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Fun with Food

Playful new cooking based on traditional methods and weird ingredients will supplant the industrial techniques that dominate modernist cuisine.
October 3, 2014

Ever since cooks began playing with the equipment of the food industry, chefs have felt compelled to join one of two camps. The first believes any kitchen is incomplete without a centrifuge, combination steam-convection oven, and $6,000 vacuum-seal machine and immersion circulator to cook 22-hour eggs sous vide. The second camp takes pride in telling you that all these gadgets, and ingredients like hydrocolloids and calcium baths, are outlawed in their kitchens—because gadgets and industrial powders have nothing to do with cooking. But now that the equipment, ideas, and techniques of modernist cuisine have been around more than a decade, a new generation of chefs declines to declare loyalty to either camp. To me, the most interesting cooks today are not on the barricades but those eager to discover new flavors. They use low-tech means like fermentation and cook over a stove.

The really ambitious cooks—those who aspire to a place on the world culinary map—create those novel flavors at food labs.

Until now, the two chefs most associated with labs are linked to modernist cuisine: Heston Blumenthal, at the Fat Duck, in Berkshire, England, and Ferran Adrià, who was chef at the most famous modernist restaurant of all, El Bulli in Catalonia, Spain, and who chaired the advisory board of the Basque Culinary Center. Both labs were something more than test kitchens: they were places to try new techniques. The results found their way into new restaurants, books, and a study center and (in the case of the Basque Culinary Center) were shared with the industrial clients that subsidized the enterprise.

The closest counterpart to these men in the United States is David Chang, a hero to younger American cooks. His group of restaurants subsidizes a separately staffed “culinary lab,” whose goal is to discover new components. Chang and his cooks collaborate with mycobiologists and engineers at MIT, Harvard, and Yale; the purpose of that collaboration, in the words of Ryan Miller, product development chef at the lab, is to bridge the gap between “the way a cook learns something, which is visual and tactile,” and a “conceptual understanding” of, say, the enzymatic microbial processes that make soy sauce or miso.

Non-Nomative cooking

Then there is the Nordic Food Lab, which can be found in a houseboat on a Copenhagen canal, a short walk down a cobbled lane from a restaurant called Noma. The lab is the brainchild of Rene Redzepi, whose quest at Noma for new flavors, whether from plants, fungi, lichen, or animal by-products, has given rise to an international obsession with foraging for new, questionably edible ingredients. It’s easy to parody the results. But up close, in the sweeping, palatial kitchens of Noma, a floor above the restaurant, the patience, attention, and meticulous care with which gnarled and ancient vegetables or half-rotten weeds are treated is impressive, as is the dedication of the international cast of apprentices who vie for a spot to stage. A typical late afternoon might find stagiaires carefully lifting the skin off a highly concentrated duck stock—ordinarily a bubbly gray-white scum, but here a shimmering golden-brown sheet, gleaming like mica—and topping it with home-pickled beech leaves, to be seasoned with a lacto-fermented plum.

A day of experiments in the window.
Left: The Nordic Food Lab houseboat.
Right: The team at work in the kitchen.

The lab is more freewheeling and less quiet. It, too, attracts young people from around the world. But music blares as they work at laptops on one of two trestle tables, or at the counters and stove. (Unlike other labs, which often have only induction burners, this one includes an actual, working stove.) The young people are as likely to hold advanced degrees in biomedical science, flavor chemistry, and geography as they are to be cooks. They want to make and grind koji, the fermented-rice base of sake, to use as a chocolate surrogate for a cake; or anaerobically ferment plums individually encased in a lustrous, thick shell of beeswax; or mummify a deer leg to see if it will taste like Parma ham; or ferment grasshoppers into a version of garum, the gamy fish sauce of the ancients; or whip pig’s blood to mimic the foam structure of egg yolks for an ice cream that looks and tastes like chocolate (blood cooks to the same shade of brown). The houseboat’s continuous, slight rocking plays hell with meticulous measurements or the maneuvers required to lift the fragile skin off a stock. Yet this is where the cool kids come to rock before jetting off to the Amazon or the plains of Uganda to collect bee larvae or salamander-size crickets.

It’s easy to assume that the lab is a test kitchen for Noma. It was, after all, started by Redzepi (along with Claus Meyer, a high-profile food entrepreneur in Denmark, who was also a partner in the restaurant); it’s a very few steps from the houseboat to the back stairway up to the Noma kitchens; and daily foot traffic flows between the restaurant’s office and kitchen and the lab.

Koji-chovies—herring made in the style of anchovies.

But the two are separate ventures. The lab is a nonprofit organization and gets no funding at all from Noma. The initial money came from the Danish government and the innovation fund of Nordea, a Stockholm-based financial services group. Now the director, Michael Bom Frøst, a professor of sensory sciences at the University of Copenhagen, regularly applies for grants to foundations, universities, corporations, government entities, and the European Union to maintain its budget.

Left: Josh Evans.
Right: Beeswax ice cream, freeze-dried honey crisp, honey kombucha sauce, and fermented pollen.
Bottom: A buckwheat pancake with desert locust, pickled beet, and fresh cheese.

Such funding is one reason for the Nordic Food Lab’s recent concentration on insects, the subject of almost all the publicity about the lab. An interest in insects is not the result of any core founding principle—Redzepi’s original mission was just the “scientific identification and exploration of deliciousness.” It’s a consequence of the largest grant the lab has received to date: $655,000 from the Swiss-based Velux foundation, which funds technical and basic scientific research, to explore “deliciousness as an argument for entomophagy.” Insects are, of course, the miracle protein of the future: no one asking how we will feed the world can avoid talking about them. Nor, if you go to a trendy restaurant, can you escape being offered a grasshopper taco or a cricket-covered chanterelle bavarian. From the fall of 2013 to the fall of 2014, that money sent Ben Reade, once an intern at the lab who became head of culinary R&D, and Josh Evans, a Yale grad who is one of the lab’s three paid full-time employees, to Kenya, Uganda, the Australian outback, Mexico, Peru, and Sardinia, as well as the Netherlands and northern Denmark, to find and film grasshoppers, beetles, bees, crickets, and other insects that have served as food.

Reade and Evans have gotten very good at tossing off aperçus like “Bee larvae could be the caviar of insects” and “Exoskeletons can be useful for crunch—for instance, in a roasted grasshopper.” The team at the lab happily spends days developing granola with bee larvae and honey on oats and various seeds. Bee larvae, Evans notes enthusiastically, are half protein and 20 percent mono- and polyunsaturated fat (the good kind), with “loads of vitamins and minerals.” And insects might be genetically modified to be even higher in protein and what are thought to be beneficial lipids.

Desert locusts.

But the lab isn’t an uncritical cheerleader for such ideas. Reade is wary of insects as the “next moneymaking scheme” for protein: “never a good thing for biodiversity and food security,” he says. He’s skeptical that people who have never eaten them before will enjoy them. The immediate agricultural future of insects is in animal feed: such a diet is certainly better suited for chickens, who peck at insects, than the fish meal they’re given now. The lab wants to explore and refine traditional foodways, he says, not change cultures.

Nebulized benefits

On any day the small staff and cadre of interns will be working on other projects, both funded and unfunded. The main tool in the lab is not the refractometer, the thermometer, or the digital scales and other measuring instruments. (The lab no longer possesses that symbol of the truly lavish kitchen, a centrifuge.) Instead, the team wields a “spice rack of microbes” to ferment every kind of grain and fruit. The results appear in the grasshopper garum, that surrogate chocolate cake, and the food-friendly beers that, along with insects, are the main funded project at the lab.

Left: Fungal cultures sampled from lab experiments.
Right: Umami sauces fermenting in a thermobox.

On behalf of the huge Danish brewery Carlsberg’s craft brewer, Jacobsen, the lab is experimenting with various forms of kombucha (black tea fermented with bacteria and yeast) and with a longtime obsession, koji—rice fermented with the aid of Aspergillus oryzae, the national fungus of Japan. The lab has used koji to create a wide range of flavors; there are dozens of samples fermenting in a refrigerator downstairs, with bases of wheat, barley, and little-used northern-climate grains. (A small broom closet off the bathroom was the researchers’ “mold room” until the molds proliferated, and the landlord killed months of labor and replaced the walls’ surfaces.) Carlsberg wants to develop a line of beers that will win the respect of sommeliers who must pair brews with courses; the lab is using strains of Aspergillus to ferment various raw ingredients, and roasting koji to give malty, chocolatey flavors to new craft beers.

The most rewarding projects might be the unfunded ones that draw on the researchers’ passions, which reflect Redzepi principles: going into a field, kicking an anthill, using pieces of bread to absorb the formic acid ants emit, and using that to add lemony notes to a stew—a trick they learned from a longtime forager. Or walking into the woods with alcohol and sample bottles to make tinctures that can much later be combined in a sweet or savory dish based on the principles of perfumers—an interest of Reade, who read about the oak moss and peach base of one of the 20th century’s most enduring fragrances, Mitsuoko, and sprayed nebulized spruce tincture over a granita of peach juice, crystallized peach skins, and sheep’s-milk frozen yogurt, accompanied by crispy oak moss, to make what he calls a “magical, ethereal dessert.”

A “chimp stick”: licorice root, whittled down and brushed with juniper-wood-infused honey, and stuck with herbs, seeds, nuts, fruits, and two types of ants.

Much of this is play, blending science and cooking techniques with anthropology, sociology, and cultural history. It is a kind of experimentation that has already made a lasting impact on the new generations of chefs—cooks like Sasu Laukkonen, a Finnish chef who was one of hundreds to gather for MAD, Noma’s annual August chefs’ jamboree, held in a tent on a far Copenhagen canal. Recently, he was eating in the vast new Amass, a restaurant opened by Matt Orlando, a San Diego–raised chef who ran the kitchens at Noma and is one of several graduates to open restaurants in Copenhagen. “Cooking in plastic bags is over,” he announced as Orlando came to say hello. “It’s come and it’s gone.” Orlando nodded and said that not only is Amass sous vide free, but “there will never be meat glue in my kitchen.” Whatever equipment fads come and go, chefs will always be in search of new flavors based on nature. It is to find those flavors that the Nordic Food Lab was established.

Things Reviewed

  • Nordic Food Lab

  • Noma

    Copenhagen, Denmark

Before MAD, Reade decided to make haggis using a basketball-size sheep’s rumen he had carried to Copenhagen from a farm in his native Scotland; as a Scots friend played the bagpipes, it would be borne in by a kilted Reade with somber ceremony at the finale of the conference, whose theme was “guts.” (Reade has since returned to Scotland to help activate a national chapter of Slow Food.) One late afternoon, following a day of checking on Aspergillae and the mummified deer leg, he was hand-chopping sheep’s heart, lung, stomach, liver, kidney, tongue, and suet and blending the result with oats, foraged herbs, and a good dousing of whiskey before stuffing it all into the heavy, enormous rumen, which had to be lifted into a pot—an all-hands-on-deck process that left everyone smelling strongly of sheep offal.

The remedy? Strip and dive into the canal—not an uncommon end to a day’s research on a Copenhagen houseboat.

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