Top chefs make science appetizing at Harvard

Guest lecturers explain ‘biology of soil,’ physics of cooking

Dan Barber, executive chef and co-owner of New York City's Blue Hill restaurant, lingers after teaching a food-and-science class at Harvard University. International top chefs serve as guest lecturers. (Associated Press)Dan Barber, executive chef and co-owner of New York City’s Blue Hill restaurant, lingers after teaching a food-and-science class at Harvard University. International top chefs serve as guest lecturers. (Associated Press)

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. | Dan Barber’s culinary skills have earned him a James Beard Outstanding Chef award. The food at his New York restaurant, Blue Hill, was the centerpiece for a Manhattan date night between President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama.

Yet it was his focus on cultivating flavor before foodstuffs even reach his kitchen that put him in an unusual setting recently.

Trading his chef’s whites for a loosened tie and sport coat, Mr. Barber stood in the well of a Harvard University science hall, delivering a guest lecture as part of the hottest course on campus this fall: Physical Universe 27, or “Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science.”

As part of the course, top chefs from around the world, including the current master of the gastronomic universe, Ferran Adria, chef-owner of Spain’s famed elBulli restaurant, have attempted to explain how physics and other sciences influence their cooking.

They’ve also shown that their cooking — in Mr. Adria’s case, often labeled “molecular gastronomy” — can illustrate scientific feats such as spherification, gelation and oxidation. One of Mr. Adria’s signature dishes is warm — but, seemingly miraculously, not melted — ice cream. His trick is the additive methylcellulose, a gum that solidifies when it warms rather than cools.

Mr. Barber holds charcoal made from a lobster's body. He co-owns two farms for experimenting with the science behind food. (Stone Barns via Associated Press)

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Mr. Barber holds charcoal made from a lobster’s body. He co-owns two ... more >

Not exactly a pantry staple. And that’s sort of the point.

The goal is to teach science in new and interesting ways, part of the university’s effort to revamp its general education offerings. The target audience is not just history majors seeking to satisfy curriculum distribution requirements, but budding scientists with an equal passion for food.

“If you know this is why you have lemon juice, then you can say, ‘Well, lemon juice is here for a certain effect. Are there other things that can substitute for lemon juice if I don’t have lemon juice, because I’m just looking for an effect, not necessarily the lemon juice itself?’” said senior Larissa Zhou.

The 22-year-old physics major is one of the course’s teaching assistants, reinforcing the work of its two professors. Hundreds of her classmates competed for the 300 spots in the course, and hundreds more have lined up hours early on recent Mondays to attend guest lectures.

They have been delivered by Mr. Barber, Mr. Adria and others famed chefs, such as Grant Achatz of Alinea in Chicago, Jose Andres of Jaleo in Washington and David Chang of momofuku in New York.

“Everything that I celebrate in the kitchen, and that I am celebrated for, actually begins here,” Mr. Barber said of farming and raw ingredients during his lecture, aptly titled, “Cultivating Flavor.”

Using a PowerPoint presentation, he explained that he uses traditional cooking techniques but attempts to distinguish his cuisine through the science behind the meats and produce he serves. His personal laboratory is Stone Barns, a farm where he, his brother and sister-in-law own a restaurant and run a cafe 25 miles north of New York City. The trio also own Blue Hill Farm in Great Barrington, Mass., largely a dairy operation.

At Stone Barns, chefs work with farmers to learn which grasses and grazing methods produce the tastiest lamb. They see how compost and pulverized charcoal sown in the ground affect the sugar content of carrots that grow in it. And they experiment with minimizing their environmental footprint by turning lobster bodies into charcoal that they then use to grill fresh lobsters.

“I’m not an environmentalist, but in the pursuit of the science behind influencing flavors, what I’ve come to learn is that if you’re pursuing the best flavor, you have to have the best biology in the soil,” Mr. Barber said in an interview.

Michael Brenner, one of the professors leading the course, said the chefs have proved to be remarkably adept communicators, distilling complex scientific concepts into everyday language. He lauded Mr. Andres for his discussion of fat, proteins and carbohydrates.

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