by Judith Lavelle
Science and cooking converge for a Harvard University lecture series.
Last night, I attended the seventh lecture in Harvard University’s 2014 Science and Cooking Lecture Series entitled, “The Metamorphosis of Taste.” The series is a weekly academic collaboration between Professor Michael Brenner of the School of Engineering and Applied Science and the chefs he invites to discuss the science behind their craft. This week, Brenner introduced Dominique Crenn of Food Network’s Iron Chef and Christopher Bleidorn, the chef de cuisine at Crenn’s highly acclaimed modernist restaurant, Atelier Crenn in San Francisco. Fitting with the series’ scientific slant, the pair discussed how their recipes use taste to evoke memories and applied science to transform raw ingredients into five star dishes.
Crenn began with an overview of her philosophy on food: it should be organic, sustainable and transport the diner to another, imaginative space or time. That last facet seemed most important, citing how one dish’s crisp flavors were inspired by walking in the woods. “When we bring a dish to the table,” Crenn explained, “we want to trigger memory.” Incidentally, our brains (even those of us who aren’t culinary geniuses) are adept at performing the opposite because the brain regions that process taste and smell are intimately connected to memory. Hence, some of us feel warm and fuzzy about mom’s tomato soup recipe but will never touch tequila again.
Once she had established her goals for her recipes, Crenn acknowledged that experimentation is a necessity to get them right. “The best recipes come from failure,” she said. “Cooking is science.”
For the details of that science and the precise techniques that make the memory-evoking food at Atelier Crenn a reality, Crenn turned things over to Bleidorn, who narrated two video presentations of kitchen transformations: raw eggs to a versatile “glass egg yolk sheet” and freshly plucked carrots to unique and spicy “carrot jerky.”
Both recipes were deceptively complex. The eggs were cooked to a precise 64 degrees Celcius, when the heat could denature the perfect proportion of proteins for the optimum consistency. Bleidorn then described how the yolks were separated and mashed into a puree, pasteurized through another two-hour cooking process, pressed into a thin “sheet” between two pieces of plastic and cooked again to create the filmy finished product.
To create their “carrot jerky,” Bleidorn explained, the Atelier Crenn crew stores fresh carrots in a mixture of salt and sugar for three days. As the video atop the speakers showed, the salt and sugar draw out so much of the carrots’ water that the once-dry mixture looks soupy at the end of a long weekend. For flavor, the carrots are then soaked in salty ginger tea–a process called “brining” that again extracts moisture from the vegetable to finish off the dehydration necessary for producing a good, tough jerky.
By the time the carrots are finished, brushed with cayenne pepper and garnished with orange rinds, they’ll shrink to 60 percent their original size. “The result becomes a very chewy carrot,” Bleidorn says, miming the floppiness with his hand, “kind of playful.”
Before the audience headed home with a little more background on the science of cooking and a major case of food envy, Crenn and Bleidorn invited us up for a sample of the carrot jerky. I decided not to brave the long line, but a quick Google search revealed that their whole tasting menu is just a flight to San Francisco and a mere $195 away.
I’ll have to get on that…