Culinary Genius

How Bostonians are redefining the way the world thinks about food, one cookie-baking robot at a time.

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.

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.”

 

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.’”

Whatever the local impact, it’s clear that Boston’s academic underpinnings have put us at the heart of a food movement. Achatz, for his part, is already dreaming of taking the food-meets-science explorations to the next level: “What about talking to [a university’s] psychology department about crafting the experience in the scope of a meal where we could make things taste different by making people feel or process differently?” he muses. “Or [working with] doctors specializing in the olfactory and tapping into the way things smell? If I have a waiter put something down in front of you in a certain manner, certain body language and inflection in the voice, is it possible to experience the identical food presented in the exact same way, if it was delivered by someone else? Maybe by looking at and breaking apart the roller-coaster-type flows and patterns of artistic mediums, we can predict what [foods and trends] will be next. This is just the beginning.”

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