Johnson & Wales University has joined forces with “Modernist Cuisine” co-author Chris Young to redefine culinary education for the 21st century — and beyond.
By Andrea Feldman
It’s a crisp, sunny fall day and 20 culinary deans, department
chairs and chef-instructors from all four JWU campuses
crowd around Chris Young — chef, biochemist and
co-author of “Modernist Cuisine,” the culinary masterwork
that revolutionized science-based cooking — as he pours
steaming liquid nitrogen into vacuum flasks.
In his uniform of chef whites, goggles and heavy blue
gloves, Young looks equally suited for the kitchen or the
laboratory — appropriate, because he’s at JWU’s Providence
Campus to teach a modernist master class in the science of
how cooking works.
Back in the kitchen, the liquid nitrogen is put to all sorts
of uses, from cryo-shucking oysters and deep-freezing rib-eye
steaks (all the better to fry them) to making frozen lime and
green tea sours (a clear favorite).
Every corner of the kitchen hums with the barely
contained excitement of chefs discovering new ways to use
familiar ingredients. Vacuum-sealed watermelon slices emerge
as crisp as Granny Smith apples. Clarified butter powder melts
on the tongue, just like real butter, while olive-juice spheres
pop like savory candy.
Young’s class marks the start of a new era at JWU, a seismic
shift in how JWU instructors — and subsequently students —
will think about food and cooking.
“In the past, culinary education in general has focused
almost exclusively on the how. Students have learned by rote,”
says Karl Guggenmos ’93, ’02 MBA, university dean of culinary
education. “JWU’s new culinary curriculum, set to roll
out in 2014, will integrate the true science behind cooking,
looking carefully at the hows, whys and what ifs.”
Currently in development, this truly contemporary curriculum
will “provide a perspective on cooking and culinary
technique that will benefit all of our culinary students,” notes
James Griffin, EdD, ’88, ’92 MS.
What is modernist cuisine? How did it evolve? Is it the same
as molecular gastronomy, a term that critics align with the
deeply technical style of cooking associated with such globally
acclaimed avant-garde chefs as Spain’s Ferran Adrià, New York
City’s Wylie Dufresne ’07 Hon. and Chicago’s Grant Achatz?
The Evolution of Modernist Cuisine
The term “molecular gastronomy” was first coined in 1992
as the title of a scientific workshop held in Erice, Italy, cochaired
by Oxford physicist Nicholas Kurti, French chemist
Hervé This, Berkeley, Calif., educator-chef Elizabeth
Cawdry Thomas and Harold McGee, whose influential 1984
book “On Food and Cooking: the Science and Lore of the Kitchen” is widely regarded as an essential text for anyone
interested in the science of cooking.
“Erice normally hosted significant talks on physics and
chemistry,” explains Young. “Kurti wanted a term that
seemed serious enough for the posters.”
Although the media quickly latched onto the label as
shorthand to describe chefs using innovative techniques
— much to the dismay of academics and chefs alike — the
Erice conferences positively influenced a whole generation of
chefs looking to explore new possibilities in the kitchen.
McGee watched this paradigm shift with interest: “When
my book came out a lot of the attention was more novelty
value,” he notes. “But I gradually started hearing from chefs
who were grateful for hard facts.”
Part of that first wave, Sam Mason began his education at
JWU and continued it as part of wd~50’s opening
team. Back in 2003, when he and Dufresne were experimenting
with new techniques to use in the New York restaurant, there were
very few books — and certainly no Internet resources — to
help them. “We were reading all these heavy science books to
try to work out all the dishes we wanted to put on the menu,”
he says of those pioneer days. “We used to get one-pound
samples of modernist ingredients [instead of the tiny amounts
needed] because the laboratory supply companies didn’t know
how to supply to us.”
Although he and Dufresne loved the sense of freedom and
discovery that operating without a safety net afforded them
— “We came up with applications that no one had ever seen,”
Mason recalls — being part of the discovery phase brought its
own challenges. “It was exciting to learn on our own, but we
had a lot of help.”
Two chefs who stepped in to assist were Heston Blumenthal,
chef-owner of acclaimed UK restaurant The Fat Duck, and Chris
Young, The Fat Duck’s head of culinary research and development,
both of whom had been tinkering with modernist techniques in
the restaurant’s experimental laboratory.
In 2007, Young returned to the US to collaborate with
former Microsoft chief technology officer Nathan Myhrvold on
the book that would become “Modernist Cuisine.” They chose
the title to help push public perception beyond the focus on flashy sci-fi techniques — gels, foams, foods disguised
as other foods — and more toward the underlying science of everyday cooking.
Young considers the work a distillation of
McGee’s “On Food and Cooking,” expanding its laser-precise
explanations into step-by-step visualizations of the physical and
chemical reactions that most cooks take for granted, such as
searing meat, frothing egg whites or emulsifying mayonnaise.
He is quick to assert that the majority of the techniques put
under the microscope in “Modernist Cuisine” and in his master
classes at JWU have been in use for hundreds, if not thousands,
of years. He’s just delving deeper into the science behind them.
New Perspectives on Cooking
Likewise, Young’s JWU classes are, at their essence, a study of
“cooking as the manipulation of water and heat.”
“We’re looking at water and heat as ingredients in a very
detailed way,” Young explains. “Heat is how we transform
food, yet the way it actually works is deeply misunderstood by
many chefs because it’s never been taught.”
He cites a common example: “Chefs talk about ‘moist’
cooking versus ‘dry’ cooking. To a physicist that’s a meaningless
distinction. What you’re really bringing in is the idea of humidity,
but nobody talks about the implications that has on heat
transfer or how seemingly similar techniques can yield different
Water is an equally potent force, “not only because it creates
humidity, but because food is pretty much water with a bunch
of impurities in it,” Young says. “Carrots are a testament to
nature’s ability to engineer structure out of a liquid. One carrot
has as much water in it as a glass of milk — roughly 88% water and 12% other stuff.”
How much water is in a vegetable (or a piece of protein)
determines how you cook and use it. Understanding this
concept goes to the heart of what makes cooking work, and it’s
the jumping-off point for Young’s intensive work with JWU
faculty, whose expanded awareness will filter into the new curriculum.
“We are a culinary university, not just a ‘cooking school,’”
emphasizes Guggenmos. “As such, we have a strategic commitment
to embrace culinary arts as equal parts art, craft and
science, with the full depth and breadth of the university’s
infrastructure behind it.”
Bringing the practical, scientific and creative aspects of
the kitchen into balance will be a crucial goal of the new curriculum.
Guggenmos and Griffin emphasize that
culinary fundamentals will continue to be essential, ensuring
that students develop core skills as well as a solid work ethic.
“To truly understand modern cooking you must first build
off a firm understanding of traditional cooking,” explains Griffin.
But, he adds, “it’s always fun to play with old and new ideas
in the kitchen. It can lead to innovation.”
Helping Students Understand the Science of Food
Just ask those who have attended Young’s master classes. His
“question everything” approach has proven hugely inspiring to
faculty, who, despite being seasoned professionals with their own areas of expertise, found themselves challenged
to recalibrate their culinary beliefs.
For chefs like Colin Roche, it was deeply revelatory. At first
Roche, department chair of JWU’s North Miami Campus’ College
of Culinary Arts, found Young’s lectures “in many ways contradictory
to the traditional methods in which I had been trained.”
Yet, the more he listened to Young’s plain-spoken explanations
of the scientific principles behind common cooking techniques,
the more he came around. “I realized this was analysis and critical
thinking in action. It was eye-opening.”
Roche sees the potential for integration and application into
the curriculum as multifaceted: “By breaking down what food
is and what it is really made of, our students can gain a new
understanding of food — which will in turn help them ask new
questions, try new things and prepare for the future.”
Food science associate professor Lynn Tripp agrees. “Helping
students better understand how science applies to food will
ultimately make them better and more interesting chefs. Learning
these scientific principles will also encourage our students to think
analytically as well as creatively outside the box.”
To date, roughly half JWU’s culinary faculty have trained with
Young and more than 1,000 students have attended his lectures.
How students will benefit from this broader knowledge base
is up to them. “These days, you don’t go to culinary school just to
become a chef,” says Mason. “There are so many different areas
you can go into — food science, R & D — and kids today are so
much more receptive to the possibilities.”
Bold Step for JWU
Although Mason was largely self-taught in modernist
techniques, he acknowledges that students need a framework.
“You really need someone to explain it to you. It has to be part
of a curriculum, without a doubt.”
“This is a bold step for JWU,” says Philip Preston, president
of PolyScience, the company that pioneered and popularized
precise temperature cooking with their popular line of
sous-vide circulators — and sold Dufresne one of their first
models. “Students will gain a comprehensive understanding of
basic principles, applications and food safety within the proper
context. And that opens up a lot of possibilities for creativity. It’s
going to have a phenomenal impact.”
“Cooking in the 21st century should be about embracing
technology and having the desire to constantly gather knowledge
about the past and the future,” notes Sean Brock ’00, acclaimed chef-owner of Charleston’s McCrady’s and Husk,
named Bon Appétit’s 2011 Best New Restaurant in America.
“The more knowledge you have about the science of cooking,
the more control you can have over the final product.”
In other words, science can help students become more
efficient, consistent and creative in the kitchen. “Until you
understand why you’re doing something, you can’t intelligently
break the rules,” says Young.
Building Solid Foundations
At his restaurant Manresa, in Los Gatos, Calif., owner and
chef David Kinch ’81 sees far too many interns who know
how to use hydrocolloids but have neglected essential skills,
like how to roast a perfect chicken. Stressing that “those skills
have to be second nature,” he cautions students against viewing
some of the flashier modernist techniques as the solution
to everything, or as an accelerated pathway to a personal
style. “Abstract expressionists were all great realists before they
forged a new style. You need a solid foundation first.”
As JWU and Young work on delivering that “solid foundation,”
other aspects of the university’s multi-year project focused on culinary innovation are in various stages of development.
JWU and Tulane University School of Medicine recently
announced a groundbreaking long-term collaboration that
unites doctors, nutritionists and chefs in improving the nation’s
health through the teaching of culinary medicine. A bachelor’s
degree in culinary science and a master’s in culinary nutrition are
in the planning stages. The common thread running through
both of them? Melding culinary arts with science.
“We already have hundreds of alumni working in research
and development, food manufacturing and culinary nutrition,”
says Griffin. “Expanding our offerings in the areas where culinary
arts overlaps with science is a natural evolution for JWU.”
And by mastering the underlying science that drives
culinary innovation, he notes, students will be able to take
advantage of alternative career paths as well as creative
opportunities for career progression.
Culinary’s Next Generation
Ultimately, JWU’s next generation of young culinarians will
have to forge their own culinary aesthetic out of the many
techniques and cuisines they will learn in class and through
internships. And modernist techniques will be just another
tool in their arsenal, opening students to new paths and ways
of thinking about food and cooking.
“Even if students decide to do something the ‘simple way,’
their way of approaching cooking will have been changed by
their exposure to modernist concepts,” says McGee. “The freedom
of thinking is the most important thing.”
No matter what, says Brock, the goal should always be to
make food that’s delicious. Ultimately, he says, “We need rustic
food to comfort us and modern food to intrigue us.”
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