« December 2008 | Main | February 2009 »

January 2009 Archives

January 15, 2009

Chemistry in the Kitchen

Q&A: Chemistry in the kitchen

Jascha Hoffman

Voted the world's best restaurant, Spain's elBulli near Barcelona offers an unusual culinary experience, from hot velvet-crab aspic with mini-corncob couscous to ice-cold liquorice nitro-dragon dessert. Innovative head chef Ferran Adrià explains how science and haute cuisine can work together.


Ferran Adrià's 'Folie' salad combines tuna-oil foam, air-bag dough and yoghurt nodules.

What will a guest find at elBulli?

It's not just about the food, it's an experience in itself. Cooking is a language. I'm expressing myself and everyone perceives it in a different way, like a piece of theatre. Each person takes away something new. In most human activities it would be normal to find humour, irony and deception. The one place this isn't expected is in the kitchen.

What are you doing now?

At the moment my team and I are working with a very strange ingredient, veal cartilage. We're also designing a new version of the Chinese 'thousand-year-old egg' [traditionally an egg preserved in clay, salt, ash, tea and lime]. I spend half the year composing at my workshop in Barcelona, and the other half interpreting in the kitchen at elBulli.

How hard is it to develop new dishes?

Last year we ran 4,000 tests and only about 300 of them panned out. Everyone learns from their mistakes — it's a necessary consequence of being creative. The important thing is to have lots of ideas simmering. Some of these ideas will work, and from these we build our new dishes.

Do you ever seek advice?

As with any other art, when my creative team needs something specific we go to an expert such as a scientist or historian. But when it comes to everyday ingredients, we don't usually consult researchers. Our work is systematic: you have to be very organized to achieve a sense of anarchism. It's not possible to grasp our work without seeing it for yourself — it would be like trying to describe eating an Amazonian fruit you've never tried.

Where do you find new ingredients?

I recently went to the Amazon, which has incredible fruits, some of them unknown to science. Under jungle conditions, many fruits ferment naturally. I also studied them in museums, in markets and with biologists.

Has your work raised any scientific questions?

It is having an influence in the world of science. I visited the physics department at Harvard University last month to talk about this. The dialogue between science and cooking is not new. Bread making has been considered a chemical process for hundreds of years, and the food industry has relied on chemists for almost a century. But only recently has there been a dialogue between science and haute cuisine.

A Day At elBulli
by Ferran Adrià, Albert Adrià & Juli Soler
Phaidon Press: 2008. 600 pp. £29.95

January 22, 2009

Science on Stage


Scripting scientists' lives

Jascha Hoffman

Leave a Light On
Ensemble Studio Theatre, New York City
22 January 2009. Part of the First Light Festival, which runs until March 2009.

Last year, at a first reading of her play about the life of biologist Robert Trivers, Ann Marie Healy noticed a stranger in the back of the theatre, laughing. Afterwards, the man strode over to the actor who had played the young biologist as a foul-mouthed and promiscuous genius working out the evolutionary logic of human kindness and conflict, and said: "You got it exactly right." That stranger was Trivers.

Healy's play features in New York's First Light Festival, a collaboration between the Ensemble Studio Theatre and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation that incubates science-based theatre. The festival, which has run annually for more than a decade, includes nine full-length plays this year and continues until the end of March.

In Leave a Light On, Trivers is portrayed as an ambitious, untenured professor who ruffles feathers at Harvard University's department of zoology as he attempts to take a Darwinian approach to human nature. Dissatisfied with an academic culture that is hostile to his ideas, Trivers retreats to Jamaica to study lizards and then moves to teach at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he meets Huey Newton, former leader of the Black Panther party. Widely believed to have dropped 'off the grid', Trivers returns to academia more than a decade later to study the adaptive value of self-deception.

Healy weaves in the science with a light touch. In the play, with the help of a female colleague who is also a love interest, Trivers works out his theory of reciprocal altruism using a series of imaginary birds with distinct approaches to selfless behaviour: Suckers, who always groom their peers; Cheaters, who never do; and Grudgers, who only groom tit-for-tat. As in Tom Stoppard's play Arcadia, the script darts between centuries and characters, punctuating Trivers's sobering career with farcical episodes from the courtship of Charles and Emma Darwin that are meant to explain the logic of gene competition. The play hardly needs such asides: Trivers's own ideas are enough to drive the plot.

The 2009 First Light Festival began with an uneven selection of one-act plays collectively called E = mcbrunch, portraying a chemist discovering her brother's meth lab, an Olympic gymnast trying to prove her rivals are underage, and a mathematician confronting risk in an airport restaurant. The full-length plays take on an equally wide range of topics. Anna Ziegler's Photograph 51 portrays the familiar story of biophysicist Rosalind Franklin, whose X-ray diffraction images led the way to the discovery of DNA structure in 1953. Tommy Smith's Beautiful Night will show Soviet inventor and electronic-music pioneer Léon Theremin falling in love with a black ballerina in New York City in the 1930s — with live accompaniment from the eerie-sounding theremin instrument. And in the improbable monologue Five Easy Steps to Metaphysical Fitness: They Actually Work, comedian Emily Levine will impart wisdom gained by staging a one-woman show about physics while struggling with her pituitary-gland disorder.

"The goal is not just to demystify science but to show its intrinsic appeal, both emotional and intellectual," says Darcy Kelley, a neurobiologist at Columbia University and an adviser to the theatre. "Then science itself becomes a character, not just window dressing."

About January 2009

This page contains all entries posted to Jascha Hoffman in January 2009. They are listed from oldest to newest.

December 2008 is the previous archive.

February 2009 is the next archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

Powered by
Movable Type 3.33