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Dave Arnold and Harold McGee Bust Food Myths at Harvard

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Photos: Rachel Leah Blumenthal / Eater

Harvard University's annual Science & Cooking public lecture series brings chefs from around the world to lecture on the intersection of science and cooking. And Eater Boston editor Rachel Leah Blumenthal is on the scene. This week: Dave Arnold (Booker and Dax) and Harold McGee ("On Food & Cooking: The Science & Lore of the Kitchen.")

Harvard's Science & Cooking lecture series launched its fifth season last night, bringing world-renowned chefs and scientists to Cambridge, Massachusetts to give weekly talks to the public. In all, there will be fourteen lectures. First up, veterans of the series: Dave Arnold of Booker and Dax (a New York City bar in the Momofuku empire) and Harold McGee, an author who literally wrote the book on science and cooking — the definitive On Food & Cooking: The Science & Lore of the Kitchen, which was originally published in 1984.

The Discovery of a New Dish

As with all the lectures, Harvard's Michael Brenner, Glover Professor of Applied Mathematics and Applied Physics, gave the introduction. He led with a famous quote from Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin: "The discovery of a new dish confers more happiness on humanity than the discovery of a new star." (Brillat-Savarin published his book, Physiologie du Goût (The Physiology of Taste), in 1825. Nowadays, it's available for free on the internet.)

The quote set the stage well for the series in general but in particular for last night's talk, which was dubbed "A Look at the Last 20 Years." In it, Arnold and McGee reviewed the past several decades in the ever-growing sphere of science and cooking, pinpointing some of the key players and musing about the next big obsessions in the field (spoiler alert: fermentation). This year, the duo didn't do any demonstrations; last year, Arnold caused an evacuation of the hall due to a malfunctioning cereal-puffing cannon.

"This is what people think I do. This is a load of crap."

In fact, the return to a less "spectacular" show formed the thesis of the talk. Why, wondered McGee, does it seem necessary to put on a flashy show to talk about food and science? Underneath the things that fizz or explode or taste like one thing but look like another, what is the substantial core of information that will actually be relevant a decade down the road?

"Molecular" cooking — and that's a term they both dislike, by the way — is perceived a certain way. Arnold showed a video of the making of a cocktail that involved fluid gels, allowing one side of the drink to be hot and one side to be cold. Then, it was all topped with a Campari foam. And then, text on the screen: This is a load of crap. "This is what people think I do for a living," said Arnold, while in reality, he describes the drinks he actually makes as "hyper-simple."

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A Subject Without an Audience

McGee ushered in the beginning of this era of interest in the science of food when he began writing about it in the late 1970s. "I couldn't get a job doing anything else, and I was desperate," he said. "I saw a niche and wrote a book." When On Food & Cooking came out in 1984, "it really was a subject without an audience at that point," he said. "It had to develop." But soon, it was the younger generation of cooks who began to pick up on it. Rather than spend years and years working their way up to opening their own places in the traditional ways, here was a new frontier in food, a way to learn how things worked and maybe an opportunity to break out on their own sooner.

In 1992, McGee co-organized what came to be called (much to his dismay now) the International Workshop on Molecular and Physical Gastronomy. It was basically a marketing term, he explained last night, meant to make the topic sound less soft when they pitched the idea to the Ettore Majorana Center for Scientific Culture in Sicily, where the workshop was held. Five more workshops occurred between then and 2004, but they "only gave the term 'molecular' to what followed," said McGee. The meetings were very small and talked of improvement in cooking through scientific understanding — but no sign of the innovation that marks the field today. (McGee has published an interesting account of the history of the workshops on his website, including letters among the organizers.)

Then came Ferran Adrià to change the face of the industry. He "realized that science would be a very important tool" in doing things completely differently than anything that was already being done. Meanwhile, in the United States, chefs like Mario Batali and Emeril Lagasse were making waves — not using science, but serving a similar purpose as Adrià: they were also raising up the image of the chef. "All of a sudden the chef was becoming a public figure," said McGee.

"You can use knowledge not just to make a better French fry or pizza but also for whackadoodle stuff."

Meanwhile, Arnold was on his own path to discovering the intersection of food and science (with a background in neither). He was buying up restaurant equipment to mess around with at home, making, for example, a periscope to film inside of his deep fryer and finding a way for his oven to cook at 800 degrees. Eventually, Wylie Dufresne — renowned for his "molecular" cooking — told Arnold: "You can use knowledge not just to make a better French fry or a better pizza but to also do whackadoodle stuff."

Arnold warned last night that there's a "thin veneer of science" put over a lot of cooking these days. The problem is that once there's an explanation, it "closes down further avenues of discovery." It's too easy to get boxed into thinking you understand something. Rather than accept an explanation and move on, cooks need to learn to observe phenomena and figure out how to control them.

To demonstrate what that means, the duo discussed several hypotheses that they tested in a short course they taught together at the French Culinary Institute in New York, where they performed something like 50 demonstrations in three days.

Disproving Common Knowledge

Mushrooms and Pan Temperature
Most books tell you that the pan needs to be hot when you saute mushrooms; otherwise, they release too much moisture as the pan heats up, and you end up stewing them instead. But as it turns out, the mushrooms that start in a cold pan — and more importantly, a crowded pan — are the real crowd-pleasers. They don't absorb as much oil as mushrooms that are added to a hot pan, and as it turns out, oily mushrooms don't taste as good as non-oily mushrooms. "Why do you hate mushrooms?" Arnold now demands of anyone he sees not crowding mushrooms in the pan. "You must crowd the mushrooms."

"You must crowd the mushrooms."

Arnold wrote about a variation of this demonstration on his blog in 2009, focusing on wetness vs. dryness, but not pan temperature. The key is that the wet mushrooms (soaked before cooking) aren't absorbing oil while they're giving off moisture, and by the time all the moisture is gone, the mushrooms have become less porous — and less ready to absorb oil. Meanwhile, the dry mushrooms start absorbing oil as soon as they hit the pan. So, the wetter and soupier the mushrooms, the better. (You could also just vacuum compress them first to close down the pores, noted Arnold at last night's lecture, "but who the hell has time for that?")

Preventing the Browning of Guacamole
Another demonstration from that course involved whether putting the avocado pit in a bowl of guacamole would prevent browning. It's really just about blocking oxygen, and as it turns out, only Saran Wrap (that one specific brand) is very effective at doing that — or at least it used to be. While that had worked in the past, the demonstration failed during the course because once Saran was acquired by S.C. Johnson & Son, they began to manufacture the wrap out of polyethylene (like all the other brands) instead of polyvinylidene chloride, increasing Saran Wrap's permeability to oxygen (and thus decreasing its ability to keep food fresher longer).

Tender Octopus, Thanks to Cork
The duo also explored why cooking octopus with a cork keeps it tender, but they never figured that one out. "Yeah, we don't get it," admitted McGee, laughing.

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The Same Flavors, Different Forms

Next, McGee and Arnold touched on multiple big names in science who are known for "molecular" cooking, showing different ways science can be used in cooking other than "making spectacular things" à la Ferran Adrià. It can help cooks think creatively by allowing them to understand what is happening. "There's no such thing as modernist cooking," said McGee. "There are lots of cooks using science to do different things."

A lot of people lump together Grant Achatz (Alinea) and Dufresne (wd~50 and Alder), for example, because of their scientific approaches to cooking. But those approaches and those goals are actually totally different, Arnold explained, taking the perspective of a diner.

"There's no such thing as modernist cooking."

Dufresne, who keeps "insane" notes and loves experiments, lets his obsession with hydrocolloids come out in his menu, while Achatz seems to have more theatrical goals that don't necessarily rely on detailed knowledge of particular reactions. Dufresne uses gelling agents extensively in order to create funny dishes with familiar names, "giving you the same flavors in completely different forms." There are his signature shrimp noodles, for example — "kind of a revelatory, baller move," said Arnold. Basically, he creates pasta that is entirely made of shrimp, thanks to transglutaminase, otherwise known as "meat glue."

Meanwhile, Achatz is more likely to be found forming perfect squares of sauce on a silicone-edged surface. Both think scientifically but achieve very different results and styles.

Heston Blumenthal (The Fat Duck) is part of this class too. Like Dufresne, he plays a lot with hydrocolloids, but his dishes strive to involve as many of the senses as possible, invoking theatrical elements like earbuds (served in a sea shell) that you put in while eating Sound of the Sea, allowing you to actually listen to a recording of sea sounds.

Science Is Control Over Food

"How much control does the chef want to exert over the dining experience?" asked Arnold. In today's restaurants, chefs — the right chefs, anyway — can get away with things like this. It's more acceptable than ever for chefs to be control freaks and to create these entire experiences. Diners won't feel tricked when they encounter these kinds of dishes, as long as that's the reputation that that particular chef has built. There are some "P.T. Barnum hucksters," said Arnold, who will latch onto whatever's marketable, using science gimmicks for the sake of using science gimmicks, but chefs like Achatz, Dufresne, and Blumenthal seem to have more of an "inner reason" to use science.

Arnold, for his part, does some things out of sheer curiosity while other research is more technique-driven, allowing him to develop methods and equipment that he uses again and again. On the just-because side, there's live-infusion of oysters, for example. Inspired by a quote from the movie "Night Shift" where a character muses that feeding mayonnaise to live tuna would be a good time-saver, Arnold wanted to infuse oysters with flavors. It has to be done with the right size particles so as not to suffocate the oyster, and the type of infusion is very important as well. Acids, for example, will kill the oyster. He experimented with flavors like dashi and dill, beets and bacon, and, most successfully, carrots and cardamom.

On the more practical side, Arnold has been working on figuring out how to get the citrus juices at the bar to taste the same consistently without measuring acidity with a pH meter. Humans actually taste molarity more than pH, so the important thing to measure is how many acid molecules are present. Citric, malic, and tartaric acids all have fairly similar molar masses, which simplifies the process. Ultimately, Arnold can make orange juice taste like lime juice with the right concentrations of the right acids. You just "have to know enough to use the right instruments and measure the right crap," said Arnold.

Backing Up Cooking With Science

In some cases, chefs intuitively have a better understanding of a phenomenon than scientists. Observations of ingredient behaviors can provide pretty solid proofs, McGee explained. Arnold and McGee presented the case of Ike Jime, a Japanese fish-killing technique that involves ablation of the spine. Japanese chefs have known for years that this technique results in the best-tasting fish, but Arnold, McGee, David Chang, and even a neurobiologist they consulted, Bob Datta, initially had one word for it: "Bullshit."

But one day they decided to experiment with it, bringing in a sushi chef and killing a bunch of fish in a bunch of different ways. ("Gotta kill a fish to eat it, people," laughed Arnold, in response to a bit of a gasp from the lecture audience at this point in the story.) The result? Those who practice Ike Jime are definitely onto something.

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In part, it has to do with the appetizing topic of rigor mortis. (In general, most fish actually tastes better after rigor mortis has already come and gone. It's a bit of a myth that the absolute freshest fish is the best.) Muscles run on an energy source called adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is necessary for contractions as well as relaxing, so when a fish is killed, contractions begin to set in place as ATP depletes. The fish ends up getting tender again post-rigor thanks to protein degradation — that'd be decomposition setting in — but the faster that rigor mortis occurred, the worse off the flesh will ultimately be.

"The better you treat something before you kill it, the better that sucker is going to taste."

Fish have various pattern generators in the spinal cord that the brain inhibits, so when a fish is killed, those pattern generators can keep muscles active for a bit without the brain there to put on the brakes, and this leads to fast ATP depletion. With Ike Jime, destruction of the spinal cord stops those generators sooner, leading to slower ATP depletion and therefore a slower, gentler rigor mortis. This process is more effective in species with highly developed autonomic nervous systems meant for swimming continuously for long periods of time, like bass.

Arnold added that fish tastes even better when anesthetized with clove oil, a practice common in New Zealand and Australia, but even though cloves can be used as seasoning in the United States, clove oil is not approved as an anesthetic for fish that will be eaten by humans. Arnold's anecdotal conclusion: "The better you treat something before you kill it, the better that sucker is going to taste."

What's Next? Fermentation

So, what's the next big thing in the world of science and cooking? Fermentation. It's already begun to take hold, although it has been flying a little bit under the radar because it's not very flashy. Every region of the world has had its own fermented products for eons, but now chefs are exploring beyond the usual compartments, from European yellow peas to nuts and seeds, explained McGee. "The bar has been raised for deliciousness in general."

Back in the early and mid-2000s, it was all about rushing out to buy the next bit of exciting equipment on Ebay and figuring out new things to do with it, recounted Arnold. "Put your flag on that," he said. "Did Ferran already use this blah for blah? No? Mine now!"

"The cronut is an excellent thing, but it's not fermentation."

And now, this fermentation niche has opened up. "There's a lot of fermentation to mess with," said Arnold. At the end of the lecture, an audience member asked what else is on the rise these days, and Arnold wasn't sure but noted that with fermentation or any other technique, it seems to take just a few chefs who are charismatic enough to start a wave. "You get a sense when you hit something whether or not the vein is deep." Fermentation's vein is quite deep, and Arnold supposed that people will be excited about it for awhile. "The cronut is an excellent thing," he added, "but it's not fermentation."

McGee concluded that thanks in part to the increasingly wide and popular realm of science and cooking, food professions are attracting different types of people these days. It's an interesting and engaging field that pulls in people who use the word "passion" when it comes to food. Ultimately, getting these people into these positions "will change the world for the better."

— Rachel Leah Blumenthal

The Harvard Science & Cooking lecture series continues next Monday, September 15, with Joanne Chang of Flour Bakery and Myers + Chang lecturing on the science of sugar. Seating for the free event is first come, first served, and more details can be found on the Harvard website.

· All coverage of Dave Arnold on Eater [-E-]
· All coverage of Harold McGee on Eater [-E-]
· All coverage of Harvard's Science & Cooking Lecture Series on Eater [-E-]

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