Know Thy Scientist

by Arielle Johnson

Despite what it may seem, there is still a strong mutual distrust between scientists and chefs, and the two sides haven’t fully realized their potential for collaboration. In this MAD Dispatch, MAD head of research Arielle Johnson argues that it’s time chefs and scientists develop a new wave of cooking and science investigation.

Now more than ever, knowledge is being recognized as an essential component of creativity and craft in the professional kitchen. New York restaurant Blue Hill has a maxim: “Know Thy Farmer.” Or, put less pithily, that chefs have a lot to gain by working collaboratively with the folks who know the most about produce—those growing it. The logic being that working with those who provide their raw materials provides chefs with better crops as well as new knowledge that can inform their cooking. Relying on the farmer’s expertise as a guide towards new and potentially interesting products, like aged carrots or long-lost heirloom grains, enhances creative and aesthetic freedom in the kitchen.

This all stands to reason and farmers have taken on an increasingly essential place in the professional kitchen, but this isn’t the only expansion of a chef’s circle of advisors that will improve food both inside and outside the restaurant. The same type of renewed, recast relationship between chefs and scientists will be essential for continuing to advance the craft of cooking though knowledge, and improving the place of food in the world.

Chef Wylie Dufresne put it succinctly in his MAD lecture a couple of years back: “Understanding why you’re doing something is an important aspect of doing it well; there will never be a right way to poach an egg, there’s only a more or less informed way of poaching an egg.” Science and scientists are as yet poorly utilized sources of information that, when directed correctly, can become invaluable partners to chefs in the effort to understand and hone their craft.

Appreciation for the role of science in the cooking process is not new, as evidenced perhaps most clearly by the enduring popularity of Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, a fixture in restaurant kitchens around the world since its initial publication in 1984. Likewise, some boundary-pushing chefs have consulted directly with scientists as part of their culinary R&D. Dufresne, Heston Blumenthal, Ferran Adrià, Dan Barber and others have taken their technical questions to the scientific community, leading to novel dishes and innovations like hybrid wheat bred specifically for flavor. But perhaps the most publicly visible aspect of this growing food-science relationship (though it hasn’t done much to affect research on food) is the increasing popularity of using food as a medium for science outreach. In recent years, UCLA, Harvard, NYU, and other academic institutions have partnered with chefs of note to teach chemistry and physics, applying key scientific concepts to culinary systems. As a result, food science literacy has never been higher, with even casual diners knowing that the Maillard reaction is what makes the sear on a steak taste so good, or that an egg cooked at precisely 63 degrees for an hour will yield a creamy, set yolk every time.

Historically, while scientists have been studying aspects of food and nutrition for generations, it wasn’t until the 1960s that physicist Nicholas Kurti and his book But the Crackling is Superb popularized the idea of applying the hard sciences to cooking. (Kurti famously bemoaned, “I think it is a sad reflection on our civilization that while we can and do measure the temperature in the atmosphere of Venus, we do not know what goes on inside our soufflés.”) This mode of investigation, while still popular in some circles, nevertheless revolves around the scientist alone; the goal is not obtaining more delicious food, but formalizing, cataloging, and theorizing about technical aspects of how food works. These early developments were followed by a generation of chefs enthusiastically appropriating data, techniques, and technologies from laboratories and industry, and putting them to work for the fine-dining kitchen. This was the age of immersion circulators, hydrocolloids, and other new techniques for manipulating texture, as well as Herculean efforts (such as On Food and Cooking) to mine the existing scientific literature and academic establishment for useful culinary information.

An unfortunate limitation on this second movement is that chefs aren’t currently involved in the production of the research that they use. Although they can easily come to scientists with specific questions, there seems to be an unspoken, though seemingly universally accepted idea that while scientists may dispense knowledge when needed, cooks have no place in the workings or thinking of the laboratory. Chefs ask sensory scientists about taste perception, and mold scientists about mold, but only on very rare occasions do their questions shape the research. At present, therefore, consultation is a one-way street: a chef goes to a scientist with a question—“will this fermentation kill me?”—the scientist looks up a paper or maybe runs an assay and gives a yes or no answer, and that’s the end of the conversation. The chef goes back to the kitchen and the scientist goes back to his or her work, of value to only a minuscule number of academics or industry folks.

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My interest in this situation is not entirely impartial: I am a scientist who works with cuisine, and did a significant portion of my thesis work at the Nordic Food Lab here in Copenhagen. So on one level, I’m naturally thrilled about the growing numbers of chefs (and diners) taking an interest in what science has to say about cuisine.

But at the same time, I am increasingly frustrated by the current limitations on how scientific research is integrated with culinary development and knowledge. On a personal level, while I feel extremely privileged to have been able to work with a lot of brilliant cooks for my dissertation research, intense pressure on the academic side for a certain kind of technical precision and adherence to form had the direct effect of making my work less applicable and less useful to those in the kitchen. Even when I was researching the same topics as my chef-collaborators, the constraints of keeping my professors relatively placated meant that we were essentially working not together, but in parallel. While a rigorously designed sensory descriptive analysis of novel vinegars, for example, helped earn me a PhD, I am dubious that it will help anyone produce a better dish, or if the kind of work that would help is even possible within the confines of the academic establishment.

To date, in-depth food research has been limited to exploring questions academia and the commercial food industry deem important. The result is that most of what we know about how food works is confined to a very narrow set of issues, much of it hidden away in cryptically-written journal articles that most non-academics can neither access nor understand, and very little designed with any sort of practical application in mind.

What we, chefs and scientists together, must develop is a third wave of cooking and science investigation based upon truly collaborative relationships with each other. This means a reciprocal exchange of knowledge: the knowledge and perception of the chef informing the experimental work of the scientist. There is a universe of scientific information about food waiting to be discovered, questions that chefs and scientists alike haven’t even considered yet. That’s because the kind of on-a-level, chef-scientist conversations that could identify the questions we need to be asking to produce new, useful knowledge haven’t really begun to take place. Until these conversations become commonplace, the science of cooking will remain largely unexplored, undiscovered.

The future of this investigation is not about a scientist telling a chef what to do, but about building a hybrid discipline where both are on equal footing, borrowing aspects of the lab and the kitchen, where both parties’ knowledge informs the research agenda. Here, a scientist’s knowledge perhaps inspires a cook to try a technique or ingredient or to ask a question they had not previously thought of, and the cook’s experience informs experimentation that the scientist designs specifically because of its utility for craft and creativity in the restaurant kitchen. New knowledge is produced, and the cycle repeats, resulting in new data, knowledge, food, and changes in technique that would never have happened without a close-knit experimental and knowledge-sharing relationship.

The pantry at elBulli’s workshop in Barcelona, where scientists would often visit.
The pantry at elBulli’s workshop in Barcelona, where scientists would often visit.

Any half-decent chef clearly does not require scientific knowledge to identify deliciousness. Science has no business defining quality or making aesthetic judgments; scientists are not cooking experts. But we are researchers and empiricists. What we can bring to the table is an understanding of how, on a molecular level, flavor is composed: the biological, chemical, and perceptual processes that give rise to what’s happening inside ovens, vegetables, and fermentation rooms and what compositional changes will occur according to specific time, heat, microbial, pH, salinity, and ecological constraints. We know where and how to look for information; how to interpret it exhaustively; and most vitally, how to generate and utilize new knowledge in a methodical and reproducible way. Science is a tool and a process we can wield with proficiency. Yet in deciding what direction to point the scientific apparatus, and what research is worth investigating, scientists would do well to seek guidance from the outside world.

There is an inherent distrust between chefs and scientists. Both (rightly) believe themselves to be keepers of wisdom, and there can be more than enough ego on both sides to make communication difficult (I speak from experience in saying that the restaurant kitchen is not always the most immediately welcoming place for an academic; and I know the converse is equally true). It’s time to put those egos aside. Science is not a way to force order on creativity, no matter what some chefs may fear. The question is not whether an immersion circulator can heat a steak to a core temperature of 57 degrees celsius more consistently than a line cook (it can); the question is what that cook can do with this knowledge and technology, and how what they do might add interest and substance to a second, third, or five-hundredth round of questioning and empirical investigation about temperature control, texture, and flavor, one that goes well beyond “what happens when we cook meat in a water bath?”

A common complaint about academic scientific research is that it is too reductive: that scientists must break down a system into its component parts in order to study them, and therefore can’t come up with practical information or solutions for complex systems, like food. While this is often true of science in practice, it’s a function of how scientific research is undertaken—the culture and customs of the sciences—rather than an inherent limitation of the scientific method. In fields as diverse as flavor, soil science, and ant sociobiology (and I would venture most fields), synergies and complex interactions among parts are keys to true understanding. I mention all of this to point out that science can look at difficult, previously unexamined complexities, if we force it to do so. Some have argued that developments in cuisine over the last decade—especially foraging, adopting traditional and ancient processes in the kitchen, and a renewed focus on locally typical ingredients—point towards a turning away from science and the “science-based cooking” that typified modernist cuisine. I would argue that, on the contrary, this just reflects an expansion of the kinds of science from which cuisine draws inspiration and information, from physics and physical chemistry to microbiology, ecology, botany, psychology, flavor chemistry, anthropology, and others. The most important thing for a scientist to bring to the table in this paradigm is not so much the skill-set or specific knowledge particular to any one field of study, but an ability to flexibly apply the scientific method—empiricism and critical thinking in particular—to a wide variety of questions.

When I formulate the encouragement (with borrowed phrasing) to “Know Thy Scientist”, it comes with a complementary imperative to the broader science community: if you as scientists care about cooking, or the future of food at all, you have to start changing the way you think about and weigh knowledge and open up your research agenda to input from chefs. What is cooking? Like science, cooking is and has always been a constantly evolving, collaborative effort, from learning to bake with your grandmother to talking with your farmer about what’s in season. Creating a real conversation between scientists and chefs is simply the logical next step, and an essential one for the future of food.

 

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