Cooking is science

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Our world of nutrition is complex. From simple everyday meals at home to sophisticated gastronomic experiences in high-end restaurants, there are various techniques that are used in cooking. How we cook is almost an innate habit that we have. Our food culture and cooking methods have evolved through the accumulation of years of experience. The tastes we like or dislike in the way we enjoy our food is the legacy of past generations. Our geography determines what we eat, what we prefer, what we consume. In most cases, our beliefs and traditions are shaped by what our environment gives us as food. The history of our food is not limited to the kitchen. Feeding the world’s population is the main concern of humanity. From sowing to harvest, from foraging to hunting, the human mind is constantly busy bringing food to the table. Since the first act of cutting meat or grinding grain, mankind has been constantly developing methods of preparing food. In modern times, with the enormous development of industrial food systems, our food world is in an ever expanding phase. From the primordial fire to modern kitchen appliances, we use a wide variety of cooking techniques. What we actually do is just apply science. Science is key to all aspects of eating, even if the science behind eating isn’t always visible.

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Science in the Kitchen was the subject of a recent meeting held in Barcelona from November 8-10. “The Science and Cooking World Congress” is an international congress that aims to sound out the enormous potential of scientific gastronomy in order to generate a new paradigm to help solve major societal challenges. The congress is chaired by Pere Castells and the Universities of Barcelona and Parma, the Generalitat de Catalunya, the Parc a Taula and the Ajuntament de Barcelona as well as managing organizers of Gastro Ventures and Fresh Marketing de Proximitat. This was the second edition of the meeting, the first took place in 2019 and had to be skipped last year due to the pandemic. This year the topic “Sustainability, Research, Economy and Health” was chosen with great participation from all over the world. This year, 16 delegations from around the world were consolidated, namely Parma, Buenos Aires, Havana, Galapagos, Amazonia, Harvard, Bangkok, Chile, Montreal, Tokyo, Turkey, Madagascar, Denmark, UC San Diego, Ushuaia and Peru. Delegations, world-famous chefs and top-class speakers gathered at the University of Barcelona (UB) with a focus on sustainability, with the aim of drawing a map of today’s science and cooking situation.

The story of the congress begins with Pere Castells, whom I like to refer to as a kitchen chemist. He is the initiator of the congress, in a sense the father of the whole idea. It is well known that there are world-famous restaurants in every region of Spain. We can now easily speak of a Spanish revolution in the restaurant scene that is turning humble, family-owned places into dining destinations. The reason these restaurants, which were initially mostly small family businesses, have grown into must-see spots is because of the unique experience they offer their customers. The quality of the ingredients and the way they present even the simplest ingredient in a whole new way have been key to its success. At the forefront of this trend is the famous chef Ferran Adrià. As a young apprentice chef, he had previously attended several meetings in Erice, Sicily, organized by the late famous scientist Nicholas Kurti, the very first meetings that paved the way for molecular gastronomy. Kurti was the first scientist to advocate the application of scientific knowledge to culinary problems. Cooking was his hobby, and in 1969 he gave a lecture called “The Physicist in the Kitchen” in which he amazed the audience by using the recently invented microwave oven to make a reverse-baked Alaska that he called Frozen Florida on the outside cold and Hot inside, in contrast to the original burnt meringue ice cream. Over the years he was the one who organized several international workshops on molecular and physical gastronomy. The term molecular gastronomy emerged from these workshops. Adrià later rocked the world of gastronomy with his El Bulli restaurant, which he converted from a miniature golf cafeteria. At El Bulli, modern techniques and applied science in the kitchen have brought a completely different dimension to gastronomy. It was Pere Castells and his team who conducted experiments in the restaurant’s research laboratory. In a way, he was the scientist behind all sorts of creative playful inventions with toys, from aromatic foams to wonders of spherification that encapsulated intensified aromas in caviar-like tiny pearls that burst in the mouth with amazing aromas. Finally, Castells has been a regular speaker at Harvard University and has taken the Science & Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science courses, which aim to demonstrate basic principles of chemistry and physics in everyday cooking. Many Spanish chefs, including brothers Adria and Roca and Pere Planaguma, began contributing to the course along with Castells. Another regular speaker at the Harvard courses is Harold McGee, who attended the Erice workshops from the start and eventually wrote his groundbreaking book, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. McGee also attended the Congress in Barcelona, ​​where he was named Honorary President of the Congress. Pia Sörensen was one of the influential speakers at the Congress from Harvard courses, and I was pleased to learn that we were both interested in the saponification properties of certain plants. The mysterious ingredient used in the production of Helva and traditional confectionery as a vegan sustainable alternative for the future to create egg-free meringue or butterless or cream-free frosting.

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A new series of meetings is taking place in Barcelona, ​​similar to the Erice meetings, which will hopefully pave a new path for the future of cooking. In addition to the participants, the congress was attended by more than 1,300 people online this year. Next year, on November 7th, 8th and 9th, 2022, the congress on the third tile will take place with the focus on “Ingredients, Traditions and Innovation” and I’ve already chosen my topic. As Castells pointed out at the end, “Cooking is science” and we need to incorporate science into our daily cooking!

Sferic awards

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As part of the congress, the Sferic Awards were presented, the aim of which is to scientifically evaluate a cooking technique that has contributed or can contribute to scientific innovation. This year’s winners are Noma and his team led by René Redzepi, Mugaritz and his team led by Andoni Luis Aduriz and Momofuku and his team led by David Chang. The three restaurants were recognized for their work in the research, development and application of fermentations in the culinary field. On behalf of the award winners, Andoni Luis Aduriz gave a speech in which he emphasized the importance of fermentation research.

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