• Banner JWU Magazine Fall 2012
  • Future Food

    JWU chefs surround Chris Young as he demonstrates how to use a vacuum sealer.

    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).

    JWU chefs experimenting in the kitchen-lab.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.”

    Pioneer Days
    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 2007Liquid nitrogen can be put to all sorts of uses, like cryo-shucking oysters., 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 results.”

    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.

    JWU chefs at work with Chris and his assistant Grant Crilly (in blue apron)

    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.”

    Chef Neath Pal has some fun with liquid nitrogen

    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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