The 50 lucky undergraduates who take Amy Rowat’s "Physiological Sciences 7" course this spring will probably never be able to go to a restaurant and look at food the same way again. And that’s not an unappetizing thing.
Amy Rowat, assistant professor of integrative biology and physiology, created the extremely popular "Science and Food" undergraduate course and its corresponding public lecture series featuring celebrated chefs.
"Science and Food: The Physical and Molecular Origins of What We Eat" will teach students the hows and whys behind plant and animal texture and flavor — why lettuce is crispy, or why different cuts of meat have different textures. So when they go into that restaurant, it means they’ll know how to determine the overall mechanical properties of that juicy piece of steak they’re about to consume.
It’s not just undergrads who’ll get a taste of food science, however. What has set L.A. foodies buzzing louder than a boiling teakettle is the blue-ribbon list of celebrated chefs and food authors from around the world who are coming to share their knowledge with the public, as well as with UCLA students taking Rowat’s course.
Members of the general public are snapping up tickets to attend a four-lecture series that Rowat, an assistant professor of integrative biology and physiology, has organized in conjunction with her undergraduate course.
The public lectures will be given by such kitchen luminaries as René Redzepi of Restaurant Noma and Lars Williams of Nordic Food Lab, both located in Copenhagen, Denmark (April 2); Nathan Myhrvold, author of "Modernist Cuisine" (April 25); and David Chang, owner/chef of the Momofuku restaurant group in New York City, Sydney and Toronto, and Peter Meehan, food writer for The New York Times (May 24).
Rene Redzepi, chef/co-owner of Restaurant Noma in Copenhagen, will be a guest lecturer.
Ticket sales exploded as soon as word of the lectures got out, and the first three lectures sold out almost immediately. Tickets to the fourth lecture on June 9 in Moore Hall — featuring chefs Jimmy Shaw of Lotería Grill in Los Angeles, Sherry Yard of Spago in Beverly Hills and Bill Yosses, executive pastry chef at the White House — are going fast at $20 each. (UCLA students are free.)
"All the chefs are super-enthusiastic about this," Rowat said. "They really want us to learn more about their food and the science underlying what they make in the kitchen. They’re also excited to share their approach to food with the students."
Students enrolled in Rowat’s undergraduate course, which is geared toward non-science majors, are in for an added treat. They’ll get to hear the abovementioned experts speak in their class, but they’ll also hear from several other big-name chefs, including David Kinch of Manresa in Los Gatos, Calif., and Cynthia Sandberg of Love Apple Farms, the exclusive kitchen garden for Manresa; Barbara Spencer of Windrose Farm in San Luis Obispo County; Gary Menes of Le Comptoir in Los Angeles; Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo of Animal/Son of a Gun in Los Angeles; and Adam Fleischman of Umami Burger in Los Angeles.
Lecture topics will include "The Molecules of Food and the Exploration of Deliciousness," "Why do Carrots Taste Sweeter in the Winter?," "Milk, From Breast to Cheese and the Many Forms of Sugar," "Perfecting Mouthfeel in Mexican Cuisine: How to Tune Viscosity Using Tortilla Chips" and "A Microbe in My Ramen? Altering Food Texture and Flavor Using Microbes."
David Chang, executive chef/owner of the Momofuku restaurant group, will talk about the use of microbes in altering food texture and flavor.
Rowat co-created the first annual science and cooking class at Harvard University, where she was a postdoctoral fellow in the School of Engineering & Applied Sciences. The course was instigated, she said, by celebrated Spanish chef Ferran Adrià, who came to Harvard to deliver a lecture. Inspired, Rowat and her colleagues decided to develop a general education course with a focus on haute cuisine, and Adrià helped by inviting fellow chefs who were experts in modernist cuisine. A huge success from the get-go, Harvard’s third annual course is set to take place this fall.
This spring, Rowat will teach the science and food course at UCLA for the first time. Because she’d worked with David Chang and Bill Yosses before, it wasn’t too difficult to get them to participate, she said. Chang was helpful in connecting the UCLA professor with local chefs like Shook, Dotolo and Fleischman, and Yosses introduced Rowat to Sherry Yard. Rowat’s former Ph.D. supervisor helped bring in Redzepi and Williams, while Kinch and Sandberg actually contacted Rowat themselves. Others, Rowat said, became involved by word of mouth.
What wasn’t so easy was finding a room on campus that was "food-safe" — in other words, free of harsh chemicals. Rowat settled on a large conference room in the Life Sciences Building that was suitable for class needs.
"We’ll just bring in all the equipment that we need," Rowat said. "It’s rather minimal. A pot or a pan, an induction burner, a microscope so we’ll be able to inspect the small-scale structure of foods that we make; for example, housemade cheese or pickled vegetables. We’ll also have taste-testing demonstrations during the class." She has received some generous food donations from companies such as Whole Foods and Hershey’s, which delivered a huge box of chocolate.
"Because we don’t have the space to set up individual stations for the students to work independently on their lab exercises, we’re being creative about how we can provide them with the ingredients they’ll need to go out into their dorms, for example, to do experiments on site using food in their everyday lives," Rowat said.
Bill Yosses, executive pastry chef at the White House, will lecture on "The Sweet Science of Desserts."
"In some cases, they’ll need a ruler and a weight, so we’ll provide them with these little kits of the ingredients to make, for example, a sourdough starter. They’ll have their bottle of water and their little bag of flour. It’s like a new era of DIY kitchen experiments that really makes the connection between science and everyday life."
Rowat hasn’t had time to think about creating similar classes, but she is aware of interest from other professors in related disciplines.
"Because food is a topic that permeates our lives in so many different ways, it’s an excellent pedagogical tool to teach not only science, but also food policy and sustainability issues and sensory perception," she said. "There are a lot of different aspects one could branch out into."