Food Getting Science

By Steve West 2008-04-06 03:51:38
Most people don’t give a second thought to the food on their plate when the waiter serves it. And those who do are likely allergic to something and wish to remain in an unpuffed up state. Ask yourself the last time you sat down for a nice meal (we’re talking something at least a step above your “upscale casual” chain restaurants) and thoughtfully took a bite of food. Did the chef use a bit too much acid in contrast to the thin slices of beet on your salad? Sometimes it’s the little nuances that make all the difference and cause us to review a restaurant to friends with a line like, “It was OK. Just not all that interesting. I’m not sure what else to say.”

Lucky for the world there are plenty of people who do look into those nuances. While in olden times they were the scientists and idea men who gave us such processed wonders as Velveeta “cheese” and Spam (the most wonderful of all the mystery meats), today’s food science connoisseurs are just as likely to be plating your food at a three star restaurant.

In recent years there has been an up trend in a style of cooking that focuses on the why and how of what happens in the pan. While Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen is often considered the go to manual on the subject, it’s the boob tube that has caused our culture to shift perspective. Alton Brown, popular food science guru, has perfected the easy approach to the subject of explaining food. Rather than use chemistry jargon and pretentious talk, Alton gets right to the heart of things. He explains, often with the help of handy visual aides, why food does what it does when you cook it. And he does so like you’re a child…but not an idiot, which is an important distinction.

It’s an exciting time to be a chef in the world. Palettes always change and new dishes are created each year. You don’t think they were enjoying a nice bordelaise sauce with their meat in Mesopotamia…do you? And now we are beginning to see items like black garlic slowly creep into our consciousness. To most of us “black garlic” normally means it’s time to buy more garlic. For some molecular gastronomists it’s a new flavor to enhance their thought provoking dishes.

With a top-level contestant on Bravo’s Top Chef subscribing to the new paradigm, the perception of food science continues to grow. Science News has an informative and entertaining article on the history of food science. They look at the origins as a process to create generic boxed crap to what the new wave of culinary masters like Wylie Dufresne are doing in today’s world. There will always be a place in the world for your espagnole sauce, but maybe it’s time you expanded your own palette.
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