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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

You can help by leaving comments on posts and by becoming a follower. More than a hundred thousand people all over the world have viewed the blog and that's great. But every great leader needs followers and if I am ever to achieve my goal of becoming the next great leader of the Italian culinary world :-) I need followers! I promise, I'm not going to spam anybody. I'd just like to know who's out there and what your thoughts are on what I'm doing.

Grazie mille!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Food Science: It's Not Just for Nerds Anymore

Word came down the other day that the CIA is getting into food science. No, no......not that CIA. Not the one headquartered in Langley, VA. I'm talking about the one in Hyde Park, NY. The Culinary Institute of America.

According to an Associated Press story, the school is beefing up instruction in techniques more suited to the chemistry lab than to the kitchen. With the new wave of “modernist cuisine,” “molecular gastronomy,” and the attendant gimmicks like xanthan gum and liquid nitrogen, tomorrow's chefs will have to be more experimental than yesterday's. This has resulted in a new major at the Institute; culinary science, a field that embraces both food science and culinary art.


Molecular Gastronomy aficianado Chef Richard Blais
(Getty Images)
As anybody who has ever tried to make their own mayonnaise knows, cooking and science have always gone hand in hand. You employ the principles of emulsion in order to make mayonnaise. The effect of heat on food is a matter of basic scientific theorem. And a lot of chemical reactions occur in baking. So cooking has always been a mixture of art and science. But there's a world of difference between established cooking techniques like finishing a sauce with butter and the new wave idea of dipping a strawberry in liquid nitrogen before hammering it into tiny pieces and grinding up the results to make strawberry dust. These new methods require whole new schools of thought. And the addition of centrifuges and blow torches and immersion circulators and anti-griddles to the traditional line up of flat tops, blenders, and food processors requires new courses of instruction as well.
The story continues: “The CIA is tweaking the master-apprentice relationship that has been a hallmark of professional kitchens since the days of suspending iron pots over wood fires. The traditional way for a trainee to respond to a request is, 'Yes, chef.' Now school administrators want to make it closer to, 'Why, chef?' They want students to come up with hypotheses, test them, and discover the best methods.”

Well, I believe as long as there are old-school guys heading kitchens, “Why, chef?” is not going to fly too high. Picture an apprentice saying, “Why, chef?” to the likes of Gordon Ramsay. But the idea of applying scientific methods in a kitchen setting is a good one. Personally, I don't think it's enough to know that a certain food item behaves a certain way when you cook it. I like to know why it behaves the way it does and what I can do to alter or enhance or moderate that behavior.

And I don't believe that science in the kitchen needs to be limited to the professional kitchen. Home cooks who know what their food is and why it does what it does and how they can make it do better things become better cooks. To that end, I have a few suggestions and recommendations. And, no, enrolling at the CIA or a similar institution is not necessarily one of them, although........

What I had in mind is much simpler, less costly, and more easily attainable. And it comes from three sources: Harold McGee, Robert L. Wolke, and Alton Brown.
Harold McGee is the dean of food science writers. His exhaustive 1984 opus, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, is practically a textbook and his scientific approach to food and cooking has influenced dozens of prominent chefs, food writers, and the food industry in general. The original work was greatly revised and updated for a second edition in 2004. World-famous chef Daniel Boulud scores McGee's book as “a must for every cook who possesses an inquiring mind."
Then there's Robert L. Wolke, author of two McGee-esque books on food science;What Einstein Told His Cook and the follow up What Einstein Kept Under His Hat. Both are wonderfully informative and entertaining reads. Whereas McGee organizes his work into categories based on specific ingredients such as milk and dairy, eggs, meat, fish, etc., and then expands at great length on each subject, Wolke takes a less pedantic approach, answering general questions like “What is Dutch process cocoa? How is it used differently from regular cocoa in recipes?” His responses are simple, direct, and generally quite entertaining. He's one of those instructors that makes learning interesting and fun.

But when it comes to interesting and fun, nobody holds a candle to Alton Brown. His Good Eats program that aired on Food Network from 1999 to 2012 is part Mr. Wizard and part Monty Python, with a touch of Jim Henson thrown in for good measure. I mean, here's a grown man who employs belching sock puppets to demonstrate the expulsion of carbon-dioxide by yeast. Episodes have punny titles like “Give Peas a Chance.” It's hilarious. But it's also extremely informative in a delightfully entertaining way that appeals to all ages. My 10-year-old nephew enjoys watching Good Eats as much as I do, and any food program that can capture and hold a kid's attention is a good one, indeed. When presented with a Peabody Award in 2006, it was said, "Rarely has science been taught on TV in such an entertaining – and appetizing – manner as it is in Alton Brown's goofy, tirelessly inventive series."

Alton Brown
(Food Network)

Although no longer in production, the show airs in reruns on both Food Network and sister broadcast outlet Cooking Channel. It's also available on DVD. And Brown has authored three best-selling Good Eats volumes based on the series, as well as several I'm Just Here for the Food books, which combine the instructional and literary styles of McGee and Wolke and spin them out in a quirky manner that only Alton Brown could accomplish.

Okay, so you don't have to be a food scientist in order to cook. Just like you don't have to be a mechanic to drive a car. But if you ever find yourself stuck by the side of the road on a dark and stormy night, it sure helps. Knowing how to scramble or fry or poach an egg makes you a cook. Knowing the various components of the egg and how their physical characteristics and chemical makeup affect the way the egg scrambles, fries, or poaches makes you a much better cook.

So if you've ever caught yourself wondering why a piece of meat browns the way it does (it's the Maillard reaction) or why water boils at a lower temperature at higher altitudes (decreased air pressure), you might be a closet food scientist. And that's okay, because nowadays food science is cool. After all, the folks at the CIA ought to know.

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