Culinary Genius

By Leah Mennies | Boston Magazine |

BEYOND REFLECTING OUR INSATIABLE CURIOSITY, there’s something very right-place, right-time about what’s happening in Boston at the moment. “There’s been growing popular interest with food, with all of its cultural and social and environmental aspects and with the introduction of molecular gastronomy,” says Leo Bonanni, the founder of Sourcemap, an MIT-born website that tracks the carbon footprint of ingredients used by chefs. (Jason Bond of Bondir and Robert Harris of Season to Taste Catering are among its fans.) In other words, our collective obsession with all things culinary has put a new twist on this city’s age-old penchant for intellectual analysis. “The educational issue has always been there in Boston,” notes Jeff Potter, a part-time Cantabrigian and author of Cooking for Geeks, “but the realization that food was a good vehicle for it was really a recent connection.”

So, in the process of watching cookie-baking robots on YouTube, we are learning something. Food is being used to make harder-to-swallow topics like science, social issues, and technology more palatable. The students “are making those recipes and doing those experiments…analyzing the data and presenting the results,” says Amy Rowat, a former Harvard research associate who helped create the university’s popular course last year and is putting together a similar program at UCLA, where she is now a professor. Oringer puts it more succinctly: “Science is boring. Everyone is a closet foodie, and I think if you can apply anything to food, people will get into it.”

Meanwhile, the chefs coming in from around the globe to teach us about hydrocolloids and caramelization are getting an education of their own. By the end of the Harvard course last year, chef Wylie Dufrese of avant-garde New York destination WD-50 had learned how to use a binding agent to make noodles out of cheese, while our own Barbara Lynch scored a better recipe for gluten-free pasta. Momofuku’s David Chang consulted with Harvard microbiologists to find out whether a pork loin he had fermented in a bucket of rice was edible, and in the process discovered that he may have created a new strain of bacteria. And Achatz came to understand how the scientific principles of surface tension and viscosity explained why the chocolate sauce in a dessert at Alinea mysteriously took on a square shape when poured onto a silicone mat. This year, he hopes students will help him create flavored snow for his new high-end cocktail bar, the Aviary.

But while the advances that are turning Boston into a gastronomic think tank have taken hold in some of the most famous kitchens in the country, they are, perhaps unsurprisingly, underrepresented in our own restaurants. Look closely and you’ll find evidence of culinary innovation around town: a tangle of noodles made from tomato-water gelatin at Journeyman; gin-and-cucumber “capsules” in a salad at Clio; a puff of squid-ink foam atop a fried oyster at O Ya. But by and large, the movement feels like an undercurrent rather than a tidal wave sweeping our city.  

Is Boston too tame to ever wholly embrace these envelope-pushing developments? Grant Achatz, who has an O Ya alum in his kitchen at Alinea, thinks we’ve got potential. “Look at Chicago,” he says. “Everyone thinks that it is the Midwest and all meat-and-potatoes, but it has become the hotbed for modern cooking in the U.S. There is a great irony there. I think you should dispose of the notion that it can’t happen in Boston.” Zimmern is even more confident: “I guarantee you, in Boston within the next five years, you are going to have an explosion of restaurants doing this kind of stuff.”

Oringer, however, isn’t so sure. “I don’t think Boston will become a molecular gastronomy kind of city, but there are chefs learning [the] techniques,” he says. One such technique is sous-vide, or low and slow cooking in a circulating water bath. It’s boundary-pushing because it’s yet unregulated by restaurant inspectors, but the method is increasingly popular. These kinds of developments do influence our cuisine, Oringer says, “even if it’s a farm-to-table restaurant saying, ‘This 60-degree egg could go great with the homemade bacon I just made.’”