Molecular Gastronomy: Something’s Cooking

Never had a test tube looked as colourful and appetising as the one Catarina Prista, Joana Moura, and their team presented at the 2007in Paris, an international molecular gastronomy contest promoted by Hervé This, one of the pioneers of molecular gastronomy. This is head of the Molecular Gastronomy Group in the Laboratory of Chemical Interactions at the College de France in Paris. The tube (pictured left) contained a delicate and edible suspension of freeze-dried raspberry, gold chips, chopped mint leaves, and whole raspberries obtained with concentration gradients of sucrose and the food additive xanthane gum. The feat earned the Portuguese team first prize in the cocktail category. “We were very glad to win, because it helps to get people”–scientists and the public alike–“to know us,” Prista says.

Molecular gastronomy is a quirky field, and not only for its contests. It began to crystallise as a science in the early 1990s when a few food-loving scientists started meeting with chefs to study the chemical and physical processes of cooking as a sideline to their research. In its broadest sense, molecular gastronomy today is “the idea that we can scientifically understand ways to make us really enjoy our food and apply that to be able to prepare–both in restaurants and at home–food that is increasingly satisfying,” says Peter Barham, a polymer physicist at the University of Bristol in the U.K. and an early contributor to the field.

The emergence of a few dedicated funding and job opportunities across Europe has helped establish molecular gastronomy, but it’s not yet a secure career path for young scientists. From very different backgrounds, Prista and Moura entered the field through a combination of luck and dedication.

Catarina Prista: From food science to molecular gastronomy

Prista, 37, came across molecular gastronomy almost by accident. She earned a B.Sc. degree in applied chemistry and biotechnology at the New University of Lisbon, then a master’s degree in food science and technology at the Technical University of Lisbon. For her final-year project, she worked on the physiology of Debaryomyces hansenii, a salt-tolerant yeast used to ripen cheeses.

Prista continued this work with a Ph.D. in agro-industrial engineering at the Technical University of Lisbon’s Superior Institute for Agronomy, graduating in 2001. She stayed on as a postdoc in the same microbiology group and now studies the functional genomics and bioenergetics ofSaccharomyces cerevisiae to improve its use in winemaking.

Prista was first exposed to molecular gastronomy in 2003 when her lab head, Maria Loureiro-Dias, prepared an exhibition for the local museum. “We started to use [molecular gastronomy] as a tool for science divulgation,” Prista says. Later, in 2004, a newspaper article piqued the interest of Prista and some of her colleagues–Loureiro-Dias and two chemical engineers, Paulina Mata of the New University of Lisbon, and Margarida Guerreiro, who is now retired. Together, they became her molecular gastronomy team. Moura joined the team later.

That article said that Spanish chef Ferran Adrià had made caviar pearls out of alginate and fruit juice for the wedding of the Prince of Asturias. Just for fun, the scientists worked to re-create Adrià’s caviar pearls by dropping liquid sodium alginate and fruit juice into a calcium solution. “We had to try several concentrations of alginate in order to obtain a sphere, solid outside and liquid inside,” Prista explains. The team also had to figure out how long the alginate should be in contact with calcium. “Too much [time] will turn the pearls too hard, too [little] will make smooth pearls that will easily burst,” Prista says. “Things like these didn’t come in the recipes and had to be improved before we were able to produce beautiful pearls. Scientific knowledge and way of thinking have certainly helped to get faster answers and solve the problems.”

Prista sees many other connections between microbiology, biochemistry, and molecular gastronomy. Molecular gastronomy is “not what I do for my everyday research, but it is also important to know how things work” in your cooking pans, Prista says.

Soon the team started organising molecular gastronomy courses at the university for chefs and for the public.

Joana Moura: From the kitchen to the laboratory

Joana Moura, 32, started in a discipline far removed from molecular gastronomy but was drawn to the field because she saw the opportunity for a career that mixes science and the arts. She obtained a degree in landscape architecture from the Superior Institute for Agronomy in Lisbon in 2001, followed by a master’s degree in urban design. Then she worked for a landscape architecture and environmental studies company for several years.

But Moura had always been interested in cooking. Starting in 2002, she took professional courses in vegetarian cooking and Asian, Italian, and French cuisine. She especially enjoyed a pastry course she took in 2005 at the renowned cooking school Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. When she returned home, she quit her job to dedicate herself to cooking. She then did a course at the Ritz Escoffier School and a pastry specialisation with Pierre Hermé at the Ferrandi School in Paris. These programmes offered “theoretical courses where they teach you the techniques of pastry, the different types of flours, … about the temperature, how to make the mixture, what happens when you incorporate [the ingredients]. It is very useful for understanding the science,” she says.

Moura learned about the Portuguese molecular gastronomy team through Mata, who was a friend. She soon started contributing to their research into applications of food-grade additives such as gelling agents, emulsifiers, and thickeners.”I said I would do it for free,” Moura says. “I wanted to know if I would like to do the work.”Together, they later won first prize for scientists at the 2006 Rencontres Sciences, Art & Cuisine for presenting a fish soup under the form of scoops and noodles using agar and alginate.

Since then, Moura has been working in the lab part-time with funding generated by the team through molecular gastronomy courses and private consultation services. Her job is to reproduce innovative recipes, understand the underlying scientific processes, incorporate new ingredients, and find new techniques. This represents “a lot of experiments,” she says.

Moura also helps chefs with their special requests, which are “always changing. … It makes you enthusiastic all the time,” she says. “I really like to work at the interface between the lab and the kitchen.”

What’s cooking now?

Neither Prista nor Moura are sure of their next step. Prista hopes to continue molecular gastronomy research as a side project to her work on S. cerevisiae. “I don’t know if it helps your career” to be involved in molecular gastronomy, she says, but “I am a lucky person because I do what I like.”

Moura, however, has a dilemma. She is now taking courses in biochemistry and microbiology from the university’s M.Sc. programme “to learn a little more and help me in my work.” Doing a full-time M.Sc. would mean putting her current research on hold for a couple of years. “These things are going very fast, and I want to continue the research,” she says.

Part of the insecurity for both scientists comes from the fact that molecular gastronomy still has some way to go before it is fully accepted as a scientific field. “I would have said 4 to 5 years ago that [young scientists] would be mad to make a career in this field,” says Bristol’s Barham. The field has advanced, but, still, those who pursue it today “are being brave. I would love to think that it will become a really high-quality scientific discipline. … But success is not guaranteed.”

Founding father This sees a bright future for molecular gastronomy. “Many decades ago, when metal works was a chemical art, scientists realised that science could investigate the various phenomena which occur during metal production or transformation, … and now there are many metal science labs in the world,” he writes in an e-mail. Cooking is also a chemical art, and This expects “that there can be as many [molecular gastronomy] labs in the future than there are metal labs.”

“At the moment, there is no clear career structure”–and there’s a lot of competition, Barham says. But with the emergence of a few Ph.D. programmes in France, Denmark, and Italy, “a few … are able to start as a Ph.D. or make it as a postdoc.” The field has also seen a few dedicated professorships coming up in France, Greece, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Italy. And although funding is still difficult to secure, the European Union and countries such as Denmark and the United Kingdom have started supporting molecular gastronomy and technology transfer to restaurants.

Meanwhile, Prista and Moura are reaping personal and professional rewards from their unconventional field. “If you know how things work, you can cook better and do something new in the kitchen,” Prista says. Having your work recognised at the Rencontres Sciences, Art & Cuisine can also boost your spirits. You can work in your research field “for years and no one knows you, and suddenly you win a prize using the same techniques as [in] other fields of research and people get interested.”

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