The Kitchen as a Laboratory

At this time of year my thoughts begin to turn to food, as of course do many other people’s. As a chemist however, I can’t help but think about food from a scientific perspective. One of the most interesting trends, to my mind at least, is the way that food science has come into the public’s consciousness through the high-end cuisine of ‘molecular gastronomy’ — even if, like cooking science doyen Harold McGee, I find the name a little daft . I thus really enjoyed the Netflix series “Chef’s Table”, both as a collection of character portraits and as a showcase for really astonishing food. As someone who is unlikely to eat at any of the featured restaurants and thus get a chance to sample the foods for real, I enjoyed the chance to see the creativity of the cooking that is available.

One thread that ran through all six episodes were the individual philosophies of each of the chefs — they all believe, to adapt the words of Derek Zoolander , that “there’s more to cheffing than cooking really really really ridiculously good food”. These ranged from the extreme, radical freedom espoused by the Argentinian chef Francis Mallman (Episode 3) to the intensely personal service of Niki Nakayama (Episode 4). The ideas which resonated most with me, however were those that aimed for change outside of high-end restaurants. This was best exemplified in Episode 2, which focussed on the American chef Dan Barber, who is known for his devotion to high quality local ingredients. His search for the best did not just consist of finding the best vegetables that currently exist: he also, in collaboration with Michael Mazourek, a plant scientist at Cornell, aimed to develop new, and better tasting, strains. This project seems to have much in common with ‘molecular gastronomy’, that is, applying our understanding of the world around to not only make food cheaper or healthier, but also to improve its taste.

‘Molecular gastronomy’ has taken the huge advances in cooking and food preparation created by ‘culinary modernism’ - to use the phrase of food historian Rachel Laudan in her excellent essay and repurposed them for high ends. The techniques that make the food you buy from the supermarket or the mass market lager you drink the safest, cheapest, and reliably the most average tasting foods in history, are now being applied to create new and remarkable foods. For example - the consistency of many ice creams and synthetic cherries are guaranteed by the use of gelling agents, but these same techniques and ingredients are used in the ‘spherification’ that was the trademark of Feria Adria at El Bulli. Much of what has be done using these techniques can be thought of as frivolous - but I think what they highlight is that what industrial and technical advances in food don’t inevitably lead to ever more bland food. We have a choice about what to do with our new found skills. Mass produced food has improved, and can continue to improve. My hope is that high cuisine at its best can act as a laboratory for the development of better food. Vienetta for all!

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