Iron Chef Veteran Talks Science, Taste and Transformations

by Judith Lavelle

Science and cooking converge for a Harvard University lecture series.

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Christopher Bleidorn (left) and Dominique Crenn (right) of Atelier Crenn in San Fransisco reveal their recipe for “carrot jerky.”

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.

"The Metamorphosis of Taste" on Monday, October 13th at 7pm at the Harvard University Science Center

“The Metamorphosis of Taste” on Monday, October 13th at 7pm at the Harvard University Science Center

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.

Cooked to a precise 64 degrees Celcius,

Cooked to a precise 64 degrees Celcius, Bleidorn and Crenn say these yolks are the perfect consistency.

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.

Carrots are stored in salt and sugar in order to dehydrate them for a unique vegetable jerky.

Carrots are stored in salt and sugar in order to dehydrate them for a unique vegetable jerky.

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…

Audience Laughs Then Learns At Ig Informal Lectures

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by Judith Lavelle

Originally posted Sept. 22, 2014 on trackingtheadvocate.wordpress.com.

Scientists responsible for 2014’s most unexpected research gave short presentations on their findings and fielded an audience’s questions from a packed auditorium at the Ig Informal Lectures at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Saturday afternoon. The event was presented by Improbable Research, Inc. and sponsored by the MIT Press.

The lectures followed the 24th Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony, held at Harvard University on Sept. 18, where research teams from around the world—from the U.S. to the Czech Republic—were awarded for unusual accomplishments in medicine, biology, physics, and more.

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The auditorium in MIT’s Building 26 fills with onlookers at the Ig Nobel Informal Lectures on September 20, 2014.

Marc Abrahams, founder of the Ig Nobel Prize and “Chief Airhead” at the Annals of Improbable Research, presided over the nearly three-hour event, beginning with his explanation of why the featured scientists would present both entertaining and important work. “[The research] is funny when you first heart about it,” Abrahams told the crowd, “then a week later, it’s still bouncing around in your head.”

The lectures unfolded as each of the present scientists shared a five-minute presentation on their research. Ig Nobel Laureate in physics, Dr. Kiyoshi Mabuchi, started things off by serenading the audience as a slideshow on his research—an investigation into why banana peels are so slippery—cycled on screen.

During the question and answer period that followed, Abrahams asked the crowd if anyone could translate the audience’s questions to Mabuchi’s native tongue, Japanese. Tomo Soejima, an MIT student studying chemistry and physics, spontaneously volunteered.

After the lectures concluded, Soejima said he had not expected to participate in the event when he found out about them through posters around MIT’s campus. “I was surprised,” laughed the 19-year-old sophomore.

Tomo Soj (19) translates for Dr. Something

MIT sophomore Tomo Soejima (19) takes the stage to translate for Ig Nobel Laureate Dr. Kiyoshi Mabuchi.

Other speakers presented on the neuroscience behind seeing Jesus on a piece of toast, the ability of cured pork to stop nosebleeds, and the response of reindeer when researchers disguise themselves as polar bears.

So, far a Japanese man sang a song about banana peels, and we’ve talked about seeing Jesus on toast. Strong start. Now I’m hungry. #IgNobel — Julia Sklar (@jfsklar) September 20, 2014

Midway between the award-winners’ presentations, Abrahams introduced the keynote speaker at this year’s Ig Nobel Ceremony held at Harvard University last Thursday. In 2005, he won an Ig Nobel in nutrition.

NakaMats, as he is informally known, took advantage of his allotted time at the Ig Informal Lectures to present a slide show of some of his inventions (of which there are over 3300), including the floppy disk, a popular brand of aphrodisiac, and a state-of-the-art golf putter.

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This year’s Ig Nobel Ceremony keynote speaker, Sir Dr. Yoshiro NakaMats, presents some of his over 3300 inventions.

Abrahams hailed NakaMats’s eccentricity and prolific life’s work, calling the Japanese inventor the world’s “possibly greatest human.” After his five minutes of presentation ran before he finished, the audience cheered for an encore, and Abrahams allowed him another minute.

“He’s the only Ig Nobel winner in history to receive an extra minute,” said Abrahams.

The crowd at the 2014 Ig Informal Lectures applauds Dr. NakaMats.

The crowd at the 2014 Ig Informal Lectures applauds keynote speaker, Dr. NakaMats.

After the presentations ended and before the audience was dismissed, Abrahams and David Kessler, General Manager of Improbable Research, Inc., made a plug for subscribing to the Annals of Improbable Research and for next year’s 25th Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony.

“It’ll be big,” Kessler told the crowd, “and you’ll want to be there.”