By Chef Michael Laiskonis
I was honored to be invited as a guest chef and presenter at last week’s The Taste of Science dinner at NYC’s Astor Center, just one of many events organized as part of the larger World Science Festival. The dinner was MC’ed by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats, and featured dishes from such renowned chefs as Wylie Dufresne of WD50, Owen Clark of Gwynett Street, and ICE alum/co-author of Modernist Cuisine, Maxime Bilet.
The public’s ever growing interest in food has also led to a fascination of the underlying science of cooking. A curious (and hungry) crowd of 120 guests attended our sold-out event to taste their way through a unique and entertaining mash-up of a multi-course dinner and a science lecture. Chefs and scientists alike have begun to discover a whole new perspective through such collaborations, matching the creative aspects of cooking with the principles of chemistry, physics, neuroscience, and other areas of study.
Each of the evening’s dishes were conceived to illustrate one particular idea or principle, from the fizzy science of carbonation to more complex matters—for example, how our brains weave together the senses of taste and smell toward when registering flavors. As each course was served, the chefs briefly spoke about the inspiration behind their creations, while prominent scientists described the mechanisms at work on the molecular level.
I have long been interested in the browning and flavor chemistry of cooked foods known as the Maillard Reaction, the delicious interaction of proteins, sugars and heat that gives so many products their characteristic flavor profiles—from roasted meats and freshly baked bread to chocolate and coffee. My dessert course featured these reactions in a handful of different components: roasted white chocolate, brown butter financier, slowly reduced caramel, and crispy nougatine. I was paired with my good friend and chemistry professor at NYU, Kent Kirshenbaum, who presented the history of Maillard Reaction research and helped to demystify how these transformations take place during the cooking process.
The dinner began with opening remarks from noted author Harold McGee and a nitrogen-cooled welcome cocktail from Dave Arnold of Booker and Dax. The complete menu for the evening was executed in part by a team of ICE student volunteers and progressed as follows:
Dave Arnold and Kent Kirshenbaum
Gin, Campari, and Champagne Acid
Maxime Bilet and Stuart Firestein
“Les Fleurs Marines”
Cryo-Shucked Shigoku Oyster, Geoduck Clam, Sunflower root Emulsion, Pickled Wild Rose Petals, Sea Beans, Wild Rose, Jasmine, Orange Blossom, and Lychee Aroma Cloud
Owen Clark and Rachel Dutton
Salad of Spring Radishes, English Peas, Horseradish Yogurt, and Pickled Spruce Shoots
Egg Yolk Gelation
Wylie Dufresne and Cesar Vega
Egg Yolks, Salt, cayenne, Deep Fried Hollandaise Breaded in English Muffin Crumbs, and Canadian Bacon
Neuroscience of Taste
Maxime Bilet and Robin Dando
Roasted, Caramelized, and Glazed Roots; Pressure-Cooked Seeds; Aromatic Carotene Oil
Najat Kaanache and Amy Rowat
Fresh, Dehydrated, Freeze Dried, and Transmuted Green Apples; Spices, Berries, Herbs, Citrus, and Gels
The Maillard Reaction
Michael Laiskonis and Kent Kirshenbaum
“Conditions of Browning”
Roasted White Chocolate Cremeux, Pistachio Financier. Apricot Caramel, Lemon Sponge, Nougatine, Red Wine Caramel
The festival included other sold-out, food-focused events, including two held here at ICE. First, on Friday night, was a standing-room-only panel discussion featuring Harold McGee, Maxime Bilet, Marion Nestle, and Ann McBride. Then, on Saturday, I conducted an intensive ice cream workshop with Billy Barlow of Brooklyn’s Blue Marble and Cesar Vega, a researcher at Mars, which provided a microscopic look at the science of frozen desserts.
As a cook and an instructor, learning about the science of cooking propels me ever further toward a better understanding of what we do every day in the kitchen and in the classroom, and I’m always looking for new ways to pass along that knowledge of how the composition and function of our ingredients affect every dish we prepare. Check out my ongoing series of professional development classes, which feature an emphasis on food science as a way to refine what we already cook, in addition to conjuring up new creations!