From my first bite at The Cooking Lab in Seattle, I knew I was tasting the future of food. The brainchild of Nathan Myhrvold, former Chief Technology Officer at Microsoft and current CEO at Intellectual Ventures, the Lab brings together world-class scientists and chefs to explore the science underlying everything that we eat. Their findings are not only pushing the boundaries of our understandings of food but also bring out some of the purest and most intense flavors already present in the simplest of ingredients. From vegetable soups run through centrifuges that contain no uneccessary fat for flavor to the perfectly cooked hamburger (hint: it involves liquid nitrogen), the findings of this lab are revolutionizing the possibilities of cooking and eating.
This past week I had another opportunity to taste this delicious science and was honored to welcome Chef Maxime Bilet into my Harlem Kitchens. Co-author of the Cooking Lab’s James Beard Award Winning Cookbook Modernist Cuisine, Bilet demonstrated the new levels of flavor and intricacy these techniques can bring to food. While our dinner event blew everyone away with its reinvention of classic comfort foods (more aerated scrambled eggs please!), I saw the real power of these ideas at a cooking demonstration we hosted for a group of children from the nearby Harlem Children’s Storefront school. Equipped with gadgets, goggles, and a dewar of liquid nitrogen, Bilet showed us all how a scientific understanding of cooking can improve the wholesomeness of foods without compromising any of the taste. In preparing macaroni and cheese, the Chef demonstrated that simply adding a pinch of sodium citrate, a common salt compound, to any high quality cheese can give it the creaminess of popular processed varieties; preparing the dessert course of apple pie ice cream, Bilet emphasized that the same smooth texture of a store bought variety can be reproduced with minimal fat simply by freezing the ingredients with liquid nitrogen. These are only a few of the multitude of insights a science of cooking has to offer.
Although I consider cooking one of the highest of artforms, each recipe really is an experiment unto itself, refined and renewed with trial and error, trial and error. While an intensive technology of food might initally seem far off or or intimidating, associated with the haute cuisine of visionaries like Ferran Adria and showcased in the widely publicized “Science and Cooking” course, a rigorous view of food has been applied for decades by the likes of Chris Kimball and his team at America’s Test Kitchen. Modernist Cuisine is something that bridges that gap, applying cutting edge science for the at-home cook. As Maxime himself stated, “in Modernist Cuisine I wanted to codify it and to give people access to a set of formulas that give them the confidence; that they know that there is a recipe there that they can follow and from there they can experiment.” We may not all have all the same immersion blenders and rotary evaporators at our disposal, but the knowledge this kind of innovation produces is something we can all use.
What I took away from these experiences is that the conscientious application of a little science to the art of cooking can improve how we all eat. We just need to foster more collaboration and a greater willingness to experiment with the tools we have at our disposal. Although resistance to these ideas about cooking may be greater in my generation, I am not worried about the next group of chefs and eaters. While the kids filed into our cooking demonstration quietly, they could hardly reign in their enthusiasm by the time the event was over, leaving genuinely excited about food, about cooking, about science. (Watching vegetables frozen in liquid nitrogen get smashed on my restaurant floor probably didn’t hurt either.) When I asked one what he wanted to be when he grew up, he replied, “I want to be a chef! No, a scientist! No, a physicist!” Thanks to the future Modernist Cuisine heralds, he can probably be both.