Beyond Cooking

Harvard has a lecture series this autumn on the intersection between science and cooking, and they’ve booked over a half-dozen of some of the most elite chefs in the world. The opening talk featured Ferran Adria, whose restaurant is widely regarded as the best in the world. We didn’t manage to snag tickets for that one, but we did attend Joan Roca’s talk on his use of sous vide techniques. Roca’s El Celler de Can Roca has two Michelin stars, and is considered fourth-best restaurant in the world among critics and fans. Let’s not get into the somewhat tense relationship between Spanish haute cuisine and Michelin.

It was a slightly awkward lecture due to the fact that Roca had to speak through an interpreter, and the fact that the video program that showed his techniques kept crashing. I did my heart good to see a Mac chain-fail at playing a DVD. Still, everything was eventually ironed out and we learned a bit about what Roca does.

He and his two brothers, Jordi and Josep, use sous vide to preserve or obtain the right textures and flavors for their food, which is the entire point of sous vide. What really stunned me, however, was the degree to which they use candying and infusion to complicate the textural and aromas of their foods. For instance, one scallop dish celebrates the countryside surrounding the restaurant by heating and evaporating locally cultivated chablis and bit of local soil. The smoke is trapped at the top of a long coil of tubing, and then placed in a chamber beneath the scallop dish. A vent cut into the serving surface expels a bit of the smoke with every press of a spoon, so that a diner can smell the soil and the wine with each bite.

His brother Jordi seems like the most crazily inspired of the bunch. He  creates spun-sugar bulbs and fruits, and fills them with aromatic smoke or infused creams. His desserts appear to take hours and hours of painstaking work just to produce a few servings.

What I find so fascinating about the kind of work the Rocas are doing is the way they have moved beyond the preparation of food into the creation of complex sensory and mnemonic experiences. The dishes are not merely prepared, but designed and engineered to lead diners through corridors of memory and association. The methods they use are challenging enough to comprehend, but even more mysterious to me is the idea of telling someone a story through taste and smell.

Update: One Last Thing

There was a Q&A after this talk. This being America, the first question was, “If you’re cooking meats for extended periods at low temperatures, how will you kill the bacteria? How do you avoid making your customers sick?”

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