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5 Lessons from the Wonders of Food Science

Explorations in the Science of Flavor

If you have been following recent developments in the food world, you might have been surprised by the (relatively) meteoric rise of the so-called “technoemotional” or what others have termed “molecular gastronomy” movement—the application of sophisticated food science technology and design principles to produce more-engaging, higher-quality eating experiences.

Seemingly out of nowhere, the food world has become enraptured with the application of obscure food technologies to produce food that was formerly “the stuff of dreams.” And one can’t help but to observe that there is a sort of dreamy, science fiction-like quality to all of these creations. Ferran Adrià, working at El Bulli, creates dishes such as the “olive oil spring” (think edible slinky) and a “liquidless margarita served in a frozen snow cube” (a whiff of alcoholic goodness). Meanwhile Grant Achatz at Chicago’s Alinea may opt for a more conventional “reduction of lamb, fig and pernod served atop a pillow of anise star aromatics” (as you press into the plate, the underlying pillow releases small bursts of anise-scented perfume).

And don’t think for a minute that these explorations are limited to food alone. Eben Freeman, the mad mixologist at NYC’s Tailor has produced a whole line of non-liquid cocktails for the 21st century set. One of the most popular offerings is his White Russian Breakfast Cereal (think Rice Krispies Treats where the cereal is soaked in Kahlua, dehydrated and then soaked in vodka, sugar, cream and so forth, eventually to be eaten with a spoon out of a bowl!).


The Science and Lore of the Kitchen


As strange as it may seem, the roots of such developments actually took shape some 20 years ago, just as Alice Waters, Jeremiah Tower and Judy Rodgers were starting to get the word out about notions such as fresh, local, seasonal and artisanal. In 1984 a little-known writing instructor at Yale University named Harold McGee published a textbook called On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. While initially met with relative indifference, the book has had a profound influence on several generations of American cooking professionals, in the process leaving an indelible mark on our current culinary horizon. And as it happens, McGee’s revolutionary secret was to dare to ask how and why?

You see, for many, many years, professional cooks and chefs were trained in their craft by an unrelenting—almost brutal—apprenticeship system, which focused on preparation and technique at the expense of intellectual curiosity. Actually understanding the underlying chemical or physical processes at hand was deemed much less important than mastering a given technique (e.g., to prepare a torchon of foie gras). McGee, by comparison, began to investigate the chemical and molecular processes involved in cooking. And while he was surely not the first to do so, what was unique was that McGee was interested in these subjects not to provide food with minimal cost, maximal efficiency and homogenous flavors and textures (the industrial perspective). Rather, McGee was interested in the application of food science technology to maximize the flavor, texture and aromatic properties of food. In other words, McGee was looking to science to produce the most pleasurable, highest quality food experience possible.

And just to be clear, we believe this quiet, innocent-appearing shift of focus will have profound effects on all aspects of the food world for many, many years to come. For at once we find a collective energy emerging in all corners of the food world that, while respectful of traditional techniques and cuisines, deploys technology to reimagine food experience in ways we will still be discovering for several decades. No longer constrained by craft and trade notions of traditional cuisines on the one hand, and not bound by the industrialist impulse to view technology as a tool for homogeneity, consistency and cost efficiency, chefs, food fans and entrepreneurs alike are increasingly turning to the wonders of food science to produce truly wonderful, awe-inspiring creations.

Defying Convention Does Not Mean Defying Common Sense

Ironically, one of the first questions we often get when discussing the evolution of technoemotional cuisine is whether this sea change will signal an end of the current definitions of quality as “all things local, seasonal, artisanal, authentic, etc.” And of course, nothing could be further from the truth.

While practitioners of technoemotional cuisine revel in their ability to utilize the basic elements of food technology that have been there all along, none would ever believe that the use of such tools eliminates the need to always begin with the highest possible quality of ingredients. To that end, if you should venture into the restaurants of the leading practitioners—say El Bulli or Alinea—you would notice the same ingredient pedigrees depicted on the menus that were first popularized by the likes of Alice Waters or Thomas Keller.

The bottom line is that while the two most striking trends—fresh and technoemotional—to characterize food worlds in the past 30 odd years may initially seem to be strange bedfellows (at best) or diametric opposites (at worst), the two could not be more complementary. In fact, both stem from the same indigenous impulse. To create the most compelling, engaging food experiences of the highest quality possible, limited only by the human imagination.



5 Lessons for Food Manufacturers, Marketers and Branders



1. Stop Pendulum Shift Thinking

Avoid the common tendency toward a revolutionary perspective on trends—the idea that new trends must, by definition, refute previous or current trends.

2. Don't Forget Technology

Do not assume that the current trend towards “all things fresh, seasonal and local” has ever suggested a growing consumer disdain for food processing technology. Americans have always had a love affair with technology. What happened in the late 20th century was that they became disenchanted with the way many manufacturers chose to utilize the technology.

3. Don't Abandon Fresh & Quality

Conversely, as professional chefs—and increasingly consumers—begin to tinker with the application of food science technology to provide higher-quality food experiences, do not mistakenly assume that the trend toward “all things fresh, local and season¬al” will subside. The trend toward higher quality ingredients—and, by proxy food experiences—will continue unabated.

4. Rethinking Technology

If you are in the CPG business, consider how your technology can be used to create the “highest quality food experience” possible. So rather than settling on now dated notions of technology as a driver of efficiency, predictability or homogeneity (or a tool for scalability), why not reconceptualize technology as tool useful for creating more unique, compelling, customized food experiences?

5. Redefinition of Quality

The sum total of ideas, preferences, desires, techniques and “ways of doing” that have characterized trends in the food world for the past 30 years (be they about all things fresh and local or all things technological) point to one inescapable conclusion: The overriding impulse is toward the redefinition of quality—the foundational restructuring of what it means to enjoy a quality food experience.

No longer constrained by craft and trade notions of traditional cuisines, and not bound by the industrialist impulse to view technology as a tool for homogeneity, consistency and cost efficiency, chefs, food fans and entrepreneurs alike are increasingly turning to the wonders of food science to produce truly wonderful, awe-inspiring creations.


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