly replicate a recipe. Dr. Crosby asks, “If it looks and tastes good – Is that perfect?” While he doesn’t completely agree with Crosby’s definition of perfection, David Rodriguez, Watkins’ predecessor at Clio, and Crosby share the idea that traditional cooking will not disappear. Rodriguez asserts that even the new wonder chefs need classical training. “You have to stay true to [the food]. Everything is going to come around anyway,” argues Rodriguez. The masters are not tossing out Mother’s tried and true methods.


L’Espalier’s Jared Bacheller — when does cooking become a science?

Jared Bacheller, pastry chef at L’Espalier, thought by many to be Boston’s best restaurant, currently utilizes methocel a4c to stabilize tuiles for crispness. “These days it’s hard to say what is what. The lines are blurred with what’s ‘scientific cooking’ and normal in restaurant kitchens,” says Bacheller. His predecessor, Jiho Kim, used about 40 chemicals – most gel-based – to create delicacies. The caramel custard Campari caviar (faux caviar), was made possible by having sodium alginate dropped into a calcium base. Encapsulation occurs, meaning a skin forms around each “caviar” ball.

Mouths have watered from the Isaki grunt with Kalamansi foam and candied yuzu kosho at Clio, yet you can still find a mean prime rib at Durgin Park. The crusty, no-nonsense approach to food still rules in Boston, which is why the city is such fertile ground for the new wave that is catching on around the culinary world. That slab of beef is not going to fizzle out into foam any time soon — but better eating through chemistry is not going to go away.

Stuart Kurtz is a published free-lance writer since 2006. He is known for arts reviews. His poetry and drama are now being published and produced. In October, 2012, North Park Vaudeville in San Diego presented his play Hey, Pete, There Must be Some Mistake. He was the only American reporter to cover Toronto’s Scotiabank Nuit Blanche in 2009. Available for hire at writerstuartk@gmail.com. His blog can be found here.

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