At the forefront of food innovation

Ingenious and brave chefs – Britain’s Heston Blumenthal and Spain’s Ferran Adrià, for example – tend to set the tempo of foodie trends, many of which then filter down into the broader food industry. This article looks at playful new cooking based on traditional methods and weird ingredients that, it asserts, will supplant the industrial techniques that dominate modernist cuisine.

EVER since cooks began playing with the equipment of the food industry, chefs have felt compelled to join one of two camps. The first believes any kitchen is incomplete without a centrifuge, combination steam-convection oven, and $6,000 vacuum-seal machine and immersion circulator to cook 22-hour eggs sous vide. The second camp takes pride in telling you that all these gadgets, and ingredients like hydrocolloids and calcium baths, are outlawed in their kitchens—because gadgets and industrial powders have nothing to do with cooking.

But now that the equipment, ideas, and techniques of modernist cuisine have been around more than a decade, a new generation of chefs declines to declare loyalty to either camp. To me, the most interesting cooks today are not on the barricades but those eager to discover new flavours. They use low-tech means like fermentation and cook over a stove.

The really ambitious cooks—those who aspire to a place on the world culinary map—create those novel flavours at food labs.

Until now, the two chefs most associated with labs are linked to modernist cuisine: Heston Blumenthal, at the Fat Duck, in Berkshire, England, and Ferran Adrià, who was chef at the most famous modernist restaurant of all, El Bulli in Catalonia, Spain, and who chaired the advisory board of the Basque Culinary Center.

Both labs were something more than test kitchens: they were places to try new techniques. The results found their way into new restaurants, books, and a study center and (in the case of the Basque Culinary Center) were shared with the industrial clients that subsidised the enterprise.

The closest counterpart to these men in the United States is David Chang, a hero to younger American cooks. His group of restaurants subsidises a separately staffed “culinary lab,” whose goal is to discover new components.

Chang and his cooks collaborate with mycobiologists and engineers at MIT, Harvard, and Yale; the purpose of that collaboration, in the words of Ryan Miller, product development chef at the lab, is to bridge the gap between “the way a cook learns something, which is visual and tactile,” and a “conceptual understanding” of, say, the enzymatic microbial processes that make soy sauce or miso.

The Nordic Food Lab

Then there is the Nordic Food Lab, which can be found in a houseboat on a Copenhagen canal, a short walk down a cobbled lane from a restaurant called Noma. The lab is the brainchild of Rene Redzepi, whose quest at Noma for new flavours, whether from plants, fungi, lichen, or animal by-products, has given rise to an international obsession with foraging for new, questionably edible ingredients.

The lab attracts young people from around the world….. people are as likely to hold advanced degrees in biomedical science, flavour chemistry, and geography as they are to be cooks.

They want to make and grind koji, the fermented-rice base of sake, to use as a chocolate surrogate for a cake; or anaerobically ferment plums individually encased in a lustrous, thick shell of beeswax; or mummify a deer leg to see if it will taste like Parma ham; or ferment grasshoppers into a version of garum, the gamy fish sauce of the ancients; or whip pig’s blood to mimic the foam structure of egg yolks for an ice cream that looks and tastes like chocolate (blood cooks to the same shade of brown)…..

MIT’s Technology Review: Read the full article