Q : What sparked the change in direction?
Posted 10 October 2002 - 03:28 PM
Posted 15 October 2002 - 03:42 PM
Whilst I had read Harolds brilliant book On food and cooking some ten years before opening the restaurant and had gained a good base knowledge of some kitchen chemistry, I had not really started to experiment or challenge any techniques.
Harolds book however did make a statement that really did make me think. He said that browning meat did not seal in the juices.
This was the first thing that I had ever read that challenged a completely accepted kitchen lore.
When we opened The Fat Duck in August 1995, we took over an old pub and re-decorated on a budget.
We did very little to the kitchen apart from investing in a couple of pieces of second hand catering equipment like a fridge and an oven.
THe biggest problem with the kitchern was that it had domestic gas pressure feed through a half inch pipe. We could not get this extended to begin with because of cost and disruption.
You may be wondering what an earth all of this has got to do with the science of cooking?
Well, the answer is, quite a lot actually!
When cooking green vegetables, kitchen lore states that you need to bring a large pan of generously salted water to the boil-in some instances this is ridiculously described as a strong or rolling boil. Water will either boil or not!
The reason for maintaining a large quantity of water at boiling is that when a relatively small amount of green beans are thrown in, the cold mass of bean will not bring the water off of the boil. This, along with the addition of salt meant that the green veg would retain its colour.
With our low gas pressure we could only maintain a few litres of water at boiling point.
This meant that any more than a handfull of cold beans added would bring the water off of the boil .
We therefore had to cook literally eight green beans at a time!
Because of this, I needed to learn exactly why the salt and boiling water played such an important role in cooking green veg?
Most books that talked about the addition of salt said that it helped "fix" the colour.
This meant nothing to me as it did not explain what was happening.
Certainly the salt did nothing for the seasoning of the veg as they needed seasoning again before serving.
I then decided to test the theory that salt raises the boiling temp of the water and found that the difference really was miniscule.
I then decided to cook some brocolli at home in unsalted tap water. I cooked the florets until very soft and noticed that they were still vibrant green.
Coming to terms with the fact that salt is not necessary in cooking water to retain the green colour in veg is pretty difficult for a chef; after all, this is one of the moast biblical lores in the kitchen!
I then decided that after some ten years of this, I needed to find a scientist that was interested in cooking and working with a chef; after all, we are not the easiest people to work with!
I had allready been in contact with Harold McGee but he was based in the States.
I had also spoken to Herve This, the french chemist with a degree in molecular gastronomy and good friend of Pierre Gagnaire but again he was not based in the Uk.
Although over the past five years, I was buildiing up a friendship with these chaps, I still needed to find a scientist with whome we could physically work together.
Having known of the work of Nicholas Kurti, Physicist at Oxford University, I tried to contact him only to find out that he had died a couple of months before (this was about three years ago).
Prof Kurti was the leading light on the science of cooking and his wife told me of the workshop in Sicily every two years on molecular gastronomy.
She kindly sent me a list of the participants.
I then telephoned my way through the names on thiis list until I got hold of Peter Barham, physicist at BristolUniversity and author (although he wasnt then) of the book The science of cooking.
I told him that I had come to the conclusion that salt was not needed to keep the green colour in veg while cooking-after all we make an etouffee of, say leek by cooking them in a water butter emulsion with no more salt added than is necessary for the seasoning. If this emulsion was salted at the same rate as traditional blanching water, the leeks would be inedible but with this relatively low salt added , as long as the leeks are not overcooked they will retain their colour.
So here we have a case of classical cookery contradicting itself!
Pete and I subsequently met up and it all went from there.
During the past three years, I have built up a network of friends in the science world ranging from a Prof of flavour technology in Nottingham University to a proff. of flavour psychology in Oxford who has isolated neurons that have responded to specific flavours.
There is the Dr at the Leatherheard food research centre and the Proff at Reading Uni who is one of the leading lights on the browning flavours and reactions in meat cookery
A couple of weeks a ago we all spent a week along with Harold in labs in Geneva experimenting-it was fantastic.
There is a lot more to this story Andy but I cant keep on typing-sorry!
Suffice to say that a lot of the work that we are doing at the moment is on flavour psychology and is just so fascinating
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