/ clippings /
That's part of the recipe for geek gourmet, a strange brew of science and food.
april 1 2007 issue
An artist uses a syringe to inject a pomegranate seed into the mouths of gallerygoers. An eccentric billionaire cooks short ribs in a science-lab water bath for 40 hours. A countercultural technogeek in San Francisco stages an event during which flavored foam is spread over a bath of liquid nitrogen.
Welcome to the strange world of geek gourmet.
It's happening all around the world, inspired by a handful of genius chefs. Restaurants such as Heston Blumenthal's the Fat Duck outside of London; Ferran Adria's El Bulli in Rosas, Spain; and Wylie Dufresne's WD-50 in New York are routinely ranked as among the best in the world, and three-star chefs flock there to see what kind of wizardry will be cooked up next. Adria and Blumenthal practice a unique, cutting-edge kind of cuisine called molecular gastronomy. Essentially, they have reinvented the cooking process, setting aside thousands of years of tradition and working from the ground up to create dishes based on the molecular compatibilities of different ingredients by using all the techniques of modern science to create flavors and textures never before experienced.
Molecular gastronomy, for most of its short history, has been the exclusive domain of chefs and scientists, food experts with immense resources and the skills to put them into play. But nothing stays out of the mainstream for long, and molecular gastronomy ( or geek gourmet, as it's sometimes called ) has been picked up on by amateurs. The best place to look for these food hackers is in the technological counterculture, right along with the people who joyfully rewrite Microsoft code or reedit Star Wars movies to make them better. One of the leading food hackers is Marc Powell of San Francisco, a member of the Bay Area's hacker/artist/activist community. Powell is a resident of Unicorn Precinct XIII, a self-described "home to artists, musicians, hackers, anarchists, spiritualists, freaks, cooks, and family." The 29-year-old maintains a blog (www.foodhacking.com) that chronicles his ongoing experiments. One recent post describes Powell's demonstration of making a frigid almond-brandy sweet foam, cooled with liquid nitrogen, at a Dorkbot event -- a kind of hootenanny for technogeeks. Of course, Powell also has access to a 200-mph blender, five computers, and a naturally synthesized substance called meat glue when he's concocting his delicacies.
For Powell, there's no major difference between the kind of cooking he's doing now and the computer hacking he has done in the past. "Chefs are a lot like hardware hackers," he writes. "Both geek out, absorbing the specs [of the vegetables or the technology] for the purpose of creating something that nobody else has" -- an innovative food or a new machine.
A few hundred miles to the north of Unicorn Precinct XIII, Nathan Myhrvold is conducting molecular gastronomy experiments that Powell can only dream of. Myhrvold, the former chief technology officer at Microsoft, is probably about as close as you could get to Powell?s reverse image in the world of technology. He has written in favor of intellectual-property rights in the Wall Street Journal and was a major figure in a company that most hackers love to hate. But both men share the same love of MG for its own sake. The difference is Myhrvold has essentially infinite resources with which to do it. His home in Washington State is equipped with a 2,000-square-foot food-science lab and every cutting-edge piece of equipment in the world. His lab homogenizer, for example, is like a superblender -- "I can get particles a full order of magnitude smaller than even the best blender in the world," he boasts. "One-micron droplets!" Myhrvold resists the name geek gourmet, although he readily admits to being "a huge food geek." Rather, he sees the movement as "scientifically or rationally oriented cuisine."
Myhrvold knows what he's talking about when it comes to science. He has a PhD in theoretical and mathematical physics, and he studied cosmology, quantum field theory in curved space-time, and quantum theories of gravitation with Stephen Hawking at the University of Cambridge before eventually landing at Microsoft. (Myhrvold also has degrees in geophysics, space physics, and mathematical economics.) But when it comes to cooking, he's learning as he goes. Everyone in the field is; even a culinary superstar like Adria (whom Myhrvold once engaged to create a 42-course meal) is working in a field that is in its infancy. Myhrvold is a regular on eGullet.com and trades tips and suggestions with other users around the country.
But Myhrvold -- bearded, cheerful, bespectacled -- is never happier than when puttering around in his lab, using science equipment to make food. He uses his ultrasonic cleaner, the same kind of powerful instrument used to clean jewelry, for tasks as different as making stock and emulsifying oil and water. He cooks short ribs inside a vacuum-sealed bag for 36 to 40 hours, and then, when they are completely reddish pink and medium rare all the way through, sears their surface on an induction range that superheats pans through magnetism, without ever giving off radiant heat. He has an ultraviolet sterilizer to free his environments of incubating microbes. He uses a custom-built cold smoker to experiment on salmon, as well as liquid nitrogen to make frozen cream puffs. But his goals are much loftier than just adapting science tools: Like any molecular gastronomist, amateur or professional, he wants to re-create food from the level of its tiniest particles.
Myhrvold speaks rapturously of fluid gels, or liquids that act like solids until the moment you pour them, and mozzarella powder ("You can eat it with a spoon!"). Some of the equipment he uses is beginning to find its way into ordinary restaurants and even the homes of some especially ambitious gourmets. He speaks approvingly of the Pacojet, a machine that grinds and pulverizes frozen ingredients, creating incredibly smooth mousses and sorbets out of practically anything. And he adores the ultimate kitchen appliance, the Thermomix, an all-in-one gastronomy engine that chops, grinds, mixes, blends, steams, heats, stirs, weighs, times, kneads, whips, stews, and homogenizes -- sometimes doing two or more of these things simultaneously.
I ask Myhrvold if he thinks the kind of high-tech experimentation he is doing will ever become the norm in ordinary kitchens. "I'm not sure how safe it would be," he concedes. "This kind of cooking is beyond the realm of intuition. You need to know about the equipment, health issues, and the science behind it. But it's not necessarily inaccessible. There are hundreds of people doing it right now. But it's never going to displace the corner deli or pizzeria."
To artist Miwa Koizumi, that's the idea behind this kind of cooking. It's supposed to be strange, to make people reconsider their notions of eating. "I want people to think about taste, about what eating is like as a shared experience," she says. Koizumi, a Japanese-born artist who developed her career in France, is now based in New York City and creates food-art happenings at a performance space called the Flux Factory. Some of these happenings are pretty far-out, which is entirely intentional. Koizumi seeks to reacquaint us with our sense of taste. Thus, in the appetizer portion of All You Can Art, a food collaboration held last year, Koizumi set out to have visitors "eat air." A pomegranate seed was placed at the end of a syringelike plunger, and visitors were asked to plunge, shooting vaporizing pomegranate liquor into their mouths.
Koizumi's art is meant to be ethereal; she's using the techniques of molecular gastronomy to completely abstract flavor from texture. She gets some of her effects from liquid, as well -- she used a centrifuge to separate the liquid from 100 tomatoes, producing a golden fluid that visitors were invited to taste. Without the familiar visual cues, many didn't know they were tasting the essence of tomato -- which was exactly the point.
In talking to all these geek-gourmet enthusiasts, I am excited but also a little depressed. Isn't there any way that these techniques could enter my daily life? Are centrifuges, immersion baths, and test tubes a necessity to taste the fruits of applied science in the kitchen? I took my question to one of New York City's preeminent geek-gourmet gurus, David Arnold of the French Culinary Institute. Arnold is a boyish-looking man in his thirties who calls to mind a high school science nerd from general casting, right down to his short haircut and mismatched shirt and tie. He is intensely energetic, curious, and enthusiastic about everything. And it is in Arnold's home that I finally see geek gourmet in action in a seminormal setting. Arnold's home kitchen, though not large even by New York City apartment standards, has been completely refitted, modified, and customized. But, for the most part, it's an ordinary kitchen -- only far more efficient.
There's a six-gallon deep fryer and a mortar and pestle. A restaurant broiler, bought at a going-out-of-business sale, is hooked up to the oven; the range has a double-valve system for better control. The sink is six feet long, covered with sliding cutting boards and equipped with double-powered cleanup jets that are powered by foot pedals with an extralong cord to give complete free play. Carbon dioxide tanks power a seltzer fountain. But the most conspicuous piece of equipment here is Arnold's espresso machine, to which he evinces an almost fanatical devotion.
"It's almost impossible to make a perfect cup of espresso," he tells me, taking out an old-fashioned popcorn popper and roasting the green coffee beans himself. Arnold uses a Rancilio grinder, a precision instrument with dozens of settings. "The main thing is not to use the blade or propeller-style grinders. You get an uneven blend, and there's lots of dust -- it's a real nightmare," he says, shuddering. "How fine a grind you want to use is a variable -- it depends on the humidity in the room, the atmospheric pressure, your temperature setting, and a lot of other things." Even the amount of ground roasted coffee isn't constant. Arnold hates the use of dosers, the fixed measured servings used in restaurants. Everything that takes away control of the process bothers him. The tamping, the packing, using just the right water -- Arnold is as careful about every step as an atom scientist working with live plutonium. The one fixed quantity in the espresso process, he says, is time: It should take 25 seconds to make a perfect shot. "Too long, and it gets bitter. Too short, and it's thin. It's a very precise balance, and I really try to stick to it," he explains, loosening his tie.
Several other adjustments are made, including setting the steam pressure to 1.5 bars -- equivalent, I'm told, to the atmospheric pressure in the room plus half. Arnold busies himself with measuring the weight of the coffee, all the while discoursing on the intricacies of preinfusion, the chemical release of oils under heat, and the niceties of acidity and wineyness in African versus South American coffees. Finally, the espresso is made. Arnold admires it, showing me the telltale "tiger stripe" that marks it as perfectly made. Am I ready to try it? I am. I feel a little like J. Robert Oppenheimer, waiting to see if the atomic bomb will detonate. Will this be the best espresso I have ever tasted? Will it transcend, in balance, flavor, and body, every cup of coffee haphazardly made by college dropouts that I have ever gulped down before? Will it live up to the epic efforts of the geek gourmet?