Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Onion snacks, ion transfer and the problem with This as a surname

April 11

This afternoon I went to about half of the inaugural event of the Experimental Cuisine Collaborative. It was a four-hour-long workshop called "Experimental Cuisine: Science, Society, and Food." Room 4 Dessert pastry chef and owner Will Goldfarb sent me (and 100 other people) an invitation. He called the collaborative "an interdisciplinary group initiated by the departments of chemistry and of nutrition, food studies, and public health at NYU." That seemed like reason enough to go.
The focus was on how the culinary and scientific worlds can work together to make food taste better. You might have seen discussions of such things in relation to that artistic culinary school formerly known as Molecular Gastronomy (they’re trying to get away from that term — Goldfarb is working on what he calls "experiential cuisine"), but of course — as WD-50 chef Wylie Dufresne pointed out today — hydrocolloids, modified food starches etc., have been used by industrial food manufacturers for decades. Knowledge of how and why food behaves the way it does can make you a better cook, he says.
French chemist and early proponent of molecular gastronomy Hervé This says that, too. I was late for his keynote today, but he has said it in the past and I assume he said it today. He also says that as a chemist, his job is to provide the tools for chefs, who are the artists. Monsieur This has an unfortunate last name. It's pronounced Teece (and his first name is pronounced air-vey, since I brought it up), but of course native English speakers want to pronounce it "this" when they read it, and so sentences that start with his surname don't scan well.
"This is a very engaging speaker."
"What is?"
"This is a pioneer."
Anyway, he’s both of those, and so is Wylie, who passed out his own house-made version of Funyuns along with the manufactured variety for us to compare. His version reminded me of shrimp crackers, and so I felt very self-satisfied when he explained that those crackers were the starting point of his development of them.
Robert Margolskee of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine had all sorts of interesting things to say about how to alter the flavors of foods (by blocking our bitterness receptors, for example, to encourage children to eat more green vegetables), and facts to share about how our sense of taste works, but he didn’t say them much. Instead he went into laborious detail about how our taste buds work, and how we perceive different things as sweet than mice do, and how he genetically altered some mice so that they couldn't taste anything sweet (very interesting, but he spent more time on the methodology of his tests than the results). He went on and on about what specific proteins we use in sensing sweetness, pointing out things that no one cares about except for biologists and biochemists, who already know all that stuff anyway. And then he’d drop fascinating tidbits in passing — like that the amino acid tryptophan triggers our sweet receptors; what? — before going on to bore us with ion transfer.
It showed what a challenge multidisciplinary approaches can be. I’d love to have had time to sit down for a conversation with the guy, but I had to go back to work.
I did have a chance to chat briefly with Will Goldfarb, George Mendes and the long-absent Paul Liebrandt. I asked Paul what he was up to, but he wouldn’t go into more detail than “things” or maybe “stuff.” I didn’t write it down.

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