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Harvard uses top chefs to spice up science

Far-reaching lessons from culinary arts

CAMBRIDGE — In a basement lab at Harvard University, students Omar Bari and Aaron Mattis are playing with chocolate syrup. They put spoonfuls of the stuff into a bath of clear liquid, and wait as it turns into jiggling chocolate blobs. “I’m definitely going to do this at home,’’ Bari says. “My mom will be so impressed.’’

A few tables over, classmate Maddy Bates pops a shivering white sphere in her mouth. It’s made of Greek yogurt, with a chocolate-raspberry center. “Oh my gosh, ooh, oh yay!’’ she exclaims. “It’s so good.’’

The students are learning about spherification, the gelling reaction that occurs when calcium chloride meets sodium alginate. It’s a technique that has been adopted by chefs to create melon “caviar,’’ “ravioli’’ filled with liquid, and more.

This is Science of the Physical Universe 27, the hottest course at Harvard this fall. Also known as Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science, it uses the culinary arts as a way to explore phases of matter, electrostatics, and other scientific concepts.

The class has drawn unprecedented interest, according to Michael Patrick Rutter, communications director of the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. About 700 students applied for the 300 or so spots. The university then held a lottery to determine who would be admitted; some students wrote essays and appeals in the hopes of aiding their chances.

The buzz surrounding the class is largely because of star power. It is being taught by Harvard professors in tandem with some of the world’s most famous chefs — people who have changed the way we think about food. Ferran Adria of Spain’s El Bulli, considered by many the best restaurant in the world (and slated to close next year), is chief among them. Adria gave a lecture at Harvard two years ago; its success helped spark the creation of this class.

He is one of several Catalan chefs involved in Science and Cooking, a collaboration between the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and Spain’s Alicia Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted to food and science. The course is part of the university’s program in general education, launched last fall to provide learning and teaching opportunities across traditional disciplinary lines.

Other lecturers include Jose Andres of Washington’s Jaleo, Wylie Dufresne of New York’s wd~50, Grant Achatz of Chicago’s Alinea, Dan Barber of New York’s Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, White House pastry chef Bill Yosses, and food science writer Harold McGee.

Lingbo Li, an anthropology major, food blogger, and president of the Harvard Culinary Society, made the cut. Initially wait-listed, she chronicled her experience with the lottery in The Harvard Crimson.

“A lot of people were stressing out about the lottery system,’’ Li says. “There was a fever pitch of interest. When Ferran Adria came, there was an enormous line forming an hour before he arrived. That’s unheard of at Harvard. Everyone is always 10 minutes late.’’

Students have class twice a week. On Thursdays, physics professor David Weitz or applied mathematics professor Michael Brenner explains the scientific principles. The following Tuesday, a guest chef lectures on how that principle inspires cooking.

On the Tuesday before this lab, Andres came to town to discuss gels and spherification. In a giant hall filled with rows of red seats, Brenner, animated and wiry, introduces the chef.

Clad in a blue shirt with a mandarin collar and blue jeans, with a strong Spanish accent, Andres leads the class through a bit of history — from the use of collagen derived from bones in Mesopotamia through the modern application of agar-agar to create hot gelatin. Then he launches a video. The students, who have begun to slump, sit up straight.

Andres shows them how chefs can create a “strawberry’’ by adding gelatin sheets to cream, mixing in strawberry puree, and freezing the substance in strawberry shapes with liquid nitrogen. “Yum!’’ says one student. “That’s cool,’’ murmurs another. He gets a round of applause.

They learn to make a steamed “bun’’ with coconut milk and methylcellulose. It looks fantastic, but it also might be a practical way to feed people in the future, Andres says. “We substitute methylcellulose for bread. Now it’s avant-garde, but one day maybe a lot of people will use it.’’

Then he presents an “egg,’’ made from yolks enclosed in a sphere of cheese-flavored “whites’’ using alginate.

Each dish brings a fresh round of applause.

In addition to spherification, other lab projects have included molten chocolate cake when the class was studying heat diffusion, and ceviche and ricotta cheese as illustrations of protein denaturation and aggregation. The students get to eat the experiments when they’re done.

The class will culminate in a science fair in December, where participants will present group projects connecting cooking and science. Local chefs such as Barbara Lynch (Menton, No. 9 Park), Jody Adams (Rialto), Gabriel Bremer (Salts), and Fenway Park’s Nookie Postal will be among the judges. The winning group gets a free trip to Barcelona, to work on a project with the Alicia Foundation.

The celebrity chefs and delicious experiments are drawing students who otherwise might steer clear of science classes.

“I haven’t done this stuff since high school,’’ Li says.

The course is also showing students with science backgrounds new ways to looks at material with which they may already be familiar.

“I see merit in getting that connection between everyday life and science,’’ says neurobiology major Jaehyun Im.

“When I’m in the dining hall or eating out, I’m starting to think more about how somebody could have done this. When a place prepares things in a way maybe you don’t see all the time, it looks interesting, and it makes you wonder what the chefs did,’’ Im said. This speaks directly to the goals of the general education program, which aims to connect what students learn in the classroom to the world beyond university walls.

Im has also been inspired by the class on a purely culinary level. “I love making ceviche and molten chocolate cake,’’ he says.

The cross-disciplinary approach offers rewards for the teachers, as well.

“It’s very satisfying from an educational perspective,’’ says Amy Rowat, a physics research associate and class instructor. “These students are seeing, ‘Hey, that’s how you make cheese,’ or ‘That’s where a gummy drop comes from,’ and understanding terms on food labels.’’

In January, Rowat will begin as an assistant professor at UCLA. Harvard’s course will provide the basis for one she will teach there.

Andres is not surprised that the class is spreading.

“Food is a universal language, and we need to celebrate and understand it,’’ he says by phone. “To be talking at Harvard about food and science sends the message that food is becoming a more important topic in our world than just fancy dinners under candlelight with a bottle of wine. It is becoming a powerful tool to shape the world.’’

Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this story misstated Michael Patrick Rutter’s title. He is the communications director of the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. 

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