Until recently the preparation, cooking and eating of food was not generally considered worthy of sustained scientific study. Now, things have changed.
The efforts of a handful of scientists, writers and chefs have brought culinary science into the public eye, and it has been acknowledged as a subject of enormous complexity and importance. Food is a basic human need, and our bodies and brains are designed to collect and consume it. Exploring the business of cooking and eating can tell us not only what’s happening on the plate but what’s happening inside our heads and how we process what’s going on around us. Indeed, the subject is so vast and has so many fascinating potential practical applications that it now draws on many scientific disciplines, and scientists often pursue highly specialised areas of research.
Gradually, such efforts have reached the mainstream, changing how we look at food and expanding our understanding and our vocabulary. Ten years ago Crab Ice Cream was considered bizarre, even unacceptable, and the fact that there are five tastes was barely known.
Now savoury ices are commonplace and the term ‘umami’ appears in cookbooks without the need for explanation. But these details are just the tip of a very large iceberg.
As you will see, scientists are beginning to understand how flavour perception works (sometimes even when the flavour isn’t actually there!); how pleasure, reward and learned associations can influence our preferences and eating habits; and how some combinations of ingredients punch above their weight. They’ve discovered that fruit flies can taste carbon dioxide — and wondered whether humans can too. (And not only carbon dioxide. Just as the general public has finally come to accept the idea of five tastes, scientists are busy investigating whether we have receptors for fat and astringency. It’s starting to look as though the notion of five tastes might be superseded by a much more complex profile of how we respond to taste and flavour.)
There are those who think that this is irrelevant to the kitchen and has no place in it, but increasingly this is seen as an outdated viewpoint with a contradictory set of principles: using an electric juicer is OK, but putting a lemon in a centrifuge is somehow not. Under this logic, even electricity has no place in the kitchen. It makes no sense. We enthusiastically employ modern technology and concepts to enhance almost every aspect of our daily lives, and cuisine should be no different. Cooking draws on scientific principles, on chemical actions and reactions, from the moment we use heat energy to denature proteins (make scrambled eggs) or create a stable colloid by means of a surfactant (prepare a vinaigrette). Understanding how it all works doesn’t remove the instinctive, emotional side of cooking, it widens the scope for it, offering new ways of doing and seeing things.
Over the years I’ve met many scientists, and it has been thrilling to learn about their work and its implications. Their findings have often inspired my cooking (although sometimes in surprisingly oblique ways), and this book would be incomplete without a contribution from them. So, in a series of essays entitled ‘In the Lab: The Science of Food at the Fat Duck’, you’ll get the chance to read Tony Blake on the role of the brain in eating, François Benzi on flavour, Christophe Laudamiel on odour, Peter Barham on glass structures in food, Jon Prinz on how the mouth influences food appreciation and Don Mottram on Maillard reactions, as well as many other experts on all sorts of subjects that have been important in some way to the Fat Duck, from the machine that has revolutionised how flavour perception is understood to ingredients that allow a range of special culinary effects. Charles Spence’s brilliant piece on multisensory perception highlights a theme that unites of the essays — each reveals just how much eating is a multisensory process. Together they present a fascinating portrait of the cutting-edge developments in food science of the past few years and what this might mean in the future.
Of course, although science is a great tool for creativity, chefs still have to use their imagination and a lot of trial and error to convert those ideas into a dish.
The first part of this section shows how I’ve employed science in the kitchen. It describes some of the steps that led me to low-temperature cooking, and the technical complexities that had to be resolved in the quest for ice cream that acted as a garnish rather than a dessert. It also outlines many of the special techniques, ingredients and equipment used at the restaurant, often in unique ways. Day-to-day experience of the sous-vide machine, for example, has led me to use it not just for vacuum-packing foodstuffs for cooking, but also to drive off moisture from chips, aerate chocolate and compact fruit and vegetables to alter their flavour and texture. And intensive wrestling with the technical difficulties of gellan has led to a much clearer understanding of how it responds in a range of circumstances.
In such situations, an appreciation of the scientific principles involved has been key to thinking independently and going beyond the standard applications of a particular technique or piece of equipment. The information in the following pages has been a source of inspiration for me and will, I hope, be one for you too — helping to create dishes that engage not only the senses but also the emotions. Because, if an artist or a musician can generate emotions from painting and music, why can’t a chef do the same with food?