The Kitchen as Laboratory - Modernist Cuisine

The Kitchen as Laboratory

MCMay 21, 2012

The late Oxford physicist Nicholas Kurti is best known for conducting cooling experiments that came within a millionth of a degree of absolute zero (-459 °F / -273 °C), the temperature at which the motions within atoms cease.

A less-celebrated endeavor–but one of equal achievement in our minds–is the collection of essays on the science of food that he published with his wife, Giana, in 1988. But the Crackling Is Superb: An Anthology on Food and Drink by Fellows and Foreign Members of the Royal Society was one of the earliest efforts to bring the scrutiny of scientific minds to bear on the ordinary miracle of cooking. Along with Harold McGee, we can thank Kurti for insisting that the culinary arts are a worthy subject for science, a position that was unpopular before now.

And we do thank Kurti, by name, in a chapter we wrote for an anthology published earlier this year: The Kitchen as Laboratory: Reflections on the Science of Food and Cooking. Our chapter on cryo-cooked duck combines two of Kurti’s favorite themes: low-temperature physics and crispy, crackling skin. Although Kurti never visited The Cooking Lab, we couldn’t have done it without him.

Like our chapter on cryo-cooked duck, the book itself is an homage to Kurti, lovingly assembled by editors César Vega, Job Ubbink, and Erik van der Linden. I’m proud to say I knew César way back when he was getting a Ph.D. in food science at the University College Cork, Ireland. He applied for an internship at The Fat Duck’s Experimental Kitchen, where I was founding chef; and, even in our first brief phone conversation, his knowledge, commitment, and passion impressed me. We’ve stayed in touch ever since.

César and his colleagues collect a variety of essays and share myriad opinions. There are gastrophilic discussions of spherification, mouthfeel, and xanthan gum, along with treatises on the interactions among food, society, and ethnic cuisines, all of which integrate the senses into the eating and cooking experience.

For example, food physicist Malcolm Povey of Leeds University, who awakened me to the importance of sound in making delectable fish and chips, described the acoustical experiments by which he arrived at “the universal definition of crispiness.” Chemist and Khymos blogger Martin Lersch expounds on how and why to speed up the Maillard reaction.

Alex Talbot and Aki Kamozawa of Ideas in Food devote a chapter to the perfect chocolate-chip cookie dough (the secret ingredient isn’t an ingredient at all but a technique: vacuum sealing). In a closing chapter, Micheal Laiskonis, executive pastry chef at Le Bernardin, cautions against the fevered following of trends and gimmicks in science-based cooking and calls for a renewed investigation of basic processes and ingredients.

Other essay topics run the gamut from insights on familiar, beloved foodstuffs (e.g., grilled cheese, soft-boiled eggs, bacon) to explanations on more exotic fare (e.g., pig trotters, “fox testicle” ice cream). Needless to say about its 32 chapters, The Kitchen as Laboratory has something for every pastry maker, butcher, scientist, professional chef, home cook, restaurateur, and food enthusiast.

We are honored to have our work included among these fun and fascinating explorations. Kudos to César and his co-editors for building on Nicholas Kurti’s legacy, in print and in the laboratory of the kitchen.