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The Science of Food


By Wendy Soderburg '82

Published Jun 13, 2012 12:00 PM

In a UCLA class taught by a physiology professor and celebrity chefs, students learned the hows and whys behind texture and flavor.


Amy Rowat, assistant professor of integrative biology and physiology, taught a class this spring exploring the physical and molecular origins of the food we eat.

The 50 lucky undergraduates who took 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.

"Science and Food: The Physical and Molecular Origins of What We Eat" taught those 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 restaurants now, they don't just enjoy that juicy piece of steak; they know how to determine its overall mechanical properties as well.

Science Is Delicious

It's not just undergrads taking Rowat's course who received a taste of food science, however. What set L.A. foodies buzzing louder than a boiling teakettle was the blue-ribbon list of celebrated chefs and food authors from around the world who came to share their knowledge with members of the general public, which snapped up tickets to a four-lecture series that Rowat, an assistant professor of integrative biology and physiology, organized in conjunction with her undergraduate course. Ticket sales exploded as soon as word of the lectures got out, and the first three talks sold out almost immediately.

The public lectures were given by such kitchen luminaries as René Redzepi of Restaurant Noma and Lars Williams of Nordic Food Lab, both located in Copenhagen, Denmark; Nathan Myhrvold, author of the book Modernist Cuisine; 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; and 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.

For the students enrolled in Rowat's undergraduate course (which is geared toward non-science majors) there was an added treat: Not only did they get to hear the lecture experts speak in their class, but they also heard from several other big-name chefs, including Jordan Kahn of Red Medicine in Beverly Hills; 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 included "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."

"All the chefs were super-enthusiastic about this," Rowat said. "They really wanted us to learn more about their food and the science underlying what they make in the kitchen. They were excited to share their approach to food with the students, as well."

Recipe for an Academic Feast

This was not Rowat's first foray into using food in the classroom. She 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 had come 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 himself helped by inviting fellow chefs who were experts in modernist cuisine. Students learned about "spherification" — a process that turns a liquid into a gel, typically with the addition of alginate — used by chefs to create mozzarella balls, "fake" caviar and other delicacies. The successful class spawned a second annual course and then a third, to take place this fall.

When Rowat was preparing for her course at UCLA, she decided that the emphasis wouldn't be on spherification, but rather on the role of gels in physiology and in food. "In the context of meat, for example, we're trying to understand why different cuts of meat have different textures and why you need to cook them differently — why you need to slow-roast a pork shoulder, but a pork chop is much better if you sear it," she said. "It has to do with the fact that there are different amounts of collagen in these meats, and collagen provides a network that provides structure for tissues. The extent to which it's cross-linked helps determine its overall mechanical properties."

It wasn't too difficult to get the food artists to participate. Chefs Chang and Yosses had already worked with Rowat at Harvard, and they introduced her to local L.A. chefs. Others were recommended, referred to Rowat or heard about the course 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. She and her TAs provided pots, pans, an induction burner and a microscope to inspect the small-scale structure of foods made in class, such as housemade cheese and pickled vegetables. She also received generous food donations from companies such as Whole Foods and Hershey's, which delivered a huge box of chocolate.

Because there wasn't enough space in the classroom to set up individual workstations for the students, Rowat had to be creative about providing them with the ingredients they needed to conduct experiments in their dorms or apartments. "In some cases, they needed a ruler and a weight, so we provided them with these little kits of the ingredients to make, for example, a sourdough starter. They had their bottle of water and their little bag of flour," Rowat said. "It's a new era of DIY kitchen experiments that really make the connection between science and everyday life."

Rowat hasn't had time to think about creating new classes, but other professors in related disciplines have expressed interest in the idea. "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."