These days, it's not uncommon for chefs to dabble in chemistry, teasing flavors and textures out of food by altering molecules using devices more commonly found in laboratories than kitchens. But in Kyoto, Japan, nine chefs and three scientists are deconstructing decades of cooking techniques to find the perfect way to poach fish, preserve eel, and prepare every ingredient on a three Michelin-starred menu. It's the scientific method as applied to traditional recipes.
It's the scientific method as applied to traditional recipes.
Unlike Western takes on molecular gastronomy — Ferran Adrià's elBulli museum comes to mind, as does Nathan Myhrvold's modernist cuisine lab — these new studies in Japan are more about preserving and codifying ancient techniques than exploring ways of bending the rules in the kitchen.
Most of the experiments happen at the "Japanese Cuisine Laboratory" at Kyoto University's school of agriculture under the guidance of Tohru Fushiki, professor of nutrition chemistry, and "a leading researcher on oishisa, or tastiness." Fushiki leads students in months-long experiments to find, for example, the optimum temperature at which to poach abalone (140 to 148 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on usage, it turns out).
Fushiki's diligent work has attracted the curiosity of some of Japan's most highly acclaimed chefs. Motokazu Nakamura, a three Michelin-starred institution in Kyoto, is run by its namesake chef who is the sixth generation to cook within its 190-year-old walls.
Though he operates as most Japanese chefs do with their cooks, "where a chef's secrets can be passed down only to one son and heir," Nakamura realizes that this is not the future of cuisine. Even he doesn't know why he prepares dishes the way he does — except that he is simply repeating the same process over and over. Knowing the science behind a dish reinforces the techniques used to create it. And, in the eyes of this group of scientists and chefs, this science can lead to a more perfect plate of food.