Entertainment

Blessed are the geeks

Jill Dupleix explores the future of gastronomy and asks the boffins, what's next?

England's celebrated jelly-makers and architectural foodsmiths Sam Bompas and Harry Parr have seen the future. Not only that, they've cooked it. Working with micronutritionists, biochemists and nanotechnologists, they recently staged a dinner for KitchenAid in London that featured bioluminescent lollipops, insect-protein pasta and ChickieNobs.

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Table Talk: Jill Dupleix shares the menu for the dinner and the science fiction inspiration behind it

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The bioluminescence was created with synthesised Renilla luciferase, the protein responsible for making jellyfish glow, activated by contact with salivial oxygen. The insect-protein fusilli came with pork ragu and mimolette and the advice that 100 grams of dried insects can provide more than 100 per cent of your daily requirements of minerals and vitamins.

And the ChickieNobs were inspired by Margaret Atwood's thrilling but chilling vision of the future in Oryx and Crake, in which food factories grow chicken parts (just the breasts or the drumsticks, the two most in demand), with an opening at the top of each growth unit for the input of protein. (''No eyes or beak or anything, they don't need those.'')

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It's a long way from designing the jelly for Heston Blumenthal's 2009 TV series Heston's Feasts, but the eccentric young pair see no limits to where food and science can go.

So take your protein pills and put your helmet on; food and science is here to stay.

The sort of chefs who, as students, slept through their chemistry classes are the new geeks. Momofuku's David Chang is grappling with the principles of fermentation with Harvard microbiologist Rachel Dutton, and New York's Wylie Dufresne works closely with the director of culinary technology at the French Culinary Institute, Professor Dave Arnold.

Washington DC's culinary innovator Jose Andres has formed the ThinkFoodTank to do research and development into things such as solar energy, and Rene Redzepi and Claus Meyer of Noma in Copenhagen have established the Nordic Food Lab to share knowledge of Nordic raw materials and publish scientific articles on subjects such as Seaweeds for Umami Flavour.

The two worlds may have been merging for the past 20 years, but suddenly science and cooking are high on the radar, as if the boffins just opened a door and allowed the public in. Actually, that's exactly what happened. The Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences has been running courses titled Science & Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to the Science of Soft Matter since 2010. Soft matter? It's what chemists call food. The queues to get in are longer than those outside Chang's Momofuku Ssam Bar on New York's Lower East Side. ''Everyone can relate to food and cooking has become part of our pop-culture,'' says Christina Andujar, who co-ordinates the public lecture series. ''The response has been amazing, with attendances of up to 700 people a week, and a lot of hits on iTunes and YouTube.''

Together with the Alicia Foundation and Ferran Adria, the original ''mad scientist'' chef of the former ElBulli in Catalonia, Spain, they use food and cooking to explain fundamental principles in applied physics and engineering. ''It's unbelievably important for cooking to get into universities,'' Adria says, ''and for us all to have the willingness to learn.''

The world-renowned authority on the chemistry of foods and cooking, and author of the ground-breaking On Food and Cooking and The Curious Cook, Harold McGee, also lectures at Harvard. For him, the question of where food and science is going is a simple one. ''I haven't a clue,'' he says. ''Ten years ago I would never have predicted that we'd be where we are now.'' In the past, he says, scientific research focused on issues of industrial-scale production and manufacturing.

''Then around 2000, a handful of leading chefs became celebrities for their creative approach to cooking.

''They used food science and food technology as tools for their creative work. They made food science and food technology cool.''

Blumenthal famously bumped into McGee at an airport in 1998, and said: ''It's all your fault!''

After reading McGee On Food & Cooking, Blumenthal apparently started to question everything he did in the kitchen.

''That made cooking infinitely more troublesome than it needed to be,'' McGee says, ''but it also freed him to try new approaches and be more creative.''

Today Blumenthal is the shaven-headed, bespectacled poster boy for the new food-science movement, popularising his culinary alchemy on television, talk shows, at far-flung food events, in very, very big cookbooks, and at his three-Michelin-star restaurant, The Fat Duck in Bray.

He loves the technical challenges of applying science to cookery.

As Bompas puts it: ''You can do whatever you want, you just have to think of it first''. As long as it isn't ChickieNobs. Please.

 

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