CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Dan Barber's culinary skills have earned him a James Beard "Outstanding Chef" award. The food at his New York restaurant Blue Hill also was the centerpiece for a Manhattan date night between President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama.
Yet it's his focus on cultivating flavor before foodstuffs even reach his kitchen that put him in an unusual setting recently.
Trading his chefs whites for a loosened tie and sport coat, Barber stood in the well of a Harvard University science hall, delivering a guest lecture as part of the hottest course on campus this fall: Physical Universe 27, or, "Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science."
As part of the course, top chefs from around the world, including the current master of the gastronomic universe, Ferran Adria, chef/owner of Spain's famed elBulli restaurant, have attempted to explain how physics and other sciences influence their cooking.
They've also shown that their cooking, in Adria's case often labeled "molecular gastronomy," can illustrate scientific feats such as spherification, gelation and oxidation. One of Adria's signature dishes is warm — but, seemingly miraculously, not melted — ice cream. His trick is the additive methylcellulose, a gum which solidifies when it warms rather than cools.
Not exactly a pantry staple. And that's sort of the point.
The goal is to teach science in a new and interesting ways, part of the university's effort to revamp its general education offerings. The target audience is not just history majors seeking to satisfy curriculum distribution requirements, but budding scientists with an equal passion for food.
"If you know this is why you have lemon juice, then you can say, 'Well, lemon juice is here for a certain effect. Are there other things that can substitute for lemon juice if I don't have lemon juice, because I'm just looking for an effect, not necessarily the lemon juice itself?'" said senior Larissa Zhou.
The 22-year-old physics major is one of the course's teaching assistants, reinforcing the work of its two professors. Hundreds of her classmates competed for the 300 spots in the course, and hundreds more have lined up hours early on recent Mondays to attend guest lectures.
They have been delivered by Barber, Adria and others famed chefs such as Grant Achatz of Alinea in Chicago, Jose Andres of Jaleo in Washington and, finally, on Dec. 6, David Chang of momofuku in New York.
"Everything that I celebrate in the kitchen, and that I am celebrated for, actually begins here," Barber said during his lecture, aptly titled, "Cultivating Flavor."
Using a PowerPoint presentation, he explained that he uses traditional cooking techniques but attempts to distinguish his cuisine through the science behind the meats and produce he serves. His personal laboratory is Stone Barns, a farm he, his brother and sister-in-law own 25 miles north of New York City. The trio also own Blue Hill Farm in Great Barrington, Mass., largely a dairy operation.
At Stone Barns, chefs work with farmers to learn which grasses and grazing methods produce the tastiest lamb. They see how compost and pulverized charcoal sown in the ground affect the sugar content of carrots that grow in it. And they experiment with minimizing their environmental footprint by turning lobster bodies into charcoal they, in turn, use to grill fresh lobsters.
"I'm not an environmentalist, but in the pursuit of the science behind influencing flavors, what I've come to learn is that if you're pursuing the best flavor, you have to have the best biology in the soil," Barber said in an interview.
Michael Brenner, one of the professors leading the course, said the chefs have proven to be remarkably adept communicators, distilling complex scientific concepts into everyday language. He lauded Andres for his discussion of fat, proteins and carbohydrates.
"Some of the students came up later and remarked how much easier it was to understand him than us," Brenner said of his fellow teachers.
The course grew from a lecture Adria delivered two years ago. Harvard's interest in reinvigorating its general education curriculum dovetailed with work the chef does through his Alicea Foundation to spread knowledge of food and science.
Adria rounded up his fellow chefs, while Brenner and his colleagues developed a curriculum to teach basic science principles, as well as to introduce students to scientific thinking. Remarkably, the chef's areas of expertise and the curriculum ended up closely matched.
Chef Carles Tejedor of Via Veneto in Barcelona led a lab class after delivering a lecture entitled, "Olive Oil and Viscosity." Spanish chocolatier Enric Rovira lectured about heat and temperature's effect through his expertise in chocolate. And Nandu Jubany of Can Jubany in Barcelona taught about both scientific and culinary emulsions.
"We didn't have an agenda beyond showing the students how there was science in their lives through cooking," said Brenner. "It seems obvious, but to me it wasn't, but the way scientists deconstruct a recipe is very similar to the way chefs deconstruct it."