The Experimental Cuisine Collective officially launched on Wednesday, April 11, with a strategic workshop titled Experimental Cuisine: Science, Society, and Food. Famed food scientist and physical chemist Hervé This of the Institut National Agronomique in Paris was the keynote speaker of the workshop, which assembled close to 100 participants from the restaurant industry, universities, and media. Other speakers included Robert F. Margolskee, professor of neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, Wylie Dufresne, chef-owner of WD-50, and Mitchell Davis, vice-president of the James Beard Foundation and food writer. Florence Fabricant of the New York Times moderated a discussion amongst all the participants.
Below is an account of the event offered by acclaimed baker and author Rose Levy Berenbaum, also found on her website, Real Baking with Rose Levy Berenbaum.
i should be packing, and doing countless other things to get ready for my upcoming trip, but i just have to share this incredibly interesting happening with you while it is fresh in my mind. it concerns the birth of a new group called “the experimental cuisine collective.” i think it will have enormous impact on our food world. first a little background explanation.
over the years i’ve often been described or introduced as a food scientist which i’ve always been quick to refute out of self-defense. that was because people, at least unconsciously, divided the world between science and art, and when it came to food, science was considered the antithesis--equated with nutrition, absence of emphasis on flavor, and devoid of humor.
gradually i came out of the closet into which i really couldn’t stuff myself for too long, given my excitement and desire to share what i was discovering about the way ingredients interact and the power this offers to create the best possible tasting things. a marriage between science and art is the ideal. you have to know why, you have to know how, and you have to know what. by “what” i mean what is good if not great.
my grandmother could have told you i was a born scientist. she once told me, reproachfully, when i was a little girl, that i had a face like a question mark. i grew up thinking she was referring to the shape of my large forehead and pointy chin and only recently realized she was referring to the fact that i questioned everything. i still do. we all should.
Twenty years ago, my courageous editor of the cake bible, maria guarnaschelli, took a great leap of faith when she allowed and encouraged me to publish it with charts and weights, and we were both delighted by the enthusiasm with which it was received.
in recent years i’ve observed a growing interest in the underpinings of cooking to the point where books like harold mcgee’s “on food and cooking,” shirley corriher’s “cookwise,” and robert wolke’s “what einstein told his cook” have become bedtime reading and actual topics of conversation! bob has a popular column in the washington post, shirley in the la times syndicate, and hal in the new york times. very encouraging indeed.
many years ago i had the enormous pleasure of meeting hervé this, whose book “molecular gastronomy” was recently published in english. i met hervé in the home of my dear friends the brossollet’s, publisher of the french edition of scientific american (pour le science) for whom hervé published an engaging column on the science behind cooking. by lovely coincidence, next week i will be visiting the brossollets in normandy and paris, and this week i saw hervé for the first time in years as he was the guest speaker at the first meeting of the “experimental cuisine collective” hosted by my alma mater new york university, department of nutrition, food studies, and public health and organized by associate professor amy bentley and assistant professor of chemistry, kent kirshenbaum.
the mission statement was stated as:
“we seek to provide a venue for scientists, food academics, culinary and pastry professionals, journalists, and the dining public to gather and exchange knowledge.
contribute to a rigorous scientific understanding of the physical basis for cooking processes.
enhance understanding of the social contexts for cooking and the societal ramifications of new food technologies.
accelerate the discovery of scientific and experiment-based approaches to innovative culinary practices, unorthodox flavors, and new dining traditions.
provide technical expertise for chefs.
advocate for a balance between modern cuisine while maintaining a healthful and sustainable approach to food preparation.
disseminate knowledge about human diet and health; inform the public regarding the molecular basis of nutrition and the chemical constituents of food; and foster research that will improve people’s ability to obtain and choose healthful foods on a local and global level.
introduce curricula on food and cooking as an approach for generating enthusiasm among school children for studying the physical sciences.
celebrate taste. (wisely they saved the best for last!)
speakers at the 4 hour long first session included robert margolskee, MD, PhD, professor of neuroscience, pharmacology and physiology at the mount sinai school of medicine, chef wylie dufresne of WD ~50 (who turned out to be as natural, original, and excellent a speaker as he is a chef), and mitchell davis, vice president of the james beard foundation and author (most recently kitchen sense for which he’s receiving rave reviews). the question and answer session was gracefully moderated by florence fabricant of the new york times.
the audience, of about 70 people from all walks of the profession, was spell-bound. the speakers were terrifically informative, low key, and entertaining. mitchell packed more into his 15 minute power point presentation than any speaker i’ve ever experienced. i’ve never heard anyone speak that fast, that long, without skipping a beat or blurring a syllable. he was a veritable freight train of fascinating quotes woven into a wealth of contextual information. i’ve known him a long time but this meeting revealed a new side that awed me. i was as impressed by his performance as by his well-researched information.
perhaps most delightful for me was that on hearing hervé speak i remembered exactly why i was so enchanted by him when i met him the first time. (funny how the french say enchanté when introduced to someone new but how rarely it actually turns out to be le mot juste! it probably serves as an expression of optimism!)
hervé transformed what many before him have managed to torture into a dry technical diatribe, into a most palatable, thought-provoking, and ground breaking experience. hervé is charming in the most profound sense of the concept. he intrigues you to hear what he’s going to say next. two examples: he explained his theory of food being love and how the best prepared food doesn’t taste all that good when one is experiencing it cooked by or eaten with disagreeable people. what a refreshing surprise to hear a scientist--a man no less--talking about love. but then, he IS french.
mitchell immediately took issue saying that was “a lot of bunk” (i had to replay this quickly in my mind a few times to be sure i had heard him correctly and started to cringe inwardly anticipating a fight). mitchell smilingly went on to support his theory by saying that he had eaten delicious things cooked by terrible people (i had to agree with mitchell though i found myself wanting to agree with hervé. my taste is pretty independent of external circumstance or attitude. i can have the worst service and still appreciate a well-prepared dish though granted, when the atmosphere is harmonious, it is certainly a more pleasant environment!). but to my delight, hervé didn’t register mitchell’s agreeably delivered “bunk” statement as an attack but rather as a welcomed second but not secondary opinion. grinning in his warm and endearingly comical way—his eyes almost completely shut with joie de vivre (another great french concept he exemplifies so well)—he revisited the subject moments later saying with all due humility: “even if love doesn’t influence taste, i like to think it does!”
hervé demonstrated his performance prowess by saving the best for last and making it seem as though the thought had arisen spontaneously from all that had preceded it (and maybe it actually did!). he ended the workshop with the most profoundly moving and unexpectedly true-to-my-way-of thinking pronouncement: “the maximum expression of intelligence is honesty.” honestly, i didn’t know i thought that until he said it!
those of us who didn’t have restaurants to run walked over to will goldfarb’s room 4 dessert, where he generously treated all participants to fabulous spanish wine and equally fabulous desserts at his “experimental dessert bar.”
science couldn’t have left a sweeter taste in our mouths.