Why chef ? Sci­ence meets the spat­ula

The Culi­nary In­sti­tute of Amer­ica is stir­ring the pot on kitchen cur­ricu­lum

Calgary Herald - Calgary Herald New Condos - - Weekend Life - MICHAEL HILL


The ba­sics of a culi­nary ed­u­ca­tion are get­ting a lit­tle less ba­sic at the Culi­nary In­sti­tute of Amer­ica.

Rec­og­niz­ing that for the chefs of to­mor­row well-honed knife skills and a mas­tery of the mother sauces won’t be enough, the culi­nary school is pump­ing up its cur­ricu­lum with a host of sci­ence lab-wor­thy tools and tech­niques.

“To­day’s chef com­pared to a chef 30 years ago needs to know so much more,” CIA pres­i­dent Tim Ryan said re­cently. “The in­dus­try, the pro­fes­sion, is so much more com­pli­cated.”

Ba­sic cook­ing lec­tures at times sound more like a chem­istry les­son, cov­er­ing the culi­nary uses of xan­than gum, or the physics of why oil and wa­ter won’t mix. And just this month, the school was ap­proved to of­fer a new ma­jor in culi­nary sci­ence, a field en­com­pass­ing food sci­ence and culi­nary arts.

A re­cent class cov­ered dessert mak­ing via liq­uid ni­tro­gen. Chef Fran­cisco Migoya care­fully dunked straw­ber­ries into a smok­ing con­tainer of the su­per-cold liq­uid, then shat­tered them with a mal­let and ground the shards into a fine berry dust for use in an ice cream dish. Frozen bor­age petals were added for gar­nish.

It’s true: the fa­mous French chef Au­guste Es­coffier never stud­ied ion-dipole at­trac­tion and James Beard never had to con­sider the com­plex and some­times out­landish cre­ations of molec­u­lar gas­tron­omy. But sci­ence has crept into cook­ing in so many ways, from cooks us­ing lab cen­trifuges to sep­a­rate in­gre­di­ents to high­end restau­rants that serve aer­ated foie gras. The trend, some­times re­ferred to as mod­ernist cui­sine, is loosely de­fined as the move­ment to in­cor­po­rate sci­en­tific prin­ci­ples into the cook­ing and pre­sen­ta­tion of food.

And the move­ment has stars, like Chicago’s Grant Achatz and Spain’s Fer­ran Adria, who made gor­gonzola bal­loons and van­ish­ing ravi­oli for a se­lect few at his for­mer res­tau­rant, elBulli. Prac­ti­tion­ers even have a man­i­festo: Mod­ernist Cui­sine: The Art and Sci­ence of Cook­ing, a 2,438-page text pub­lished last year by Nathan Myhrvold, the first chief tech­nol­ogy of­fi­cer at Mi­crosoft, which in­cludes tips for pre­serv­ing truf­fles in car­bon diox­ide.

Ryan stressed that sci­en­tific skills are in­creas­ingly nec­es­sary not only in multi-star restau­rants, but in the cor­po­rate kitchens and re­search labs many of his school’s grad­u­ates will work in.

Fresh­men be­ing put through their paces pre­par­ing fish and car­rots on a re­cent morn­ing in a kitchen class­room al­ready were get­ting the mes­sage. While any line cook knows to fin­ish off a sauce with but­ter, chef El­iz­a­beth Briggs wants her students to know why. They have to have a de­tailed un­der­stand­ing of what’s go­ing on inside the pot.

“It’s em­pha­sized in this class it’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween a chef and a cook,” said Janelle Tur­cios of Pitts­burgh, work­ing a range as she made a vin blanc sauce.

The em­pha­sis on sci­ence is sig­nalled most dra­mat­i­cally with the new bach­e­lor of pro­fes­sional stud­ies de­gree in culi­nary sci­ence. Be­gin­ning in Fe­bru­ary, students pur­su­ing the de­gree will be able to take cour­ses such as Dy­nam­ics of Heat Trans­fer, Flavour Sci­ence and Per­cep­tion, and Ad­vanced Con­cepts in Pre­ci­sion Tem­per­a­ture Cook­ing.

Chef Jonathan Zear­foss said they are not just teach­ing “magic tricks” or molec­u­lar gas­tron­omy. He and Chris Loss, di­rec­tor of menu re­search and de­vel­op­ment at the CIA, tried to de­sign a course of study that will teach the sci­en­tific un­der­pin­nings of food pro­duc­tion.

“A tra­di­tional kitchen is like a pi­rate ship. We like our flames, we like our noise, we have our scars,” Zear­foss said. “We’d like to cre­ate a kitchen that’s more like a yacht.”

To Loss, a straw­berry is not just some­thing to be sliced or dipped, but some­thing with cells and en­zymes that can be ma­nip­u­lated for best taste and pre­sen­ta­tion. Loss ex­plained that the straw­ber­ries smashed in the kitchen class­room have more sur­face area and thus more flavour. And ice cream made in liq­uid ni­tro­gen is smoother than the stuff on the su­per­mar­ket shelves be­cause ice crys­tals don’t have time to form.

The In­ter­na­tional Culi­nary Cen­ter in New York City now of­fers a con­cen­tra­tion in culi­nary tech­nol­ogy stress­ing sci­en­tific prin­ci­ples and hands-on ex­pe­ri­ence with high-tech tools like those used for sous-vide.

The food sci­ence depart­ment at the Univer­sity of Mas­sachusetts at Amherst be­gan of­fer­ing a con­cen­tra­tion in culi­nary sci­ence about five years ago to meet a de­mand from culi­nary students with as­so­ciate’s de­grees who wanted more sci­ence back­ground for the job mar­ket, said depart­ment head Eric Decker.

More sub­tly, the CIA is tweak­ing the mas­ter-ap­pren­tice re­la­tion­ship that has been a hall­mark of pro­fes­sional kitchens since the days of sus­pend­ing iron pots over wood fires. The tra­di­tional way for a trainee to re­spond to a re­quest is, “Yes, chef.” Now school ad­min­is­tra­tors want to make it closer to, “Why, chef ?” They want students to come up with hy­pothe­ses, test them, and dis­cover the best meth­ods.

Ge­orge Vol­lkom­mer, a CIA ju­nior, is ex­cited to ex­plore con­tem- po­rary food prepa­ra­tion meth­ods such as sous vide and quick freez­ing. “It’s try­ing to bal­ance these new tech­niques with be­ing able to ex­e­cute them prop­erly. Some of them are very tech­ni­cally ad­vanced to per­form, even dan­ger­ous,” he said.

“If you look at liq­uid ni­tro­gen, you can lose a hand do­ing that.”

Pho­tos: Mike Groll/the As­so­ci­ated Press

Chef Fran­cisco Migoya fills a con­tainer with liq­uid ni­tro­gen at the Culi­nary In­sti­tute of Amer­ica, which of­fers a de­gree in culi­nary sci­ence.

Cin­na­mon aroma is added to a peanut but­ter and milk choco­late dome dessert.

Choco­late pearls that will be used as a dessert gar­nish are re­moved from cold canola oil at the Culi­nary In­sti­tute of Amer­ica.

Straw­ber­ries that were quickly frozen us­ing liq­uid ni­tro­gen will be ground in to a pow­der and used in a dessert.

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