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Oct 17 2014

Where Science Meets Cuisine

Though today's avant-garde chefs are sometimes accused of turning their kitchens into scientific laboratories, there's no doubt that when a piece of meat is heated, the reaction that takes place is a chemical one. Science and cooking are processes that go hand-in-hand, now more than ever before


The link between science and cuisine is nothing new. Disciplines such as chemistry, physics, biology and botany have always been closely related to cooking. Debates about the existence of science-based cuisine or the controversy over the terms "molecular gastronomy" and "molecular cuisine"; have made the subject a topical one. To analyze it, we need to consider the approach adopted by certain chefs and other experts who want to know why things happen.

"I'm not interested in knowing what goes on inside an egg when I cook it. I only want it to taste good." This statement made by Santi Santamaría today sounds more like the sort of thing a gourmet would say, rather than a chef. Most of today's professionals are extremely interested in what goes on inside the ingredients. Chefs today are inquisitive because they feel knowledge can help them develop. Yet there are many questions that have no easy answer. And it is here that they resort to science: chemistry, biology, physics. And today's R&D+c, research and development applied to cooking, is one of the main contributions made to culinary history by the latest generation of chefs.

From Appert to Today

Up to the 19th century, it was scientists who had shown interest in the culinary world by making technological innovations for food preservation. In the early 19th century, master confectioner Nicolas Appert introduced "appertization", a technique for preserving food by heating it, after first bringing out his book L'Art de conserver, pendant plusieurs années, toutes les substances animales et végétales (Paris, 1810, The Art of Preserving all Kinds of Animal and Vegetable Substances for Several Years). In it, he described the research that won him an award from the French government for a system for preserving food for troops on the march. Half way through the same century, French engineer Ferdinand Carré brought out the first absorption refrigerator.

In the 20th century, cooks took the initiative and started to ask for assistance from technicians and scientists. In 1974, at the instigation of Jean and Pierre Troisgros, Georges Pralus showed how vacuum could prevent foie gras from shrinking during cooking. It was in the 1980's that the collaboration between chefs and scientists really blossomed. The parents of molecular gastronomy, French physical chemist Hervé This, a professor at the Sorbonne, and Hungarian-born, UK resident Nicholas Kurti (who back in 1969 had given a lecture at London's Royal Society entitled The Physicist in the Kitchen) announced that they intended to place science at the service of culinary creativity in the search for new flavors, textures and gastronomic experiences. They thus laid the foundations for part of contemporary cooking.

Almost at the same time, in 1984, professor Harold McGee published On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, the bible for many a chef. And it was during this same decade that Ferran Adrià and his team started to open up new paths in collaboration with scientists. His work was imitated by several Spanish chefs, and together they formed a movement that set trends all over the world.

Many subsequent events backed their initiatives. In 2005 in Italy, physicist Davide Cassi and chef Ettore Bocchia published Manifesto della Cucina Molecolare Italiana, helping coin the term "molecular cuisine". And the movement that relates science to cuisine has adopted this name internationally. All its participants maintain that once you understand the changes that take place in food, the only limits to cooking are set by the palate and the eye.

Spanish Creativity

In this context, the huge creativity of Spanish chefs propelled them into the lead of this international movement. But they are not alone there. Other chefs such as Heston Blumenthal, Pierre Gagnaire, Grant Achatz and Massimo Bottura are all working along similar lines.

Although molecular cuisine first sparked the interest of Ferran Adrià back in the 1980's, his research made a lasting mark on the international scene, where he is still today considered the leader, and in Spain, because he was followed by chefs such as Joan Roca, who, in the early '90s, started to experiment with low temperature cooking, and eventually created the Roner thermostat.

In the 21st century the movement spread, with landmarks being set by Andoni Aduriz in collaboration with Granada University professor of pathological anatomy Raimundo García del Moral for their work on foie gras, and by Dani García also with García del Moral, for the culinary use of liquid nitrogen.

To reflect what was going on in kitchens and laboratories, in 2004 the first interdisciplinary meeting on molecular cuisine was held in Spain. "What can science teach cooking?" was the question asked by chemists, chefs, physicists, sommeliers, food scientists and other specialists at the Universidad del Mar in Murcia (southeast Spain). Many of the famous names were there: Adrià, Aduriz, García, Roca, This, Cassi, Castells (the chemist in charge of gastronomic and scientific research for the Alicia Foundation).

The elBulli Method

Chefs have always created new dishes. But they have been doing it in their restaurants, without moving away from the production process and often being creative for practical reasons. But in late 1998, Oriol Castro and Albert Adrià , the research team at elBulli , separated creativity from production, creating the first culinary research workshop.

"We had always created dishes," explains Ferran Adrià, "but we did it in the kitchen. But then things reached bursting point. We were bringing out so many new recipes that we had to separate the innovative part from the everyday cooking for the restaurant." At the start, Oriol and Albert continued to work on the same premises as the rest of the team, but then they moved to Talaia until in 2000. It was then that the elBulli laboratory was opened, with a team of 6-7 people working exclusively on product research and creative development.

"From then on, everything became even more complicated and the team became multidisciplinary. Eventually, the scientific workshop under Pere Castells had to go its own way because of the costs involved, and because there was not much point in its working for a single restaurant. That was when we set up the Alicia (Alimentación y Ciencia, Food and Science) Foundation, a workshop open to any chefs who want to come along."

Alicia is an atypical research center. Pere Castells, who is in charge of its gastronomic and scientific research department, explains what makes it different. "Here, science is at the service of cooking, not the other way round as, for example, in the case of Hervé This. In Spain, it's the chefs that decide and the scientists are here to find the tools, the solutions the chefs need."

"To tell the truth," says Adrià, "it doesn't surprise me that there are so few restaurants in the world with their own workshops, separate from the restaurant. It's tremendously expensive. The annual cost is no less than 250,000 euros, so the best way of doing things is in collaboration with universities and research centers. Basically, what you really need in cooking are ideas, creativity. Science and techniques are just there as a back-up, allowing chefs to convert their dreams into reality. A means, never an end in themselves."

Although Spain continues in the lead in so-called "scientific cooking" and the techniques developed by Spanish chefs (foams, airs, spherification, veils, distillates, smoke) are now used by hundreds of their colleagues all over the world, from Denmark to Australia, in 2007 elBulli changed its strategy. The focus on creativity turned back to products. "From 2003 to 2006 we were working on hydrocolloids, magical substances that allowed us to achieve fantastic changes in food textures," explains Adrià.

"It was a great experience, but then we analyzed what we had done and found we could go no further. We had hoped for more, but we came to a dead end and had to focus once more on products. In this field Xatruch is amazing. He knows everything, he knows the producers, the varieties, what you can do with every type of product. Since 2008, we've been working with products from Japan, following the same method that we've always used. We take a product and experiment with it as far as we can go. It's another way of researching, creating. It's very basic, but very exciting."

Eco-chefs and Environmental Research

Now that the mystique of technology seems to have faded, chefs all over the world have turned their attention to products from near and far. Eco-cuisine is now the talk of the town. Its followers include Rene Redzepi (Noma, in Copenhagen), Dan Barber (Blue Hill, in New York) and Peter Gilmore (Quay, in Sydney). This path was taken a while ago by some chefs, such as Josean Martínez Alija. Instead of wearing a chemist-chef hat, he is more of a biologist-chef. His research aims above all to study the culinary results of local produce, especially vegetables: leek, tomato, onion, cardoon, celery, teardrop peas, etc.

"A chef is not a researcher and a kitchen is not a laboratory. What I want is light, healthy cooking, with the emphasis on flavor and aroma", says Martínez Alija. "I search for the best possible produce for my dishes." This is a new approach to luxury, one that rejects elitist products, preferring simple ingredients treated in just the right way to bring out maximum flavor and texture. The Guggenheim restaurant's creative team includes chefs, biologists and food scientists, five of them in total, all working on tracking down and comparing the best products.

Rodrigo de la Calle is another of the young eco-chefs and is committed to sustainable cuisine and environmental research. He works alongside Santiago Orts, a biologist and the owner of Viveros Huerto de Elche. Together they have carried out some interesting work, what they call "datology", the use of dates in cuisine, and "gastrobotany", the culinary use of "desert vegetables", those that grow in extremely dry conditions and take on unexpected qualities once cooked.

"I don't have a workshop, nor could I afford it. What I do is field work. I started out with Orts in Elche, but now I've started some projects in the Aranjuez valley where my restaurant is located. The idea is to recover and relaunch some of Madrid's best traditional crops: strawberries, asparagus," says De la Calle.

Along these same lines is the research carried out by other chefs, such as Paco Roncero, who has studied olive oil; María José San Román and her analysis of how saffron behaves in different conditions; Koldo Rodero with red cardoon and other vegetables from the Navarran market gardens, and Ángel León and his studies into marine plankton.

Research and Abstraction

Products were also the starting point for Quique Dacosta. He did some magnificent work on rice and laid it out in a book called just that, Rice; he also studied aloe vera, Stevia rebaudiana and microgreens and sprouts. Sometimes research goes so far as to inspire new icons. The final objective of such creative digressions is aesthetic beauty. That is when products take on a different purpose, being transformed and becoming minerals, landscapes, paintings, all the while retaining every bit of their flavor, aroma and texture. It is this search for magic that inspires the creative work done by Dacosta and his team.

"What we have is more of a creative studio than a scientific or research workshop," he explains. "Chefs are chefs, not scientists. Science is one of the tools we can use, but we try not to be dogmatic about it." The studio has existed physically at El Poblet since 2006, when it moved out of the restaurant. Heading it is Juanfran Valiente, who has worked with Dacosta for ten years. The last few years have seen many advances, especially in new lines for culinary expression based on artistic movements such as essentialism, mimicry and expressionism applied to cuisine. He admits: "There are very few cooks in the world who really do research. It's too expensive and completely new paths are difficult to find. But you never know what working with scientists and researchers might lead to. It's really fascinating!"

Intellectual Commitment

Andoni L. Aduriz has always been in favor of linking gastronomy with other disciplines perhaps with the intuition that this might give added dignity to cooking. This non-conformist approach was made plain at the Dialogues on Cuisine congress that he established. Held in early 2009 in San Sebastian under the auspices of Euro-Toques, prestigious speakers discussed the current state of research and development and the future of cuisine intertwined with other disciplines.

By way of written proof of the important role Spain has been playing in haute cuisine in recent years, Aduriz has embarked on an exciting project for a gastronomic and scientific journal to be produced in collaboration with the prestigious publishing house Elsevier, and AZTI-Tecnalia and Alicia. The idea is to offer gastronomic information and culture to an international readership of not just chefs but also scientists. Since 2006, Aduriz has been working with AZTI-Tecnalia on the publication of a bulletin on science and gastronomy, available at www.cienciaygastronomia.com.

At Mugaritz, research and development are key driving forces. "The more you do, the more difficult things get. I'm very slow. I can take up to four years to finalize a dish, and this gives rise to problems galore, including that of being copied. Many people might think it ridiculous to talk about culinary espionage but it is frankly disheartening to find that a colleague somewhere, maybe thousands of miles away, has taken over a development that you've been working on for years. This has happened to us several times. About a hundred chefs work in our kitchen every year. So, to avoid it, and since you can't patent a dish or a technique, anyone coming to work at Mugaritz is asked to sign a confidentiality agreement, just as if they were employed by a technology company."

This year, in collaboration with Porto-Muiños, a company producing all sorts of marine crops, but mainly seaweed, the Mugaritz team is exploring the potential of halophytes that grow along the coast, such as sea asparagus, sea purslane and others.

The lab at Mugaritz functions independently from the restaurant, with Dani Lasa, Aduriz's right-hand man, in charge. Chef Javier Vergara and chemist Gemma work in collaboration with other specialists (pharmacists, botanists) as required. "We know this is going to grow. The workshop has to maintain itself and not depend on the restaurant."


In cuisine, research also leads to the invention of new devices, mechanisms and methods. Key inventors are the Roca brothers, who transformed a laboratory apparatus into an essential tool for contemporary cuisine, the Roner thermostat, making it possible to control the temperature of cooking water with total precision. Also, with the help of the Alicia Foundation and the company ICC, they converted a rotary evaporator into the Rotaval, for producing distillates. All these achievements form part of the history of modern cooking.

Their workshop is located in what was their restaurant, which has moved to more luxurious premises. The youngest of the three, Jordi, head of research, works with a couple of chefs on the ideas suggested by his brothers Joan and sommelier Josep. Once they start following up an idea, they like to do things thoroughly, which explains why they are still working on lines of research they started up many years ago: perfume-themed desserts, cooking with wine, smoke as a vehicle for aromas, sous-vide cooking, etc. And they have also opened up a new field of study for the extraction of essential oils.

The link between science and cuisine is nothing new. Disciplines such as chemistry, physics, biology and botany have always been closely related to cooking Julia Pérez/©ICEX
Translation: Jenny McDonald/©ICEX
Where Science Meets Cuisine
Where Science Meets Cuisine
Where Science Meets Cuisine
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