Culinary Genius

By Leah Mennies | Boston Magazine |

ON SCREEN, you’ll usually find Travel Channel personality Andrew Zimmern wandering foreign back streets in search of unusual fare like grilled crickets or frog hearts. So when he came to Boston in August to shoot an episode for his forthcoming series Bizarre Foods America, his visit to refined old Harvard with local culinary star Ken Oringer in tow hardly seemed like a typical stop.

Actually, it was a wise choice: There’s nowhere in town you’ll find a more curious, boundary-pushing lineup of edibles. Zimmern and Oringer were there to get the inside story on the university’s star-chef-studded Science and Cooking course, and after spending the day learning about topics like gelation and spherification and manipulating common ingredients like olive oil, they raced back to Oringer’s kitchen at Clio to put it all to the test. The resulting dishes? Celery-foam-topped lobster; sea urchin stew; an olive oil pâté de fruits; and tapioca maltodextrin-based powders flavored with the rendered fat from foie gras and chorizo.[sidebar]

Zimmern’s segment was but the latest bit of national press garnered by Harvard’s groundbreaking course. The New York Times and AP picked up the story last fall, and food blogs like Eater National have added to the clamor. Now in its second year, the science elective is one of the most difficult classes for Harvard students to get into. In 2010, when about 700 of them applied to take the course, spots were doled out via lottery. For the big-name lectures, attendees wait in nearly three-hour-long lines snaking through the Science Center to learn about such heady topics as the emulsification of liquids and the denaturing of proteins from toques including Ferran Adrià of Spain’s world-famous (and recently shuttered) El Bulli and Grant Achatz of Chicago’s temple to modern cuisine, Alinea.

Why all the frenzy? And why here? Put simply, because we’re a city full of geeks — the kind of people who’ll start with something fun, like dinner, and turn it into an experiment. That’s the Bostonian approach to, well, anything: Amass the leading thinkers on a subject — in this case, food — to calculate and quantify exactly what happens in the kitchen, on the palate, and in the brain, breaking down the experience of modern gastronomy into a problem set.

Though the Harvard course has drawn all the buzz, it’s just one example of forward-thinking Bostonians using food as a springboard for scientific and cultural exploration. Nearby, the Tufts Culinary Society — a group cofounded by Alix Boulud, daughter of international superchef Daniel Boulud — next year will unveil an 1,100-square-foot, state-of-the-art study kitchen where both students and big-name chefs like Boulud and Tufts alum Dan Barber (of New York’s Blue Hill) will give demos. Then there’s Let’s Talk About Food, a Museum of Science–affiliated initiative that will soon go on national tour, which combines food-centric museum exhibits, festivals, and lectures on issues like sustainability, health, and the environment. Wellesley College, meanwhile, is developing an on-campus “Edible Ecosystem Demonstration Garden” as part of its botanic gardens program. Complete with appetizing regions like a “nut grove” and “fruit woodland,” it aims to re-create a comestible forest environment.

At MIT, the culinary exploration is, naturally, of a more-technical nature. In the school’s Distributed Robotics Lab, students have programmed the PR2, an on-loan robot, to bake chocolate chip cookies in order to explore how our brains process sensory information and execute tasks by following recipes. MIT’s Media Lab also has “Cornucopia,” a digital gastronomy project that features prototypes for a 3-D “food printer,” which constructs new dishes by layering ingredients as if they were inks. There’s also a “digital chocolatier,” which whips out high-tech truffles, and a space-age food manipulator called the “Robotic Chef.”