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Fair Compensation
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A Thrill, A Rush, A Change of Plans
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I Want An Empty Waiting Room
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About time!
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The Things I've Learned (so far)...
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Love Sucks, Play Hard.
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School Lunches
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We Interrupt Your Regularly Scheduled Food Science Blog For...
Friday, March 11, 2011

But You're A Med Student!
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Filtering - Equipment
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Blurring The Lines - Part I
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The Future of Food...?
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School of Medicine
Dub C Med School CA USA

A med & grad student who used to work the line in LA, NYC, SF and Napa talking about the science of cooking and cooking with science. Harold McGee's On Food And Cooking - The Science and Lore of the Kitchen never satisfied my kitchen curiosity and more than one Chef grew exasperated with my asking "Why?" I'll try to stay on topic, but you may see a kvetch or two about the school & hospital.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Comment by BeckonsAttore in EMR - Electronic Medical Records

Well, so emr software has it's problems, not like making them public wouldn't cause them any more trouble as it normally would in a paranoid mind, as this yannisguerra's perspective here. I've delv. . .Read More
Aug 08, 2013, 9:35am
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I'd gladly take on that burden if you were my roomie ;) . . .Read More
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If it makes you feel any better, it could be worse. My roommates complain about expanding waistlines. . . .Read More
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I feel your pain. It is really bad. Even worse when half of those pages are non important informations (like 5 copies of the same lab, including who ordered it, when, where, etc) So wastefu. . .Read More
May 10, 2012, 6:56pm
Thursday, March 3, 2011

I had to break this post up, it just got really big.

It was a typical balmy November afternoon in Los Angeles. I was walking down Santa Monica Blvd to meet my party. Foodie friends I’d made in Southern California had converged to try one of the hottest new spots around. The food? Everyone described the chef in question as practicing “molecular gastronomy.” “Oh really,” I thought to myself. This should be good. The food was well thought out, nuanced, far different from his offerings on a certain television show. Each component was well balanced.


Two months before that, it was a hot evening in Sacramento, California. Daytime temperatures broke 30C. The evening was promising to be even hotter at a private supper club event by a Sacramento area caterer who was touted to be an amazing practitioner of “molecular gastronomy.” “Someone’s doing Ferran Adria’s schtick in Sacramento? This I have to see.” I could see what he was doing and where he was going, but the dishes fell short. Sometimes it felt like he was using the technique just to use technique. There was nothing new brought to the dish, and everything old that worked taken away.


Eighteen months before that, I was dining, for the second time, at Alinea. Grant Achatz’s restaurant in Chicago. Chef Achatz doesn’t purport to be a “molecular gastronomist,” or any variant thereof. But the food that makes it to your table, isn’t what you’d find served at Grandma’s for Sunday dinner. Classic pairings were reinterpreted. Something as simple as pho can come to you on the end of a toothpick, that liquefies in your mouth. Or maybe Chef Achatz and a sous chef will come table side, thrown down an acetate sheet tablecloth and start “painting” with all manner of powders, foams, pastes and purees. I could seriously picture one of my fine arts friends trying to recreate a Pollock or Kandinsky print with those ingredients.

If you are an avid restaurant goer, especially one that qualifies as a “foodie,” it's hard to escape the phrase "molecular gastronomy."  It pops up in conversation, in literature and on television.  And for most foodies, the images conjured up are of foams, "caviars," dewars of liquid nitrogen and all manner of unusual dishes that stretch expectations, imaginations and the palate.  But, there's a problem with this image.  See, "molecular gastronomy" has very different meanings from what the public perceives it to be.  To a chef, "molecular gastronomy" is not a loved term.  For them it's a gimmick or misnomer, even to the chefs known for utilizing the techniques - Grant Achatz of Alinea, Wylie Dufresne of WD50, Ferran and Albert Adria of, the soon to close, el Bulli.  These guys prefer the terms “cuisine nouvelle” or “post-modern cuisine.” Almost anything but “molecular gastronomy.”

And then there are the people who embrace the term "molecular gastronomy."  Not chefs, but scientists.  Well, mostly scientists.  This is a determined group of people who took the "why" and "how" that scientists constantly ask and apply it to the kitchen.  But it's an incredibly small group of scientists right now.  Globally there are few programs to pursue "molecular gastronomy."  You could argue that all scientists that work with food, especially sensory experiences associated with food, are all engaged in the topic, but not all food scientists want to be lumped in with Nicholas Kurti and Hervé This.  And it is these two men who coined the term.

Nicholas Kurti was a Hungarian born Physicist, who immigrated to England after Hitler’s rise to power.  Hervé This is a French chemist whose work has been almost entirely in the fields of chemistry and physics as applied to gastronomy – cooking, eating and enjoying food.  Kurti and This are sort of heroes of mine.  No.  They are heroes of mine.  This duo wanted to understand the why of the kitchen.  Why does salt make everything taste better?  How do the foams in whipped cream stabilize and is it different from the baked foam of a cake?  They wanted to look at kitchen mythology and see how much of it was true and what was false and useless.  But they weren’t the first, and they definitely won’t be the last.

The term has taken some abuse in recent years.  With people claiming to just do “real” or “traditional” food.  Which is kind of baffling, because the home stove is a relatively recent invention.  Most of your baking – pastries, breads, savory pies, etc – would be taken to the local baker and you’d pay him to use his giant oven and bake stuff for you.  There were smaller clay ovens that were popular in the Mediterranean, the tandoors of India, and other small baking vessels, but the majority of big baking done in the West was done at your local bakery.  There was no mom pulling from scratch chocolate chip cookies out of the oven 300 years ago.

And the practitioners of this “new” method of cooking aren’t suggesting you go out right now and drop a grand or two on an immersion circulator (I got mine from a Bay Area flavor lab that closed, for free), but when many homes have a pressure cooker, a device that was invented about 400 years ago by French Mathematician Denis Papin, how can anyone claim that so-called traditional cooking is better?  Papin had suggested the device could be used for culinary and chemistry.  In fact, some early uses of the “steam digester,” as it was called, were not culinary.  You could dissolve rocks in it (I don’t know why, they just did that back then), dye cloth and clean your fine silverware with it.

What Kurti and This did was separate the act of cooking in restaurants and in the home from traditional food science, which was more concerned with the nutritional content of food.  And in doing this, they opened up an entirely different world of food knowledge and lore.  Many chefs, home cooks and food lovers have a copy of Harold McGee’s On Food And Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen on their shelves (I’ve got 3 – 2 with notes and stains and 1 autographed).  This book is an incredible fountain of knowledge on the science of food and before This’ Molecular Gastronomy, it was really the only book that went into any kind of detail of the physics involved in your kitchen.

Dr. This gave us the 65-degree egg. A perfectly cooked egg that takes advantage of when proteins in the white uncoil and set – ovotransferrin at 61 Celsius and ovalbumin at 84. This is the kind of egg true connoisseurs of the egg love – firm white and a yolk still silky smooth and runny. How could you not love this kind of science? It’s something anyone can play with and it’s delicious!

Part II will be up soon, and will show how the kitchen and the laboratory are starting to work together.

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Blog Comments

Brian Krueger, PhD
Columbia University Medical Center
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This is a spectacular story.  Thanks for sharing!

BTW, Blais drives me fucking crazy on Top Chef when all he does is drop shit in liquid nitrogen and call it molecular gastronomy.

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