The anticipation was palpable, with a collection of food lovers and science geeks gathered in UCLA’s Moore Hall to listen to the world’s preeminent chef, Rene Redzepi of Noma Restaurant, and his right hand man, Lars Williams, head of the Nordic Food Lab. Dr. Amy Rowat, head of the Science and Food program at UCLA, gave a short introduction about why food science was relevant to our culture today, with a brief description of the kinds of molecules that exist in the foods we eat. Not only do they make the building blocks of the foods we eat, these molecules are essential for life, for the construction of the membranes in the individual cells of our body. This particular lecture focused on what made certain foods “delicious,” or rather, how to explain “deliciousness” as a feature of the foods we eat.
Chef Rene Redzepi began by describing Noma Restaurant, currently rated the number one restaurant in the world by San Pelligrino’s list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Originally a staff of 9 in 2003, the Copenhagen restaurant now staffs 75 people of 22 different nationalities (45 alone in the kitchen). The original mission of the restaurant was to use only locally-sourced ingredients, especially through foraging. While there were initial accolades, they just weren’t finding satisfaction in what they were doing. They wanted to see how they could make the venture fun and sustainable. They wanted to approach food with a stronger purpose.
What they needed to do was to give diners a sense of time and place, incorporating such elements as history and religion in the context of their dining environment – Scandinavia, or in a greater sense, Northern Europe. The revelation of this approach came when Redzepi was wandering through a local shoreline, a nearly swamp-like environment where he saw a patch of green. Plucking a small plant that resembled an asparagus, he took a bite of it without consulting a guide (something he strictly did not recommend to the lecture hall to the tune of laughter). What he tasted was surprising, a celery-stick type texture that had a natural salinity and not-so-subtle flavors of coriander, or more commonly, cilantro. Cilantro and its corresponding flavors were always dominant in the South, places like Thailand or Mexico, never this far north in the world. This investigation led to an approach of what he called un-learning what they had learned as culinary practitioners.
Through the use of some collaborative symposiums (MAD2011 and MAD2012 – “mad means food in Danish”), they were able to invite chefs and scientists to explore issues of food and culture. By looking at food in this perspective, they were able to establish “deliciousness” as the main objective. Science, technology, Culinary Practices & Processes, Intuition, Tradition – these would all revolve around the pursuit of deliciousness. The word itself is a bit awkward, but there isn’t a better way to express it in the English language. It seems unique to have taste and flavor as your main driver, not traditional cuisine, or science, or “culinary perfection.” Something just needs to be tasty, or delicious, to have merit.
Williams and Redzepi proceeded to show a few demonstrations as to how they could extrapolate these principles of deliciousness into certain foods, debunking long-held notions of what we might think to be delicious. An easy example was making seaweed ice cream, as Styrofoam buckets of nitrogen-frozen seaweed ice cream were passed around to taste. The flavor was very subtle, with a finish of familiar seaweed flavor without the roasted element that is commonly associated with Korean or Japanese seaweed laver. They also passed around a sample of molded barley that had an intense meaty flavor that came about after being fried to a golden color.
By investigating the microorganisms that affect the flavor of food, in this instance, the mold in the barley, they were able to establish certain metabolic pathways used by microbes that affect flavor. This way, they could deconstruct and construct elements to express flavor compounds that you couldn’t otherwise achieve.
Next, they had us taste a pipette of carrot kombucha and powdered dried winter cucumbers. These were two examples of foods that were re-thought and processed in creative ways, using their approach. I embarassingly choked on the cucumber powder, but the flavor of dried cucumber was strong, and I could see how it could be used effectively as a dish component.
Finally, they had a blind-taste a dark liquid that tasted of mild soy sauce. They showed a slide of crickets garnished with purple flowers. The crowd responded with murmurs and even some groans at the thought of consuming insects. The liquid we had tasted was a garum of crickets (originally supposed to be a sand fleas, commonly called sand crabs, though they could not be procured). A garum is an ancient Roman method of creating umami-rich fish sauce with fermented fish parts, and the approach is common in Southeast Asian fish sauce creation. Williams and Redzepi proceeded to show us how the garum was made. They blended live crickets on the stage, then mixed in molded barley (for the enzymatic action in the mold). It’s later aged for six weeks before being filtered.
From here the lecture seems to go in a number of different directions, first with Redzepi trying to use the example of cricket garum to re-think how the Western palate approach certain ingredients and flavors (especially the consumption of insects). They created controversy when they had served insects at Noma, with some internet critics accusing the restaurant as being a modern “emperor’s clothing,” unabashedly serving such a lowly ingredient at a fine dining restaurant. The insects they had served were ants that had the flavor of kaffir lime, which they had procured in Denmark.
Redzepi and Williams had gone fill circle in their lecture, establishing cuisine as a context of culture and tradition, while showing their efforts in food science to successful bend what we might think of as approach food for eating. What remains to be seen is their long term effects on our approach to food. Their belief is that the efforts of the Nordic Food Lab will have longer effects than Noma, which isn’t sustainable without the unpaid work of dozens, as is common in many of the world’s top kitchens.