Sunday, 29 April 2012

Nordic Cuisine seminar : What is innovation?

When I chose to study chemistry as my degree topic it was with some grand ambitions in mind. I was hoping to become some kind of pioneering food scientist creating fantastical new dishes and confectioneries. The reality is food chemistry is generally boring, repetitive work in the labs of large food corporations, not the stuff of my Willy Wonka inspired dreams. (In fact my career path led me into the rather niche field of PET radiochemistry, but that's another story.)

However, in the past decade Adria, Blumenthal, Achatz, Redzepi et al have not only embraced food science but also established their own laboratories dedicated to furthering understanding of the way cooking works and feed the inspiration of these great chefs and restaurants. As I read the weighty coffee table tomes that document the recipes of these chefs I sometimes daydream about what would it be like to spend all day playing around with ingredients, chemicals and lab equipment. In fact exactly the kind of lab that Lars Williams of the Nordic Food Lab described in his presentation at the most recent London Gastronomy Seminar.

I have been attending the London Gastronomy Seminars on and off since they started in 2010. They have been a mixed bunch of events and have included the eccentric ramblings of Herve This, an impassioned cheese sermon from Randolph Hodgson and a battle between tradition and modernism with Rowleigh Leigh vs. Sous Vide.

The latest seminar, hosted at Senate House, was a very special one. It was the UK launch of Flavour, the new open access journal that publishes articles on all aspects of flavour. The speakers were; Per Moller, food psychologist and editor of the journal,Ole Mouritsen, physicist and author, and the chef and head of R&D at the nordic Food Lab, Lars Williams.

Moller and Mouritsen gave interesting presentations to introduce the journal, covering the origins of flavour preferences, the satiety of spicy food and the use of seaweed in cuisine but it was Lars Williams'  food experimentation that I was excited by.  

Williams' cooking career is a list of the most innovative restaurants in the world. He has had stints at WD50, The Fat Duck and Noma. It was his work at Noma which then led to his appointment as head of Research and Development at the Nordic Food Lab, a converted house boat in Copenhagen harbour set up for the "exploration of deliciousness". Although he is a softly spoken orator I was riveted by every word as he described some of the work that he had been doing in his lab, where no idea is disregarded as being too wacky or irrelevant. Every proposal is given time and thought to explore its potential. Lars admits to being a chef first and a scientist second but his appetite for investigation and knowledge is very much that of a fellow science geek.

One of the missions of the lab is to utilise waste products and fermentation products. They have investigated how yeast extracts and fermented fish products can be pushed to their culinary potentials. How vegetable juices can be fermented straight to vinegar via symbiotic mixtures of yeast and aceto bacteria. You can see how these vinegars would be much more appropriate to dress a dish than the usual choices.

In one particularly brilliant piece of Macgyver style ingenuity, the team decided to try to capture the aroma of boiling chicken stock by condensing the aromatics released by the stock in a home built condenser. The energy of the project really spoke to me and reminded me of the emotions of a twelve year old with a chemistry set where the possibilities seem endless.

Another ambition of the lab is to turn everyday boring food into something new and exciting. I think this is a very worthy ambition to have. Take for example the experiment that they have done with cucumber. The question being asked was could you make something as apparently dull as cucumber an interesting flavour ingredient: are vegetables spicy? To do this they dried cucumber at a range of temperatures and ground the results to a powder. At 65C the cucumber was bitter and unpalatable but at 60C it was very different, caramelised and spicy. A good example of a useful tool created by asking interesting questions and answering them with thorough investigation.

In some culinary circles it seems that innovation has come to mean messing around with chemicals. You only have to watch an episode of the current Great British Menu which is swamped with warm gels, meat glue, spherification and foams to see that Ferran Adria's influence is now prevalent in British restaurants. This series is supposed to be about pushing the boundaries of cooking in some kind of Olympian ideal but I don't see how regurgitating methods developed over ten years ago is innovation.

The work being done in the Nordic Food Lab is not only innovating but it also looks like a lot of fun. An aspect I love about it is that without too much of a jump experiments like this can be done with minimal extra equipment in the home kitchen. In this vein I hope that future posts on this blog will include some of our own experiments with cooking and beer that are slightly out of the ordinary. So keep an eye out for some upcoming reports. I'm not saying they will be true innovation but they may be outside of the normal experience of the home cook.

For further reading on this kind of experimentation check out the following links:
Try something new today in your own kitchen and let me know what you think food innovation is or should be.

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