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Science served with Catalan accents

Chefs bring avant-garde dishes to Harvard

Catalan chef Nandu Jubany (right) prepares aioli with a mortar and pestle at the “Science and Cooking’’ lecture series at Harvard. Matias Coll (left) is an assistant. Catalan chef Nandu Jubany (right) prepares aioli with a mortar and pestle at the “Science and Cooking’’ lecture series at Harvard. Matias Coll (left) is an assistant. (Ike Delorenzo for The Boston Globe)
By Ike DeLorenzo
Globe Correspondent / October 27, 2010

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CAMBRIDGE — On the Harvard campus on Monday nights, a long line at the Science Center snakes from Auditorium D out of the building. Foodies, chefs, and culinary geeks are among the 400 attendees pouring into the room. Amid formulas and polysyllabics (and some subtle sponsorship from the likes of Le Creuset and Mars chocolate), the chefs reveal methods behind familiar and avant-garde cuisines, while two physics professors gamely struggle to chime in and explain it all.

The event is the “Science and Cooking’’ lecture series, the public complement to the undergraduate course taught by a dozen world-class chefs. The lineup this month included White House pastry chef Bill Yosses, chocolatier Enric Rovira, and Catalan chefs Joan Roca and Carles Tejedor.

Some of today’s new cooking includes pearls, foams, “airs,’’ emulsions, and sheeted gels, all understandable as food science. But as the crowd erupts repeatedly into gasps and ovations, it’s apparent that the food technology is enabling a new art form. Over the past few years, ingredients (chefs bristle when you say “chemicals’’) common in commercial food products have found widespread use in top kitchens. With that comes a whole new set of methodologies, and extending the bounds of what is scientifically possible on the plate.

In some restaurants, there are now more temperature-controlled water baths in the kitchen than burners, thanks to the low-temperature cooking method known as “sous vide.’’ Meat or seafood is placed in a tough plastic bag under a powerful vacuum. With low air pressure, water boils — and food “cooks’’ — at a lower temperature than normal. Roca explains that it takes 4 minutes at 122 degrees for langoustine to cook, 3 hours at 146 degrees for lamb. In the sous vide method, proteins are less damaged while cooking, and the result is an intense, fresh flavor with an otherwise impossible texture and tenderness. Meats are often browned later, skin crisped on a grill. In many localities, sous vide temperatures don’t comply with local health codes, so regulators are working to catch up to the technology.

El Cellar de Can Roca, Roca’s restaurant in Girona, Spain, was awarded three Michelin stars, and is considered one of the world’s best. Many top establishments today feature avant-garde cuisine.

The chef explains his version of dishes such as tomato bread (the traditional Catalan bread rubbed with tomato pulp and olive oil) sandwiched between sous vide lamb and its crisped skin. To an avant-garde chef, this is “memory cuisine,’’ designed to evoke the childhood of his diners. It is cut into squares (“as our grandmothers did with scissors,’’ he says) and served with thickened lamb broth as a sauce, and other enhancements. Watching a video of Roca’s sous chefs concentrate on preparing the plate brings to mind the intensity of a religious ceremony.

Catalonia has been the epicenter for many of these culinary innovations, thanks to the foundational work of El Bulli restaurant owner Ferran Adrià. Also contributing, as some of the chefs noted, was the climate of freedom and innovation that blossomed in Spain after the Franco dictatorship ended in 1975. Most of the chefs in the series are Catalan. Their innovations hardly stop at manipulating air pressure.

A favorite new technique, adopted from processed food manufacturers, uses maltodextrin, a near-flavorless artificially modified starch, which absorbs oil in odd ways. If you whisk olive oil, maltodextrin, and salt, it turns into a powder that instantly rehydrates on the tongue as tasty olive oil.

Grant Achatz (rhymes with packets), of Chicago’s Alinea restaurant, passes out an aromatic sawdust to the audience that, once in the mouth, becomes salted caramel. He’s clearly having fun teaching. “Now, everyone put it in your mouth!’’ he says. It seems as if all 400 attendees are oh-oh-ohing at once.

Roca uses the same ingredient to turn bread crumbs into the consistency of sand. With it, he creates a dazzling landscape of Chablis, France, made with elements found there, including vaporized and distilled earth.

Other wonders include cold-thickened white wine sauces made with xanthan gum; alginic acid pearls with a truffle jus center; fanciful gelled flavor conflations thanks to carageenan and other hydrocolloids; and lecithin-stabilized blends of olive oil with just about anything. Yes, these are the same agents that previously brought us Bubblicious, Twinkies, and Orbitz soda.

The awareness of what’s possible also invites a new examination of the traditional. The chefs often mention that the classic versions of dishes will always be with us, worthy in their own right and inspiration for much of the new cooking.

Recognizing that mayonnaise and sauce ravigote are emulsions invites suggestions like the one from David Weitz, Harvard professor of physics and applied physics: Perhaps aioli would be easier to make and more stable with a surfactant like lecithin.

Mortar and pestle in hand, slowly creating a traditional aioli for the audience, chef Nandu Jubany of Can Jubany restaurant in Calldetenes, Spain, seems amused and says, “It wouldn’t taste as good.’’

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