“If I want to make a mayonnaise, why should I use only one?” asked Hervé This, using four wire whisks grasped in one hand to whip an egg yolk and oil in a stainless mixing bowl. With his French accent, flop of white hair and mandarin-collared shirt, Mr. This—who is widely regarded as the godfather of molecular gastronomy, a field that seeks to apply the scientific method to our understanding of food, cooking and taste—looked like the charismatic high-school chemistry teacher you never had. He stood before gathered foodies, chemists and chefs on a recent Monday evening in a ground floor lounge with a view of Washington Square Park. Wine glasses filled with ethyl alcohol, egg white and macerated spinach were scattered on the display table next to a jar of glucose monohydrate, a mortar and a microwave. Plastic cups held sugar, salt and spit.
“Of course all chefs have a brain,” said Mr. This, “but they use it generally to make art or love, not science.”
Welcome to the monthly meeting of the Experimental Cuisine Collective (ECC), a collaboration of the food studies and chemistry departments at N.Y.U. The ECC offers a rare chance for New Yorkers, the city’s top experimental chefs and eggheady academics with sophisticated taste buds to come together and swap ideas on everything from cat food to eggnog to mayo, and to explore how science can enhance our understanding of the foods all around us.
Since the summer of 2006, the ECC has been using a $10,000 Humanities Council grant to do its strange work. The collective was spearheaded by N.Y.U. molecular chemist Kent Kirshenbaum, food studies professor Amy Bentley and Will Goldfarb, the chef behind the now-closed Room 4 Dessert “experiential dessert bar.” It held its first monthly workshop last April, when more than a hundred culinary and pastry professionals, food writers, academics and “the dining public” (as the group describes us—yes, we’re invited!) watched The Times’ Florence Fabricant moderate talks by neuroscientist Robert Margolskee, chef Wylie Dufresne (wd~50), Mitchell Davis (James Beard Foundation) and Mr. This.
But what about the food, you ask? At any given meeting you might get isolated long-chain polysaccharides (think starch, xanthum gum) and clarified citrus juices and, you know, foam. Next month’s study of whipped cream includes an eggnog tasting. There’s also been “chocolate consommé” whipped in high-G-force centrifuges (“Right now we’re just experimenting,” said Jean Georges pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini) and a chewy Turkish ice cream made from orchid flour.
But the ECC works on more practical issues as well. Are there better ways to make puff pastry? When’s the right time to salt the roast? Can you fry in sugar syrups? The collective provides the insight that science can prime creativity and improve cooking success. All you need is the time and inclination to experiment.
Cooking, after all, is a chemical art, said Mr. This, “like metallurgy, soap production, drug production.” It’s also, he said, the last chemical art to be “rationalized.”
On that recent Monday, Mr. This had come to the collective to talk about “the transfer of technology from laboratory to kitchen in light of recent scientific developments in molecular gastronomy.” In preparation, he had sent an assigned reading, from the peer-reviewed International Journal of Pharmaceutics, titled “Formal Descriptions for Formulation,” wherein he proposes, among other things, that foods can be analyzed as combinations of gas, oil, solid and water (represented by G, O, S and W, respectively), such that the “production of whipped cream could be described by the equation: (O + S)/W + G —> G/[(O + S)/W].”
“Their language is pretty dense,” admitted wd~50’s Mr. Dufresne of the academics. “Our language is just, like, eggs and chickens.” Yet the chefs have the kitchen experience the chemists need, and it’s no accident that Mr. This collaborates closely with his good friend, Parisian three-star chef Pierre Gagnaire, on experimental recipes for dishes like a cucumber mousse.
Mr. Kirshenbaum, the chemist, said getting the science across takes speaking slowly (or, as Americans do when overseas, he suggested, loudly), but as a self-selecting group, participants tend to get it. So far, though, parties have found what David Arnold, director of culinary technology at the French Culinary Institute, called “different types of expertise that are mutually beneficial.”
Consider that four-whisk mayonnaise. Mr. Kirshenbaum can explain to chefs hydrogen bonding and hydrophobicity (basically, why the oil and water of the mayo don’t naturally mix). Marion Nestle, the N.Y.U. nutritionist (“I’m an Alice Waters type, dyed in the wool—in my opinion, these chefs do very weird things”), can talk about shelf life and the F.D.A. Mr. Dufresne will take mayonnaise and deep-fry it into delicious little cubes. But Mr. This looks at mayonnaise and sees food chemistry magic.
“Mayonnaise is a mir-AH-cull,” he said. “You use an egg yolk: It’s liquid. You use vinegar: liquid. You use oil: liquid. And suddenly, you have something where even a spoon can stand up.”
Then—why not?—he popped his mayonnaise in the microwave and produced a free-standing gelatinous glob he called a “Gibbs.” Not on the shelf at Whole Foods—yet.