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Microbes & the Future

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The vanillin (major flavor compound in vanilla beans) found in most food products on the market is derived from a three-step synthetic process that converts the molecule guaiacol to vanillin. Both natural and chemical methods for this conversion has shown to be expensive and environmentally burdensome, but biotech company Gen9 is providing a more promising route to synthesize vanillin that begins with glucose, using yeast to “ferment it just like beer.” David Chang of Momofuku and microbiologist Ben Wolfe further elaborate on how microbes may very well be the future of food.
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Veronica Trevizo

Veronica Trevizo is the Development Chef at Momofuku Culinary Lab. Veronica hails from California, where she was born in San Diego, attended the California Culinary Academy, and worked at such venues as the Four Seasons in San Diego and the San Francisco establishments Jardinière and Michael Minas. She also spent time working at Spagos in Maui and has worked all over Europe, completing stages in Spain and at Noma in Copenhagen, before relocating to New York to work in the Momofuku Culinary Lab.

Veronica Trevizo courtesy of Port Magazine

Photo courtesy of Port Magazine

What hooked you on cooking?
I grew up in a traditional Hispanic family in which every month there was some sort of barbecue or grand family dinner. My fondest memories of my childhood revolve around those special occasions. I always found myself in the kitchen with my mother and Tias preparing the meals, feeling excited as I watched them cook and sneaking bits of food and knowledge. When they tried to shoo me from the kitchen, I stayed, and to this day I don’t want to be anywhere else.
The coolest example of science in your food?
I would have to agree with Dan and select our ongoing projects based around microbes and fermentation. At the Momofuku Culinary Lab we have been quite successful with our projects involving miso and other traditional fermentative products. These projects generated relationships and connections with experts in the scientific field, furthering our understanding and abilities to explore just how far we can evolve food sciences. It is my personal goal to continue to progress the collaboration between food and academia.
The food you find most fascinating?
Processed food. I find it fascinating that so much work and money is used to produce foods that are unhealthy, poor tasting, and downright bad for people.
What scientific concept–food related or otherwise–do you find most fascinating?
• Maillard reaction: when compounds form together, creating new compounds that make a very distinctive flavor. For example, crust on bread and sugar to make caramels.
• MSG: there are so many ideas out there but none that are really true. This subject always seems to start a conversation.
• Neurogastronomy: an understanding of why we perceive something as delicious or disgusting fascinates me. The age old fight: “my mother’s food is better than yours!” There is so much going on that we just don’t fully understand yet.
Your best example of a food that is better because of science?
Milk. Pasteurization is a science win that absolutely highlights the importance of science in food.
How do you think science will impact your world of food in the next 5 years?
In the past years, we’ve seen the huge impact that science has had in our kitchens. A great example is the science-imagined and science-enabled equipment like centrifuges, cryovacs, and sous vide machines. Using equipment that is seen in laboratories now in almost every kitchen makes both fields more robust and makes our work even more informative for the public. As a cook, it has also helped me understand that scientists and chefs are not so different. I would say the impact is already here in the culinary world but I definitely see much more collaboration in the future. It starts with equipment and continues with the sharing of knowledge.
One kitchen tool you could not live without?
A knife.
Five things most likely to be found in your fridge?
• Butter
• Valentina hot sauce
• Leftover takeout
• Homemade penicillin projects (aka some old bread…)
• Honestly, not that much! The fridge I’m thinking about is always the one at the lab.
Your all-time favorite ingredient?
I can’t live without salt!
Favorite cookbook?
My favorite cookbook… there are so many. I do love Julia Child and remember reading Mastering the Art of French Cooking religiously as a child.
Your standard breakfast?
I usually just have black coffee. But I do love chilaquiles!

Daniel Felder

Daniel Felder is the Head of Research and Development at the Momofuku Culinary Lab. Dan is originally from Roxbury, Connecticut, and began working in restaurants at the age of eighteen while he was studying at Union College in Saratoga Springs, New York. He moved to New York City and joined the Momofuku team in 2008 at Noodle Bar and Ko, and now at the Momofuku Culinary Lab.

Dan Felder credit Gabriele Stabile

Photo courtesy of Gabriele Stabile

What hooked you on cooking?
Both my parents are quite good home cooks, and let me cook with them from a really early age, sitting at the counter watching and then helping as I got older. My great-aunt is an amazing home cook, and still lives in Rome. She had an impact on me and my cousins, as four of us now work in the food industry. Learning from her was a challenge; she wouldn’t give up her secrets unless you earned them, usually by doing some unrelated task for an extended period of time. Once I got my food in the door of professional kitchens, it was a similar scenario. You have to earn knowledge. That’s the slippery slope for me; learning something new in the kitchen repeatedly opens my eyes to how much more there is to learn.
The coolest example of science in your food?
One of the coolest examples is probably the ongoing projects at the Culinary Lab based around microbes and fermentation. The heart of this process for us was really the application of scientific methodology. Applying scientific structure and procedures to how we pursue a question has actually given us a lot of freedom in how we experiment. By breaking down and understanding the mechanics of a process we can’t see with the naked eye, we can start with a grounded hypothesis and begin manipulating variables until we get to where we want to be. Our miso is a good example of this process.
The food you find most fascinating?
I am really fascinated by starches, grains, root vegetables, etc. I realize it is pretty familiar and basic territory, but I think the bio-technological capacity of rice and grains, for example, is really incredible. We have only scratched the surface of what we can do with it. There has been a lot of research with corn and different starches for industrial purposes and alcohol, but as cooks, I think we have so much more to discover.
What scientific concept–food related or otherwise–do you find most fascinating?
• Why starburst candies cause extreme salivation.
(More of a question than a concept—potential student project?)
• Enzymes.
• Metabolic pathways. Specifically, how the body metabolizes sugars and amino acids.
• Hydrolysis of protein.
• Correlation of fermentation to larger biological processes.
Your best example of a food that is better because of science?
Italian salad dressing.
How do you think science will impact your world of food in the next 5 years?
Not to be gross, but the idea of “out of body digestion” is really interesting to me. Can we extrapolate and apply the mechanism of digestive processes in the natural world as catalysts in the kitchen? Fermentation is a familiar example of this idea, but I believe we can take it a bit further by looking at more diverse biological processes, and hopefully reveal new nutritive resources (hopefully delicious ones) as a result.
As a corollary, the things Alex Atala, Noma, and the Nordic Food Lab have found by exploring potential food sources in their respective environments is both very interesting and indicative of what is in the immediate future for science and food. In our lab, we are looking at how we can extend this idea to process as well. ow can we disinter biological processes from the natural world and bring them into the kitchen?
One kitchen tool you could not live without?
Rene and Lars gave the perfect answer: spoon. I can’t compete with that. If I had to pick one for the Momofuku Culinary Lab, I would go with a Dremel.
Five things most likely to be found in your fridge?
• Fruit and veggies
• Good Seasonings Italian salad dressing
(the one in the packets that comes with the cruet)
• An excess of condiments
• Olives and pickles
• Budweiser
Your all-time favorite ingredient?
That’s hard to say. Butter, maybe? Bread?
Favorite cookbook?
Also hard to choose. Right now we have a copy of Ben Shewry’s new book, Origin: The Food of Ben Shewry, in the Culinary Lab. It rules.
Your standard breakfast?
I don’t really eat breakfast, but, if I make it on the weekend, it errs on the English breakfast side of things: poached eggs, tinned beans, potato, tomato, sometimes a breakfast meat. Conversely, I am also a sucker for huevos rancheros.

Umami & The Momofuku Culinary Lab

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Mark Bittman explores the savory umami flavor of miso, and David Chang shows Gizmodo around his (not-so-secret) secret lab. Stay tuned the next few weeks for lots more about the Momofuku Culinary Lab and the delicious science of umami! Read more

David Chang

David Chang is the chef and founder of Momofuku and author of the best-selling cookbook of the same name. To follow David on his food adventures, check out an issue of Lucky Peach or watch Mind of a Chef on PBS. You can also watch David’s 2012 Science & Food lecture, “A Microbe in My Ramen?”

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Image courtesy of Gabriele Stabile © momofuku

What hooked you on cooking?
Childhood memories. I was hanging out with my grandparents growing up and my grandmother was an amazing cook. My earliest memories are all food memories. Then I learned that cooking could be something I could do as a job. It was an honest profession, and a job that wasn’t sitting at a desk.
The coolest example of science in your food?
Fermentation. That’s a huge blanket statement, but coming from a guy who knew nothing about science, to go back and learn basic science that I never thought I’d have to know was very fascinating for me. I’m not reading cookbooks anymore, but I’m reading science books and journals that I never thought I’d be interested in. I’m in awe that I’m learning stuff I never thought I’d want to learn. Everything about cooking is all science. I’m now very comfortable that cooking isn’t just intuitive, but to make it better I need to know what is really happening to foods. That to me, is a constant question I ask: WHY is it happening?
The food you find most fascinating?
Rice is endlessly fascinating to me right now. It has extraordinarily strange properties to me, and is so versatile. You can make noodles, you can turn it into rice sticks or sheets or mochi, and there are so many various types of rice. Take sushi, for example: there is aged rice versus unaged rice, the type of water… Rice is a vanilla thing, but rice is one of a billion different ingredients, but there are endless applications. Vietnamese rice sheet is AMAZING. It is something very simple, but in Southeast Asia, they make it without electricity, running water, and it has amazing properties. Rice is a lot like fermentation — it gets me very excited since it seems so simple but you really know nothing about it.
Your all-time favorite ingredient?
That oscillates between really really good butter and really good shiro miso.
Favorite cookbook?
Great Chefs of France is my favorite cookbook because it goes into detail about all the great Nouvelle French chefs like Raymond Thuilier and Alain Chapel. It talks about everything from the creation of daily menus to their philosophies of food.
Your best example of a food that is better because of science?
My first endeavor to understand the science behind a food was adding alkalinity to pasta or noodles. That was mindblowing. How changing the pH – adding alkaline salt, such as sodium carbonate, could completely alter the structure of pasta or noodles. Getting the breakdown from Harold McGee on how and why it works was fascinating to me. I still don’t understand why there is an electron shift from positive to negative or whatever; I still don’t understand why it raises the gelatinization temperature of the wheat. I understand the basics of what happens, but if I want to go further I’m limited by my basic understanding of science — it is limited by topics that I know nothing about. There are only so many textbooks and journals that I can read.
How do you think science will impact your world of food in the next 5 years?
For me the role of science is how do I make food better. The one topic I am on 100% is to explain MSG and demystify what MSG is. The only way you can demystify this food pariah is to talk science: there is no scientific data to back up the negative effects of MSG. Even home cooks don’t want to use it. Most people think it is used as a shortcut, but what if you just use it to make food better. That rigorous approach to why you should or should not use an ingredient is a process. I want to start using MSG in momofuku. People that work in momofuku will have a good basic understanding of glutamic acid and how we can use it to make food better.
One kitchen tool you could not live without?
Scaling or measuring instruments. I first thought measuring stuff was for wimps. But I now I think if you don’t measure you’re a stupid moron. It has only become abundantly clear to me recently that if you don’t have the right proportions, you’re screwed.
Five things most likely to be found in your fridge?
Srichacha hot sauce
Unsalted butter
A Lemon
Mayonnaise
Mustard
Your standard breakfast?
Usually lunch.

Microfuku

The momofuku team, led by chef/owner David Chang, swung through town during our week on microbes. David Chang and Peter Meehan produce the literary magazine Lucky Peach. Dan Felder and Veronica Trevizo are chefs who work in the momofuku kitchen lab. For LA Weekly’s rundown of the public lecture, see here. For more photos, see here

momofuku chef Dan Felder before class begins

Microbial fermentation is one of the oldest cooking techniques in the world. In the past two years, the momofuku team has been working to understand fermentation and apply it in innovative ways. When the team visited, we first tasted pistachio miso and MSG. Miso is traditionally made by inoculating soybeans or barley with Aspergillus oryzae, or koji in Japanese. Koji is a mold that is also used in making sake and soy sauce. The momofuku team took this idea a step further, experimenting with inoculating untraditional ingredients with A. oryzae. The resultant pistachio miso is a mildly salty paste with a subtle note of the nut. It tastes like dou fu ru, a fermented bean curd from China, of which, incidentally, some varieties are also made with A. oryzae.

The momofuku team took this pistachio miso another step further, by centrifuging it. The miso separated into 4 layers, one of which is the “pistachio tamari” pictured below. We also sampled cherry and rhubarb vinegars from the lab.

In making these fermentation products themselves, the momofuku chefs are putting an American spin on foreign products. Yes, they are Japanese in tradition, but they are made with a unique microbial community that is found nowhere else in the world except at 10th St and First Avenue in NYC. A deeper knowledge of science is valuable not only for understanding how each step of fermentation modifies the flavor and texture of the ingredients, it is also vital for safety. For a couple of years now, the chefs have been working with our friends Rachel Dutton and Ben Wolfe at Harvard who identify the microbes on momofuku samples and let the team know whether it is safe to eat them.

Further reading:

Felder, Dan, et al. “Defining microbial terroir: The use of native fungi for the study of traditional fermentative processes.International Journal of Gastronomy and Food Science. 1.1 (2012): 64-69.

Speaking of letting things rot, see here to learn more about artist Heike Leis’ photographs of food rotting way beyond edibility.