HYDE PARK, N.Y. – The basics of a culinary education are getting a little less basic at the Culinary Institute of America.
Recognizing that for the chefs of tomorrow well-honed knife skills and a mastery of the mother sauces won't be enough, the culinary school is pumping up its curriculum with a host of science lab-worthy tools and techniques.
"Today's chef compared to a chef 30 years ago needs to know so much more," CIA president Tim Ryan said recently. "The industry, the profession, is so much more complicated."
Basic cooking lectures at times sound more like a chemistry lesson, covering the culinary uses of xanthan gum, or the physics of why oil and water won't mix. And just this month, the school was approved to offer a new major in culinary science, a field encompassing food science and culinary arts.
A recent class covered dessert making via liquid nitrogen. Chef Francisco Migoya carefully dunked strawberries into a smoking container of the super-cold liquid, then shattered them with a mallet and ground the shards into a fine berry dust for use in an ice cream dish. Frozen borage petals were added for garnish.
It's true: the famous French chef Auguste Escoffier never studied ion-dipole attraction and James Beard never had to consider the complex and sometimes outlandish creations of molecular gastronomy. But science has crept into cooking in so many ways, from cooks using lab centrifuges to separate ingredients to high-end restaurants that serve aerated foie gras. The trend, sometimes referred to as modernist cuisine, is loosely defined as the movement to incorporate scientific principles into the cooking and presentation of food.
And the movement has stars, like Chicago's Grant Achatz and Spain's Ferran Adria, who made gorgonzola balloons and vanishing ravioli for a select few at his former restaurant, elBulli. Practitioners even have a manifesto: "Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking," a 2,438-page text published last year by Nathan Myhrvold, the first chief technology officer at Microsoft, which includes tips for preserving truffles in carbon dioxide.
Ryan recalled that Achatz once told him he picked up a lot of his knowledge not in the classroom, but on the Internet. But Ryan stressed that scientific skills are increasingly necessary not only in multi-star restaurants, but in the corporate kitchens and research labs many of his school's graduates will work in.
Freshmen being put through their paces preparing fish and carrots on a recent weekday morning in a kitchen classroom already were getting the message. While any line cook knows to finish off a sauce with butter, chef Elizabeth Briggs wants her students to know why. They have to have a detailed understanding of what's going on inside the pot.
"It's emphasized in this class it's the difference between a chef and a cook," said Janelle Turcios of Pittsburgh, working a range as she made a vin blanc sauce.
The emphasis on science is signaled most dramatically with the new bachelor of professional studies degree in culinary science. Beginning in February, students pursuing the degree will be able to take courses such as Dynamics of Heat Transfer, Flavor Science and Perception, and Advanced Concepts in Precision Temperature Cooking.
Chef Jonathan Zearfoss said they are not just teaching "magic tricks" or molecular gastronomy. He and Chris Loss, director of menu research and development at the CIA, tried to design a course of study that will teach the scientific underpinnings of food production.
"A traditional kitchen is like a pirate ship. We like our flames, we like our noise, we have our scars," Zearfoss said with a smile. "We'd like to create a kitchen that's more like a yacht."
To Loss, a strawberry is not just something to be sliced or dipped, but something with cells and enzymes that can be manipulated for best taste and presentation. Loss explained that the strawberries smashed in the kitchen classroom have more surface area and thus more flavor. And ice cream made in liquid nitrogen is smoother than the stuff on the supermarket shelves because ice crystals don't have time to form.
Other schools are stressing the link between food and science, too.
The International Culinary Center in New York City now offers a concentration in culinary technology stressing scientific principles and hands-on experience with high-tech tools like those used for sous-vide.
The food science department at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst began offering a concentration in culinary science about five years ago to meet a demand from culinary students with associate's degrees who wanted more science background for the job market, said department head Eric Decker. And Drexel University has offered a bachelor of science in culinary science since 2007.
More subtly, the CIA is tweaking the master-apprentice relationship that has been a hallmark of professional kitchens since the days of suspending iron pots over wood fires. The traditional way for a trainee to respond to a request is, "Yes, chef." Now school administrators want to make it closer to, "Why, chef?" They want students to come up with hypotheses, test them, and discover the best methods.
Provost Mark Erickson explains that in some cases, those traditional beliefs can be improved, like the practice of simmering stock slowly at around 185 F to make it clear and tasty. Erickson said tests show simmering at a rolling boil at about 210 F produces a more flavorful, if cloudier, stock.
George Vollkommer, a CIA junior from Chicago, said it's a bit scary to go from "Just do it because I told you" to bringing scientific inquiry into the kitchen. But Vollkommer also is excited to move beyond tradition and explore contemporary food preparation methods such as sous vide and quick freezing.
"It's trying to balance these new techniques with being able to execute them properly. Some of them are very technically advanced to perform, even dangerous," he said. "If you look at liquid nitrogen, you can lose a hand doing that."