'Top Chefs' Secrets From a Harvard Science Lab

food science

Have you ever watched Top Chef and wondered about the science behind the molecular gastronomy used by chefs like Richard Blais or Marcel Vigneron? Don't understand why liquid nitrogen makes superior ice cream or how foams, gels, and "caviars" are created? If you were a Harvard undergrad, you might be lucky enough to get college credit for learning about this type of food science. Students taking Harvard's undergraduate science elective "Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to the Science of Soft Matter" learn this and more as they explore, then apply, the science of food.

I don't know about you, but this sounds infinitely cooler than most of my undergrad classes. I probably would have drank less and studied more if I could use what I learned to better understand Top Chef.

Find out more about this unique course after the jump.


As part of their final project, students created their own food products using applied science, like glow-in-the-dark gummy bears and noodles made entirely of parmesan, then presented them at an edible science fair. Wylie Dufresne, who was seen on this week's episode of Top Chef: All-Stars and is the executive chef at New York's molecular gastronomy-themed WD-50, enlisted students to help him tackle the parmesan-based noodle. His staff worked for months without success: the students created a suitable product in two weeks using parmesan and "meat glue" to create the savory, chewy noodle that I really, really want to eat. That's the kind of academic overachievement I can get behind.

Students also learn about crazy-ass products most of us would never dream of having in our pantry but that produce amazing effects, like xantham gum, methylcellulose, or alginate. Check out Harvard's short video on the edible science fair.

The innovative creations at the science fair aren't the only bad-ass things about the course. Famed chefs from around the world frequently deliver guest lectures, available to the public for free in the Science and Cooking podcast on iTunes. Ferran Adria, whose El Bulli is widely considered the best restaurant in the world, Alinea's Grant Achatz, and Blue Hill's Dan Barber are just a few of the big-name chefs to speak at Harvard. After the lectures, students attend labs where professors explain and apply the science behind the chef's work. I'm not sure if these youngsters realize that many young chefs would kill to benefit from the firsthand wisdom of literally some of the best chefs in the world, certainly the most innovative. This is truly an all-star lineup, and I'm pretty much seething with jealousy. I hope they realize how fortunate they are. Also, GET OFF MY LAWN, YOU UNGRATEFUL KIDS.

While not food I eat every day, I've been to restaurants that use science-influenced techniques in their cooking and it's definitely something that makes dining out a special experience while changing how I think about food. The chefs on Top Chef use these strategies all the time, and it would be awesome to learn more about how and why molecular gastronomy works. Plus, learning the concrete facts about why something works in the kitchen helps you become a better cook in your kitchen. You can bet I'm going to be listening to the podcasts I linked to above.

Stir readers: if you were in school, would you take a class like this? What dream food products do you wish science would create? What famous chef would you like to hear lecture?


Image via dnorman/Flickr

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