I was digging in the dark underneath the desks in the office, threading category-five cables around table legs, splicing them into thick braids and plugging them into the battery of jacks in the wall in an attempt to stop the networking from not working when a sudden commotion of feet almost hurt me fatally. Chairs were pushed back simultaneously, and people leapt up and ran off, chattering agitatedly. After diligently connecting the last cable, I resurfaced with a questioning look on my face. The lab had gone for a talk, I was informed by one who had stayed behind, on cooking.
Any other day, this answer would have completely mystified me. It's not as if Imperial had much to do with gastronomy. But today, upon hearing seemingly incongruous words, understanding clicked in my head. The talk in question was given by Hervé This, director of the molecular gastronomy group at AgroParisTech and developer of some of the crucial concepts of molecular cooking. I had booked two tickets for the talk a fortnight earlier. Now just five minutes remained to make it across to the auditorium.
When I got there, it was nearly packed to capacity. Professor This was obviously popular. I had never heard his name before but I had encountered the term molecular cooking, in reference to two acclaimed restaurants – The Fat Duck a few leagues outside of London and El Bulli on a deserted stretch of the Costa Brava – and their way of whipping up culinary wizardry. I had mostly been skeptical and had gone to the talk to see what was behind the hype.
Hervé This had set out, in the 1980s, to discover and understand the processes at the interface of chemistry and physics that take place when a dead cow is transformed into a juicy steak or an egg into an omelette, or when milk, sugar and flower join hands to create a cake. In the process, and over the years, he had learned how to modify seemingly pedestrian systems to create the most startling effects.
The talk was a Powerpoint presentation generously interspersed with practical demonstrations that were live-cast onto the big screen behind the podium and workbench. This whipped egg whites up with water to create voluminous foams, but he wasn't a pastry chef. He was a scientist, a devoted physical chemist full of questions. What determines the maximal volume one egg white can be whipped up to? What happens if you use orange juice instead of water? Or coffee? What if you heat the foam in a microwave?
He demonstrated the last one. The water bubbles trapped in the foam come to a boil. Evaporation causes the foam to expand; heat causes it to solidify. After fifteen seconds, he knocked from his beaker a fluffy cylinder that wouldn't taste like much but could be the carrier for anything, the above-mentioned orange juice, for example. More can be done with eggs, all to answer the question, What if? Whip them up with oil and heat them, fry them and uncook them with a strong reducing agent, or poach them in alcohol.
The last experiment was done with laboratory-grade ethanol, but any strong liquor would do. This claimed to be using Scotch Whisky, which was oddly fitting given that it was St. Andrew's Day, the Scottish national holiday. Outside the fair island of Great Britain, it has probably not registered, and it doesn't matter, but Scotland aspires to be an independent nation. Breaking free from from the yoke of England is the goal of the Scottish National Party, the strongest party in the Scottish Parliament.
My opinion matters even less than Scottish independence, but I'm all for it. It would make a bunch of funny-speaking people very happy, and the only difference for me to notice would be a lighter tax bill. And if the import of Scotch Whisky were suddenly taxed, I'd buy the Irish variety and could poach an egg just the same.
The ovular overture set the stage nicely. The experiments could be admired by people without any scientific background. However, This insisted that this was not fun. He kept posing questions, the answers to which he happily admitted not knowing, and made the audience think. Why do we cook, why do we cook the way we cook, and how could we prepare food differently for maximized taste and texture? More chemistry and physics are needed to contemplate these questions than you would ever imagine.
Take a dish that a famous chef and friend of This's cooked, smoked salmon with grapefruit jelly. The salmon smells but the jelly tastes. How to give the dish the taste of smoked salmon but the fresh smell of grapefruit? This kind of reengineering is called molecular cooking. Taken to the extreme, it means extracting exactly and only the desired flavors and recombining them with appropriate carriers to give bite and shape. This is what's happening at The Fat Duck and El Bulli, if I understand correctly.
I won't find out soon because I don't have a reservation for either restaurant, but I am motivated to try my luck with foamy eggs infused with foreign flavors. I hope to have a microwave, which I'd need to give these dishes structure, in the kitchen of my new apartment. Of course, I'd have to find an apartment first. Good thing the network is back up.