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The perfect dish? It’s all academic.

Ferran Adria opens Harvard series on the molecular level

Jose Andres (left) and Ferran Adria. Jose Andres (left) and Ferran Adria. (Eliza Grinnell/Harvard School of Engineering And Applied Sciences)
By Ike DeLorenzo
Globe Correspondent / September 15, 2010

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First of four parts on the university course “Science and Cooking.’’

CAMBRIDGE — The career path of a chef today can take an interesting route, beginning as lowly stagiaire, and perhaps leading to chef-owner of an acclaimed restaurant or two, then books, endorsements, and television. Few have the opportunity to use a top university classroom as their stage.

This year, Harvard University has gathered 12 of the most accomplished chefs from around the world to teach “Science and Cooking’’ at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Each lecturer presents a class to a group of 400 undergraduates. In an effort to allow some public access (and accommodate overflow students), each chef also presents a weekly seminar one evening. They kicked off last week with the world’s most talked-about chef, Ferran Adria of El Bulli restaurant in Spain, the man at the forefront of molecular gastronomy — though he prefers the term “avant garde cuisine.’’

At the first one, the Catalan-speaking Adria was translated by Jose Andres, PBS star, restaurateur, and co-professor of the class. Andres says that while the celebrity chefs may be the draw for the classes, in fact, the classes are “about the cooking, which is becoming more important and popular than ever. It’s not all about us.’’

But this first seminar was, to a great degree, about Adria. His restaurant has been hailed by critics and important dining guides as having one of the most creative dining rooms today. Adria’s fans waited patiently while various deans from Harvard explained what the chefs, and the course, will be doing.

In the classrooms, theoretical lectures in gastronomy will accompany cooking labs conducted in an unused chemistry laboratory, to avoid contamination when the students eat the results. They will be trying — among other goals — to match the perfection with which El Bulli creates its spheroids, gels, foams, and the other staples of molecular gastronomy.

Molecular gastronomy deconstructs food, and sometimes taste, delivering previously impossible experiences like “olive oil caviar’’ — a single drop of olive oil and a few grains of salt inside a tiny sphere of thin flavorless agar (a rigid gel obtained from the cell walls of certain red algae).

Food and science writer Harold McGee — another teacher in this star-studded cast — introduced Adria and Andres, with a geeky and delightful multimedia history of the scientific approach to cooking. McGee helped coin the term “molecular gastronomy’’ in 1992, and, using the Harvard library electric typewriter pool, wrote the foundational book “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen’’ in 1984. (He continues to add to the science of food in his New York Times column, “The Curious Cook.’’)

Famously modest, McGee placed himself as a blip in the history of the scientific kitchen, citing 17th-century recommendations for making egg whites in copper pots, and crediting Julia Child (who had an honorary doctorate from Harvard) with reminding modernity of the practice. “I’m sure I had no influence on Ferran’s work,’’ said McGee, glancing at the beaming Adria. McGee’s presentation ended in modern times with Adria’s methodologies and his creations.

Andres, himself an innovator, has extended the work of El Bulli at Jaleo and other Washington, D.C.-area restaurants. He was equally deferential to the star of the night, opting to serve as Adria’s simultaneous translator on stage. The chefs have the rapport of old friends, and the demonstrations of spherification, gellification, and the like, took on the feeling of a two-person infomercial, with Adria’s excited Catalan followed by Andres’s measured tones: “Drip the sodium alginate solution into the calcium chloride mix using the syringe.’’ The chemicals are sold as part of Adria’s packaged “Texturas’’ product line.

Adria also presented the packed auditorium with a six-minute rock video of his own ascent to be (perhaps) the world’s top chef. He watched with rapt attention, breaking into a wide smile when the video showed his photo on the front page of the French newspaper Le Monde. “L’Alchimiste! [The Alchemist!]’’ shouts the headline.

“I’ve watched it 300 times, but I never get tired of it,’’ the chef said after the dramatic close, which shows El Bulli as seen from the moon.

El Bulli will close permanently as a restaurant as early as next summer, Adria said, and will reopen in 2014 as a foundation and “think tank of gastronomic creativity,’’ dedicated to “new goals which are just as inconceivable now as our present achievements [previously] appeared.’’ Among the promised features, a comprehensive encyclopedia of the world’s contemporary cuisine, and daily research results posted on the Internet as part of a “gastronomic social network.’’

Since January, reasons for the closing have been variously reported as financial problems, family illness, and simple exhaustion. At the Harvard event, Adria made a convincing case for the transformation as planned evolution rather than necessity. His upcoming stint at Harvard is, of course, useful institutional experience.

Other chefs in the program include New York restaurateurs Dan Barber and Wylie Dufresne, Catalan chef Joan Roca, chocolatier Enric Rovira, and White House pastry chef Bill Yosses. “This course may accomplish what I’ve been trying to do for so many years — make physics interesting, ’’ said David Weitz, Harvard professor of physics and applied physics, who leads the course. In the crowd, few may have been talking about physics. But everyone was learning it.

Ike DeLorenzo can be reached at ike@theideassection.com.