Geeks Occupy Kitchen: But is it Art?

by Dwight Furrow

IStock_000011231321SmallHere is one way to start your day:

“This is how Nathan Myhrvold scrambles his morning eggs:

He starts by putting an immersion circulator in a water bath and sets the temperature to 164 degrees; the machine will regulate the temperature to a fraction of a degree.

As the water is heating up, he cuts a square of Gruyere into small dice, then takes another square and shaves it against a Microplane grater, to ensure melted cheese nuggets and fluffy melted wisps throughout the eggs.

He then whisks the cheese with two whole eggs and one egg yolk – what he's found to be the perfect ratio of fat to protein to achieve ultimate creaminess – pours the mess into a Ziploc bag and places the bag in the water bath. Then he takes a leisurely 15-minute shower as the eggs cook. (As reported by Sophie Brickman, San Francisco Chronicle, May 8, 2011)

Myhrvold is the author of Modernist Cuisine, the five-volume tome with recipes such as” Fermented Shrimp Sheets” and “Emulsified Sausage with Fat Gel” that promises to turn your kitchen into a chemistry lab. Myhrvold's book is timely because, in this age of mobile wallets and predator drones, every home needs someone who can quote from the periodic table while obsessively cultivating tiny spheres of jelled bacon puree, blithely ignoring the belly rumbles from the assembled guests who want their dinner.

The use of science to improve cookery is not new. The 19th Century saw a variety of science-like books purporting to aid the home cook. The most impressively titled was Friedrich Accum's, Culinary Chemistry: Exhibiting the Scientific Principles of Cookery, with Concise Instructions for Preparing good and Wholesome Pickles, Vinegar, Conserves, Fruit Jellies, Marmalades, and Various Other Alimentary substances Employed n domestic Economy, with Observations on the Chemical Constitution and Nutritive Qualities of Different Kinds of Food.

He was well-known for putting his students to sleep when wishing them good morning.

But 19th Century food science was rudimentary and did little but summarize contemporary cooking practices. (Accum asserted that vegetables are boiled, seldom roasted, which tells you all you need to know about English cooking.) Centuries of perceptive women manipulating local ingredients to suit their (or their families) needs and whims were a more accessible guide to culinary excellence.

The indifference of home cooks to food science left 20th Century developments squarely aimed at the food industry, whose army of food engineers brought us Tater Tots and Twinkies -surely an example of the True not serving the Good. But now as we stumble through the 21st century, science in the kitchen shows signs of an incipient populism. The blogosphere is rife with explanations of why soufflés collapse and microwaved eggs explode. Entire cookbooks are now devoted to informing Sophie and Shawn homemaker about denatured proteins and temperature gradients. Cooking for Geeks: Real Science, Great Hacks, and Good Food is a example of the genre, the title of which shows how much the marketing of science-themed cookbooks has improved since the 19th Century. (Mhyrvold also has authored Modernist Cuisine at Home)

Science has invaded professional kitchens as well. Today, most chefs of fine cuisine have at least a rudimentary understanding of molecular gastronomy-the barbarous term invented to name the use of foams and gels to dazzle diners into thinking smoked quail eggs with bubblegum essence is something to eat.

Bubblegum essence notwithstanding, the promise of all this science in the kitchen is actually considerable for hedonists chasing moments of culinary ecstasy. New cooking methods and kitchen gadgets eliminate the compromises that more traditional cooking methods entailed. Sous vide cooking means never having to burn the fish to kill Vibrio parahaemolyticus. Sodium citrate really will make your macaroni and cheese creamier. A dash of baking powder will soften polenta long before rotator cuff surgery becomes necessary.

Furthermore, science sweeps away many of the myths and shibboleths that burden the tradition-dependent practice of cooking. Buoyed by the authority of science, you can tell mom that adding salt to water does not help it boil more quickly, searing meat does not seal in juices, it's OK to wash your mushrooms, slightly pink pork is safe to eat, and plunging steaming vegetables into cold water does not stop them from cooking.

But the usefulness of science in the kitchen goes far beyond the ability to put paid to ancient mythologies. Cooking has become a fine art because it has turned to science as an aid. The understanding of flavor precursors and the use of chemical catalysts provide chefs with new flavors, flavor combinations, and textures that greatly expand their palette and capacity for self-expression. The creations of Grant Achatz or Ferran Adria are indeed the very taste of beauty, not merely an advance on the craft of cooking but an exquisite journey of mystery, discovery, and the sublime.

By now, you are probably thinking that I've taken Cooking for Geeks way to seriously. Why would science be necessary for art? Isn't art concerned with subjectivity and emotion while science wants to see what is really there?

Truth be told, I've never been much of a science guy. cience is interesting but oh the math! I spent far too many afternoons of my youth slumped on a desk, harangued by the exasperated Mrs. Brand who was striving mightily to explain the finer points of algebra and trig to a mind more attuned to rock rhythms and platform heels. Even today when I see a mathematical formula, angst nips at the edge of awareness as if all of life's absurdity were concentrated in a string of polynomials. But my interest in food and wine has inexorably driven me to pay more attention to science, although the dragon of math anxiety will likely remain un-slain.

Old attitudes insisting that art and science are distinct, separate cultures are no longer credible. Traditional visual artists and musicians manipulated only the surfaces of canvas, stone, strings or hollow tubes. Thus, most (with some exceptions) could do without much knowledge of science. By contrast, artists who work in contemporary media with their installations, film, and sound technologies must themselves learn to modify the fundamental structure of the objects on which they work, or depend on someone with that ability. The emerging interest in kitchen science gives chefs that same kind of control over molecular structure, thus vastly expanding what can be imagined and what can be achieved.

Both art and science are driven by curiosity, imagination, and the search for knowledge. They differ only in that artists aim at the pleasures of imaginative self-expression while science systematically directs the imagination on linear paths toward objective truth. I suspect the intellectual tools and dispositions to excel at both are not widely shared, which makes Myhrvold and others like him a rare but indispensable breed.

But a word of caution before you decide a blow torch is your ticket to seared-steak heaven. There is danger lurking in this headlong plunge into the realm of immersion circulators and vacuum desiccators. The romance of the traditional kitchen-the sounds and smells, the sensation of skin against dough and bone, the charming veneer of tools marked by age and use-seems under threat with this new approach to cooking. More importantly, the spontaneity, the creativity of responding to the inspiration of the moment, the disposition to follow side roads and diversions that make cooking an adventure might be swallowed by the demand for analytic planning and precise measurement. The search for flavor perfection will be hollow if we lose the significance of food as a gathering and focal point of a variety of diverse aesthetic experiences, social connections, and meaningful links to the past.

If molecular gastronomy (or modernist cuisine or progressive cooking or whatever we decide to call it) is to make “culinary artistry” more than a conceit, it cannot be perceived as a gimmick, a series of “food jokes” or entertaining tricks. It must achieve the kind of authentic perfection that Escoffier or Joel Robuchon achieved with more traditional methods.

It remains to be seen whether, in the long run, this brave new world of the modernist kitchen will produce the culinary equivalent of Dali or Disney.

For more ruminations on the philosophy of food and wine visit Edible Arts