Cooking is science
Our food world is complex. From simple everyday food at homes to sophisticated gastronomic experiences at high-end restaurants, there are various techniques that are involved in cooking. How we cook is almost an innate habit we have. Our food culture and cooking methods have evolved with the accumulation of years of experience. The tastes we like or dislike, how we enjoy our food is the legacy of past generations. Our geography rules what we eat, what we favor, what we consume. In most cases our beliefs and traditions are shaped around what our environment gives us as food. The story of our food is not only confined to the kitchen. Feeding the world population is the major concern of humankind. From sowing to harvesting, from foraging to hunting, the human mind is constantly occupied with how to get food on the table. Since the very first act of cutting the meat or grinding the grain, mankind is constantly developing ways of preparing food. In the modern times, with the enormous development in industrial food systems, our food world is in an ever-expanding stage. Starting with the primeval fire, to the modern kitchen gadgets we use a variety of cooking techniques. What we actually do is simply apply science. Science is key to all aspects of food, even if the science behind the food is not always visible.
Science in the kitchen was the motive behind a recent gathering held in Barcelona on Nov. 8-10. “The Science and Cooking World Congress” is an international congress that aims to explore the enormous potential of Scientific Gastronomy to generate a new paradigm to contribute to solve major social challenges. The congress is chaired by Pere Castells and the Universities of Barcelona and Parma, the Generalitat de Catalunya, Parc a Taula and the Ajuntament de Barcelona, and as executive organizers, Gastro Ventures and Fresh Marketing de proximitat. This was the second edition of the meeting, the first one was held in 2019, and last year had to be skipped due to the pandemic. This year the theme was chosen as “Sustainability, Research, Economics and Health,” with a great participation from around the globe. This year, 16 delegations from around the world was consolidated, which were, Parma, Buenos Aires, Havana, Galapagos, Amazonia, Harvard, Bangkok, Chile, Montreal, Tokyo, Turkey, Madagascar, Denmark, UC San Diego, Ushuaia and Peru. Delegations, world-famous chefs and eminent speakers were gathered at the University of Barcelona (UB) with sustainability as the main focus, with the aim of drawing a map of the situation of science and cooking today.
The story of the congress starts with Pere Castells, which I like to call as the chemist in the kitchen. He is the one who initiated the congress, the father of the whole idea in a way. As it is known, there are world-famous restaurants in every region of Spain. We can now easily talk about a Spanish revolution in the restaurant scene, turning family-owned humble places to gastronomic destinations. The reason why these restaurants, which were initially mostly small family businesses, turned into must-visit venues, is the unique experience they offer to their customers. The quality of ingredients and the way they present even the simplest ingredient in a completely new way had been the key to success. At the forefront of this trend is the famous chef Ferran Adrià. As a young apprentice chef, he had previously participated in several meetings held in Erice, Sicily, organized by the late famous scientist Nicholas Kurti, the very first meetings that paved the way to molecular gastronomy. Kurti had been the first scientist who advocated applying scientific knowledge to culinary problems. Cooking was his hobby, and back in 1969, he gave a talk titled “The physicist in the kitchen,” in which he amazed the audience by using the recently invented microwave oven to make a reverse Baked Alaska, naming it Frozen Florida, which was cold outside and hot inside, in contrast to the original burnt meringue covered ice-cream. Over the years he was the one who organized several international workshops on Molecular and Physical Gastronomy. It was these workshops that gave birth to the term molecular gastronomy. Later Adrià shook the world of gastronomy with his El Bulli restaurant, which he transformed from a small mini golf cafeteria. At El Bulli, modern techniques and applied science in the kitchen brought a totally different dimension to gastronomy. It was Pere Castells and his team who carried out experiments in the restaurant’s research laboratory. He was, in a way, the scientist behind all kinds of creative playful inventions with toys, from aromatic foams to wonders of spherification that encapsulated intensified flavors in caviar-like miniscule beads bursting with amazing aromas in the mouth. Eventually, Castells has been a regular speaker at Harvard University, participating at the “Science & Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science” courses that aims to demonstrate basic principles of chemistry and physics in everyday cooking. Many Spanish chefs, including the Adria and Roca brothers and Pere Planaguma, started to contribute to the course, along with Castells. Another regular speaker at the Harvard courses is Harold McGee, who had participated at the Erice workshops since the very start, and eventually wrote his seminal book “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen.” McGee was also a participant at the Barcelona congress, where he was attained as the honorary president of congress. From Harvard courses, Pia Sörensen was also among the group of influential speakers at the congress, and I was delighted to find out that we had been both interested in the saponification properties of certain plants, my own presentation in the congress being the gypsophila extract, the mystery ingredient used in helva making and traditional confectionary as a vegan sustainable alternative for the future, creating eggless meringues or butter-free or creamless frostings.
In Barcelona, pretty much like the Erice meetings, a new set of meetings is happening, hopefully paving a new path for the future of cooking. This year, apart from the participants, the congress was attended online by more than 1,300 people. Next year the congress will be held for the third tile on Nov. 7, 8 and 9, 2022, with a focus on “Ingredients, Traditions and Innovation,” and I have already selected my topic. Like Castells emphasized at the end, “Cooking is Science,” and we need to embrace science in our daily cooking!
Within the framework of the congress, the Sferic Awards were held, whose objective is to scientifically evaluate a culinary technique that has contributed or may contribute to scientific innovation. This year’s winners are Noma and its team, led by René Redzepi, Mugaritz and its team, led by Andoni Luis Aduriz and Momofuku and its team, led by David Chang. The three restaurants have been recognized for their work in the study, evolution and application of fermentations in the culinary field. On behalf of the award winners, Andoni Luis Aduriz gave a speech in which he highlighted the importance of research applied to fermentation.