Thursday, March 20, 2008

Science vs. Human Nature

Food Foam.

Fans of the Bravo show Top Chef may have noticed something different about this season’s line-up (besides the inclusion of the first couple to compete). Molecular gastronomy has found its way into the kitchen.

Molecular gastronomy is the scientific investigation into the chemistry and production of food. What began as a study by a Hungarian physicist and a French chemist in the 1980s has evolved into a small sub-set of international chefs looking to Lewis & Clark their way into the wilds of unknown culinary territory. The kitchen becomes a scientific laboratory where chefs explore and test how new techniques might advance food preparation and consumption and, ultimately, our very palettes. They examine everything from what it takes to cook a truly perfect egg, to how our brains interpret flavor and smell, to how varied combinations of ingredients can combine for atypical tastes. Spain seems to have more than its share of molecular gastronomes. Joan Roca of the Celler de Can Roca restaurant in Cataluña is a favorite among science foodies. He may be the only chef with dirt in his pantry. Roca uses a vacuum distiller to extract the scent of Catalonian soil for a foam that garnishes a dessert. A dessert made from oyster.

Dufresne and Top Chef Host Padma Lakshmi tasting the results of the Quick Fire Challenge.

Last night’s episode of Top Chef included Wylie Dufresne of the New York restaurant WD-50. Dufresne presents an interesting character. He is quiet and looks less like the ego-driven, highly coiffed uber-chef of most Manhattan hotspots and more like a guy who likes to tinker around in the garage. Instead, Dufresne tinkers in the kitchen. A meal at his table might include popcorn soup to start followed by an entrée of monkfish served with red pepper oatmeal and a dessert of soft white chocolate, potato, malt, white beer ice cream. (I might suggest a digestive infused with Tums.)

An Atlanta-based chef named Richard is the self-purported science geek of the Top Chef competition. He brought with him a host of gadgets to create unusual flavor combinations. In his first challenge, he trapped dry ice-like smoke in a bowl with a piece of saran wrap. When the judges pulled back the plastic, the scented smoke released and quickly evaporated. The aroma, Richard noted, was meant to impact the eater’s culinary experience, but in no way flavor the actual food sitting below the fog.

Thinking-man's science chef, Ferran Adria, along with an image of his olive oil bubble gels. Photos by Jason Perlow for a 2006 article in New York magazine.

Last night, Richard lost the Quick Fire challenge with a Eucalyptus-infused chicken thigh, much to his disappointment. The surprise winner was Andrew, who, it turns out, has studied the molecular gastronomy of Spain’s other guru, Ferran Adria (pictured above). Richard created a gelatinous glacier of ice as a palette cleanser and served it on a spoon during a cocktail party at the Chicago zoo. Dufresne was clearly impressed, but head judge Tom Colicchio seemed less entranced. After sliding the goo in his mouth he said, “Ok. Now give me some real food.”

Which raises an interesting point about this type of science-based food preparation. It is, most definitely, composed of actual food, but does it feel like “real” food? When we, as humans, sidle up to the dinner table, do we ever really crave dirt foam? And can we allow the cold and savory mollusk a place on the dessert cart rather than its usual spot on the raw bar?

A similar type of question was raised last night at a lecture given by Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG. Manaugh addressed a group of mostly architects at the Maryland Institute College of Art. The topic was preservation. Or, rather, preservation in the mind of Manaugh. He took the audience on a whirlwind tour of topographies and futurist examinations into nature. He talked about ruins and how we might build the city of today to become the ruin of tomorrow. He challenged assumptions of how we see our landscapes and presented alternative views masterminded by a host of scientists, mathematicians, artists, and filmmakers. He referenced the writing of Camilo José Vergara, a Chilean-born sociologist who once suggested that the abandoned skyscrapers of Detroit be stabilized and turned into a theme park of American urban ruins. He showed the photo-shopped images of artists imagining the neutered natural landscapes of the future. And he discussed man’s own interpretation of ruins, raising questions about the kind of extrapolations we make when we analyze the architecture of the Pyramids or Stonehenge.

From Manaugh's slideshow: The Museum of Nature by Finnish photographer Ilkka Halso.

It was a fascinating ride, and one that raised another compelling question from one of the audience members: When thinking about literal preservation—about the brick and mortar in a city like Baltimore—how do we stretch our innate concept of landscape and city planning? How do we reconcile our own need for permanence and what that need implies for architecture with the reality of our impermanent existence? In other words, humans look for certain touchstones from their dwellings (just as we look for certain touchstones from our food). It is human nature to want to cling to the understood, and this often leads to our perpetuating building types, just as we continue to make grandma’s famous meatloaf.

This made me think of work by architects like Stephen Kieran and James Timberlake. They not only consider the creation of a building, they also think about the end of life for that structure. Rather than construct something with the aim of permanence, rather than think of the building as a future ruin that will one day be interpreted (rightly or wrongly) by archaeologists and anthropologists, they examine how a building can be dismantled and re-used when it no longer fulfills its original intent. They’ve tested these ideas in a pre-fab home on the coast of the Eastern Shore of Maryland. (I wrote about this in an earlier post). The home can be shipped to a site and bolted together. When the tides rise and the home is no longer able to sit on this fragile shoreline, it can be unbolted and rebuilt elsewhere. Or it can be traded for parts on Ebay to others with the same component system, not unlike a piece of IKEA furniture. Kieran and Timberlake’s idea of preservation is to create something with a second life, a building that outlives its original intent and is transportable. They go in knowing it is a temporary building and that informs a plan to make the home more permanent.

But are most of us capable of embracing that kind of impermanence, especially in something as emotionally weighted as our own home? Can we fully inhabit something knowing that it will go away? It may run counter to our anti-death culture. Accepting the mortality of our own home requires us to accept our own mortality. And that may be as hard to swallow as an oyster bathed in dirt foam.

Further Reading:

If the science of food intrigues you, there are several books on the topic of molecular cuisine, like the one pictured above. The Bible is a book by Harold McGee titled On Food & Cooking: The Science & Lore of the Kitchen

If you want a different take on industrial food science, pick up Michael Pollan’s new book In Defense of Food.

To learn more about Camilo José Vergara’s take on decaying structures, read his book American Ruins.

Geoff Manaugh has just posted his lecture online, so you can read about it here.