When it comes to my relationship with food and my relationship with science, I'm a little quirky. I'm avidly interested in both, but in general, I don't really want them to mix. I love reading about technology, and have reverence for the scientific method, but still have a soft spot for the story and drama of the kitchen. I'm pretty much willing to believe anything any grandma tells me about cooking, lab-tested or not (although, once, when my own grandma tried to tell me that the bugs that we discovered in a sealed bag of noghl, Persian almond candy, just appeared there (no mention of eggs or anything -- just appeared, out of nowhere), I had to raise an eyebrow). After all, generations of satisfied families can't be wrong.
But, when I was graciously invited to a talk and demonstration by Hervé This (pronounced 'Tees'), the father of molecular gastronomy, which is the study of the chemistry behind food and cooking, I jumped at the opportunity. Granted, as stated, I am a food luddite. But, I must admit, I'm fascinated. I had read about This a while back in this fascinating article about how, when you cook an egg at exactly 67C, the yolk turns, essentially, into Play-Doh. It's this combination of technology and whimsy -- the same combination that turns out 'olives' fabricated from olive puree at El Bullí, bound into spheres so that when you bite into them you get a burst of juice, or turns a short rib into a miniature forest wonderland at Alinea -- that catches my eye.
So I ditched the office for a couple hours to check it out. Before Mr. This entered the picture, I was already fascinated -- turns out that for a food-obsessed civilian like myself, the world of culinary school is pretty damn cool. The event took place at the California School of Culinary Arts, a Cordon Bleu academy right in Pasadena. As soon as I entered the parking lot, all over the place were droves of students in black checkered pants, white coats and hats. Aspiring chefs in all shapes and colors were everywhere, and it was pretty awesome. As I stepped into the building, the concentration of people in this uniform increased, and I slowly felt myself being on the outside of a rich culture. As I stepped into the bustling 'lab' -- a large kitchen with a presentation area complete with 2 flatscreen monitors hanging from the ceiling for Food-Network-like close-ups of the action -- I could sense a certain innate rhythm among the students (as well as their superiors, in fancier coats and taller toques), and I just did my best to stay out of their way.
Once the presentation began though, everyone in the room focused on the same thing: the spritely French man at the front of the class. Herve Thís is an extremely animated speaker. He talks fast, but you want to latch on to every word: he is, after all, the eminent expert on his field, and his passion for its details is obvious.
Through a slideshow presentation, we learned a bit about the history of molecular gastronomy, what it is and what it isn't. Mr. This emphasized the difference between molecular cooking, which is done in restaurants like Alinea and El Bullí, and molecular gastronomy,which is the gathering of knowledge through scientific experimentation. He's spent years breaking down the chemical compounds in all manner of vegetables, testing thousands of well-known kitchen wives' tales (putting to rest many of them, of course), and, as he puts it, 'playing' with food in very technologically sophisticated ways. His aim is often to deconstruct: Why do we sit on chairs to eat? Why do we use a whisk to whip things? (After all, an ultrasonic box gets the job done far more efficiently!) And more pointedly, why do we believe old masters like Brillat-Savarin? He was a lawyer, not a chef, and according to Mr. This, "this guy was lying all book long!"
Towards the end of the demo, things got a bit weird. Mr. This was proud to have come up with a simple formula from which we could extrapolate an infinite number of new recipes, and a bit later on, showed us photos of a machine that could be programmed to follow these recipes -- basically a robot chef.
So, do I think this is crazy? Not really. While I do respect the grannies, and I did find myself wondering throughout this presentation what Mr. This's mom must think of all this, I'm glad there are people taking food into more avant garde directions -- and getting positively giddy over finding a new compound in onions and not yet knowing what it is. And I have no doubt that if we paid attention to research by people like Hervé This, we'd gain tips to make our own cooking more efficent, more effective, and probably more tasty. Besides, the man is certainly not unhinged; he said it best himself: "Solving equations is easy. But the chef has to say I love you -- very difficult."