Experimental Cuisine Collective

by Tejal Rao
Antoinette Bruno
April 2007

Robert Margolskee, Mitchell Davis, Florence Fabricant, Wylie Dufresne, and Herve This
Florence Fabricant moderates the panel of presenters at the Experimental Cuisine Collective

A few months ago an e-mail came from Will Goldfarb of Room 4 Dessert. In it he described the Experimental Cuisine Collaborative, an interdisciplinary group that he formed with the departments of chemistry and of nutrition, food studies, and public health at NYU. The working group would officially launch on Wednesday, April 11, with a strategic workshop titled Experimental Cuisine: Science, Society, and Food running from 1 to 5 p.m. at NYU’s Italian Studies building on 12th street.

Goldfarb’s invite, which went to about 100 chefs, scientists, academics, and writers, read as follows:

“The group's goal is to develop a broad and rigorous approach to examine the properties, boundaries, and conventions of food, in a way that is intuitive and relevant to a broad audience. Five times a year, we will gather to discuss ways in which science may influence what we will be cooking and eating in the future, lead to a greater understanding of our diets, and contribute to safer food and better health across the globe. However to prevent from boring the pants off of you, we invited some artists and musicians and urban planners and designers…”

Hervé This: Don't Let me Be Misunderstood

French Chemist Hervé This began by recapping his old thesis and then redefining Molecular Gastronomy, the most misunderstood culinary term of the decade, as it applies today. This explained the differences between science, technique, and technology (in other words, the difference between Molecular Gastronomy, cooking, and culinary tools) before explaining the logistics of how the Parisian seminars work. In Paris the seminars belong to the participants and all the work is available, for free, online at the French Academy of Sciences. Participants drink wine around a table and This describes it as a meeting between friends (who just happen to be interested in investigating the various phenomena of the culinary world).

The investigation today involved a simple mayonnaise. Does lemon juice whiten the emulsion? Does the timing matter? Is the whisk, in fact, a medieval tool? Is the ultrasonic box (one of This' inventions) capable of emulsifying better? The answer came in the form of a demonstration on stage as Franklin Becker whisked a mayonnaise in what he deemed an entirely too tiny bowl. The mayonnaise broke. This insisted on emulsifying the broken mayonnaise drop by drop into the egg whites. It came back together. What did it mean? That failure can be the best entry point for investigating the various phenomena of cooking, that collectives are necessary for just this reason.

Robert Margolskee: Mice Come in Two Flavors

Dr Robert Margolskee, Professor of Neuroscience, Pharmacology and Physiology at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, followed. Margolskee offered a detailed presentation, complete with 80's cartoons of taste receptors in action, of the human taste system from microvilli to sweet antagonists. The highlight was his "Mice Come in Two Flavors" presentation – in which he shared his experiments that found certain mice respond to sweet compounds while others remain indifferent. The vaguely unsettling part of the presentation came when Margolskee declared he had the technology to cripple the tasting gene and inhibit our sweetness receptors as well as banish bitterness. This technology could help develop more sophisticated (ie. less gross) artificial sweeteners, digitize taste, enhance taste, and should it come to it, eliminate taste altogether.

Wylie Dufresne: Consecration of the Puff Snack

When Will Goldfarb was supposed to present he surprised the audience by announcing that Wylie Dufresne of wd-50 would take the stage instead. Dufresne began with the self-effacing "I am simply a cook," and calling his cooking neither Molecular Gastronomy nor Avant-Garde but simply research-driven cuisine. Dufresne talked the audience through the video of his Foie with Lentils dish - a trompe l'oeuil in which tiny pancakes of mole consomme masquerade as lentils and papaya gelled with a 3% concentration of gellan gum pass as a fine carrot brunoise. The room fell quiet as Dufresne passed around small plastic bags each containing a broken Funyun and Dufresne's own experiment with the concept: a four ingredient puffed onion ring. Dufresne’s was a sturdier, paler wafer that tasted purely of onions. In the church of experimental cuisine the puff snack is consecrated.

Mitchell Davis: Careful What You Call New

Mitchell Davis, Vice President of the James Beard Foundation, placed the day’s work in a historical and cultural context. He talked technology, taste, identity, fashion, class, performance and philosophy, but mostly he asked pointed questions about the current state of cuisine and all that it suggests. A few examples: what is lost when food’s sense of regionality and place is lost? To illustrate this he showed a slide of Chicago food twenty years ago (easily recognizable cultural icons) and compared it to Chicago food today, specifically the unrecognizable modern dishes from Grant Achatz’s kitchen at Alinea. Another question: is the idea of experimental cuisine in the sphere of the professional kitchen, particularly in the professional kitchen run as laboratory, a gendered idea? How has the power dynamic affected the industry, now that chefs create dishes inspired by their own taste memories and ideas rather than after popular figures in culture (Peach Melba etc.).

Florence Fabricant: Roast Chicken of the Future

Florence Fabricant moderated the panel of presenters and began by asking about the future of classic cooking. Specifically, what will happen to the humble roast chicken and mash? Margolskee claimed that with the science of taste we will be able to turn up the intensity of the roast chicken by increasing the amino acid glutamates. Dufresne answered simply that he would always love dishes like roast chicken but as a cook he would seek to improve on the techniques of roasting and mashing. This declared it a wonderful question because it tells us that as a question it does not exist – with science there is no end to creating therefore there is no end to the variations of roast chicken. He wondered out loud why we loved our mother's roast chickens even when our mothers weren't necessarily the best of cooks, then answered his own question: love! Love, This insisted, gives cooking more meaning. “You confirm our stereotype of Frenchmen!” Fabricant joked.

Earlier in the day This had spoken of a challenge he’d once presented to chefs at a conference in Paris: “Cook an entirely figurative dish in which nothing is recognizable. We’ll call it abstract cooking!” There were laughs but in closing, Fabricant expressed both an interest and a mild anxiety over the future of food, over the collaboration between cook and scientist. "Science has given us cheese that tastes like plastic and unripe fruit of color, the reconstituted potato chip that's uniform in every packet, what's next?"

A grant from NYU that will fund ECC’s workshops, and Dufresne’s puff snack composed of only 4 ingredients as opposed to Frito-Lay’s 16, hold promise. Workshops start in September; and with goals to develop a 4-week curriculum for fifth-graders and build an interest in science and food simultaneously, The Experimental Cuisine Collective is just getting started.