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Inside the Experimental Cuisine Collective

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Robert Margolskee, Mitchell Davis, Florence Fabricant, Wylie Dufresne, and Hervé This at the Experimental Cuisine Collective’s launch workshop on April 11, 2007. Photo credit: Antoinette Bruno (Star Chefs)

 

Launched in 2007, the Experimental Cuisine Collective (ECC) has proven itself as an invaluable resource for those interested in learning about the scientific principles behind food. Founded by Drs. Kent Kirshenbaum and Amy Bentley of New York University in collaboration with Chef Will Goldfarb of WillPowder, the ECC hosts workshops approximately five times per year, each featuring different topics and/or speakers. ECC’s current Director is Anne McBride, a PhD candidate in Food Studies at NYU and Culinary Program/Editorial Director for the Culinary Institute of America. Widely recognized for her ability in establishing connections between scientists and chefs, McBride has been instrumental in developing ECC’s programs. ECC’s workshops have gained nationwide acclaim, featured in media outlets such as Serious Eats, New York Observer, and even the Food Network!

The impressive roster of past ECC speakers include renowned chefs and scientific minds such as Dan Barber, Wylie Dufresne, Rachel Dutton, and Mark Bomford. The topics of ECC workshops are also interestingly diverse, covering topics from soda politics with Marion Nestle to cooking insects with the Yale Sustainable Food Project to the New York Academy of Medicine’s Eating Through Time conference.

Our recent Science & Food public event featured Dr. Kent Kirshenbaum , who stopped to answer a few questions for us about the ECC:

What motivated you to start the Experimental Cuisine Collective?
I was asked by the National Science Foundation to consider establishing a science outreach program as part of their emphasis on “Broader Impacts” of scientific research. I’ve always been eager to establish connections between scientists and experts from other disciplines, so exploring the terrain between chemistry and cuisine came about very naturally.
What has been one of your most memorable experiences since founding the site?
The Experimental Cuisine Collective has always been more about direct engagement rather than as a web-based portal for information. One of my most memorable experiences with the ECC was preparing an alginate-based mango-juice pearl with a 4th grade student at a science fair.  I asked her if we were doing science or cooking. After a moment’s careful thought she replied, “I guess it’s both!” That was a very satisfying moment.

Another memorable experience was giving a lecture series about the ECC throughout New Zealand during the “International Year of Chemistry”. The director of the ECC, Anne McBride, and I got the chance to prepare what we believe were the world’s first vegan pavlovas for our audiences throughout New Zealand. We love Kiwis!

What do you hope the Experimental Cuisine Collective’s readers take away from the website?
I think they are excited about the lecture programs we are offering at NYU, and the opportunity to learn what science can contribute to cooking — along with how chefs can advance scientific objectives. Plus, I hope readers are quick to appreciate that we have been offering our programs for almost 10 years, and all of it has been completely free of charge!
Are there any upcoming projects you would like people to know about?
Our upcoming meeting will be devoted to hydroponic farming, in partnership with the Institute of Culinary Education. We will be meeting at ICE’s indoor 540-square-foot farm in lower Manhattan, designed by Boswyck Farms, which has 3,000 plant sites and in which 22 crops are currently growing. The amazing thing about this farm is that it is literally across the street from the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere. Science can help us grow in so many ways and places!

Ashton YoonAbout the author: Ashton Yoon received her B.S. in Environmental Science at UCLA and is currently pursuing a graduate degree in food science. Her favorite pastime is experimenting in the kitchen with new recipes and cooking techniques.

Read more by Ashton Yoon


Kent Kirshenbaum

Dr. Kent Kirshenbaum received his PhD in Pharmaceutical Chemistry at UCSF, is an NSF Career Award recipient, and is currently a professor of Chemistry at NYU. His research focuses on the creation of new peptide-based macromolecules that can be used as research tools or therapeutic strategies. In 2012, he filed a patent for a foaming agent which acts as a vegan substitute for egg whites, making vegan meringues a delicious possibility.

See Kent Kirshenbaum March 8, 2016 at “The Impact of What We Eat: From Science & Technology, To Eating Local”

Kent Kirshenbaum

What hooked you on cooking?
Spending time with my mom got me hooked on cooking. She exemplified the “slow food” concept, and she’d take days to make a pasta sauce. I grew up in a drafty house in San Francisco that was cold all year around, and being near her at the stove was the warmest place to be. Once my wife and I had kids, I realized how satisfying it was for me to provide my family with sustenance through cooking and culture through cuisine.
My dad got me hooked on science. He studied metallurgy and worked for a mining company. He would go on business trips and bring me back samples of different minerals to play with. It was kind of like the situation described in the book “Uncle Tungsten” by Oliver Sachs.
The coolest example of science in your food?
Mayonnaise. You take two immiscible liquids – oil and water, and find a way to get them to mix. How do they do that?? Add an emulsifier, provide some energy and voila! It’s just a shame the product itself is so repugnant.
The food you find most fascinating?
Fermented butters. Such as smen, the fermented butter of North Africa and “bog butter” from the British Isles.
What scientific concept–food related or otherwise–do you find most fascinating?
I’m fascinated by the relationship between the sequence, structure and function of proteins.
In the kitchen, transglutaminase — also known as meat glue — is a compelling example of enzymology. Nixtamilization is an amazing concept, and the word “nixtamilization” itself is like a really short poem.
Your best example of a food that is better because of science?
Either Pop Rocks or the clean water that comes out of my home faucet. Although I’m not sure either of them really qualify as a foodstuff.
We love comparing the gluten in bread to a network of springs. Are there any analogies you like to use to explain difficult or counter-intuitive food science concepts?
When explaining specificity in the sensory perception of food, I use the “lock in key” analogy to describe how ligands engage protein receptors. Although the analogy is imperfect, it begins to get the idea across.
How does your scientific knowledge or training impact the way you cook? Do you conduct science experiments in the kitchen?
Because I am trained as a chemist, I am fastidious about following a published protocol (recipe) and I tend to be absurdly precise about volumes. I love experimenting with food – we filed a patent application on new way to make vegan meringues. But when it comes to cooking at home I tend to be a traditionalist.
One kitchen tool you could not live without?
My home water carbonation system. I love sparkling water that I can generate from the New York City public water supply and doesn’t need to be shipped from a European spring.
Five things most likely to be found in your fridge?
Harissa, capers, preserved sour cherries, home-made stock and parmesan cheese. I get anxious if my supply of Reggiano is running low.
Your all-time favorite ingredient? Favorite cookbook?
I’m a spice guy. Right now I’m fixated on sumac and cardamom. My favorite cookbooks is “Where Flavor Was Born” by Andreas Viestad which explores how spices are used across the region of the Indian Ocean. It inspired me to visit a cardamom plantation in Kerala, India.
Other favorites include “In Nonna’s Kitchen” and “Cucina Ebraica”, because these books connect me to the memories of my mother and her mother.
Your standard breakfast?
A cup of black coffee and a baked good that I enjoy on my walk from home to my lab. New Yorkers have a bad habit of walking and eating. On the weekends, bagels and smoked salmon. No doughnuts. Never a doughnut. Maybe a beignet. But only in New Orleans.