Science - June 23, 2005

Food sciences discovers molecular chef

The impact of hard sciences such as food physics and chemistry was confined for many years to the research laboratories of the big food multinationals. But times are changing, according to the Chilean food technologist Professor José Miguel Aguilera. A new generation of chefs is tapping into the hard science side of cooking. The molecular chef is on the rise.

‘Twenty-five years ago Russian food scientists described how they could make synthetic caviar from gels,’ says Aguilera. ‘The food industry did not pick up on it, but innovative cooks with a science background discovered the publication and started experimenting. They managed to create completely new foods. Once they had worked out how to make the little capsules with a fish taste, they were able to make gel beads with all sorts of tastes and colours. Apricot, strawberry, you name it; the possibilities are endless.’

Aguilera, who works at the Catholic University of Chile, is spending a couple of weeks in Wageningen as the guest of the food technologists, Professors Erik van der Linden and Remko Boom. He gave a series of lectures on his field of expertise: molecular processes during the preparation of food. In his final lecture on 23 June, however, Aguilera made a digression in which he described the rise of the molecular chef.

‘Make no mistake, this is an important gastronomic trend,’ Aguilera told. ‘Look at a chef like Ferran Adrià. He shuts himself up in his laboratory for a couple of months each year to experiment with new food creations, and now he’s reaping the benefits. He was featured as an innovator in Time magazine last year and if you want to eat in his restaurant you have to book months in advance.’

Chefs like Adrià are innovators that seek inspiration from the natural sciences rather than avoiding it. They read scientific papers and textbooks and combine the knowledge they have gleaned with their culinary craftsmanship to come up with new dishes such as egg ice cream, crab syrup and tomato jam.

Molecular gastronomy is also an excellent way of popularising science. In the US and Great Britain books on the science of cooking are bestsellers. These answer questions such as why it is easier to make meringue if you whip the egg whites in a copper bowl. Or why beans and water chestnuts never become completely tender when you cook them. And why sauce no longer sticks to spaghetti, while it used to do so. ‘It all comes down to molecular processes,’ explains Aguilera. ‘Even food obeys the laws of nature.’

‘We tend to think that food technology is only for the big food manufacturers,’ says Professor Erik van der Linden, the Wageningen counterpart of Aguilera. ‘At least, you often hear this said. But what is interesting about the molecular chefs is that they demonstrate that nothing could be further from the truth. This is another way in which we contribute to society with our knowledge. I’m not sure how we should go about this, but I definitely think we need to do something in Wageningen .’

According to Van der Linden and Aguilera, cooperation with cooks will also indirectly benefit the food industry. ‘If we are honest we have to admit that not an awful lot of technology and expertise flows directly from universities to the food industry. There are often a number of steps in between, and the molecular gastronomists are one of these steps.’ / WK

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