July 11, 2013

Changing the Science in Culinary

Changing the Science in Culinary
Changing the Science in Culinary

As appearing in the CIA student newspaper, La Papillote. Article by Ian P. Cairns, AOS Culinary.

I guess it’s fair to say that many of the majority of the student body has no clue what’s going on with the Culinary Science Program. I know I didn’t, until I met with Chef Zearfoss, and my mind was blown.

Let’s start this off with a definition of molecular gastronomy (which is not a style of cuisine) by Hervé This, “The mechanisms underlying the transformations during cooking.” What does this mean? Well, in short it’s what The Culinary Institute of America’s newest degree program strives for.

The Culinary Science Program is, in fact, a professional studies degree, focused on food and science, where application and functionality of food are expressed daily. Chef Zearfoss stressed to me that it is not a food science degree, which tends to focus not so much on food as on reduction systems.

The Culinary Science facility is composed of several rooms: kitchen, classroom, analytical lab, and sensory analysis lab; located on the bottom floor of the Colavita Center. As if the chapters in The Modernist Cuisine about tools and equipment were replicated for a student setting, the Culinary Science kitchen is a dream. Every tool imaginable, in high end restaurants and research kitchens alike is begging to be used. Even the traditional kitchen equipment is kept onsite for play by play comparisons. For comparing and contrasting, the analytical lab is full of everything you need to complete the scientific process. This lab houses your traditional Erlenmeyer flasks and titration equipment; but, everything else from rotary evaporators, centrifuges, stethoscopes, hydrocolloids, and countless other things I can’t even pronounce. The kitchen and sensory analysis lab located in the facility are similar in the fact they are composed of moveable and locking tables. This way, depending on the subject/experiment being discussed the room can transform to a desirable configuration. One notable part of the classroom is the bookcase reserved for the Culinary Science students, here this compounding library is composed of cookbooks and literature that offer a different approach to the field being studied.

On the subject of books, the reading material provided for the Science program is vast and thorough, yet the cost is still cheaper than that of the AOS program. Some of this literature includes: The Modernist Cuisine by Nathan Myhrvold, Sensory Evaluation of Foods by Harry T. Lawless, On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee and a book unique to the program called Custom Reader. Custom Reader is a book composed of many books. This document pulls articles and sections of relevant literature and composes them in an organized system. The beauty of it is that it can be easily modified season to season, both with new or contrasting information. In the future though, the Culinary Science program expressed an interest on writing their own text. One idea that was stressed about the program: no one piece of literature is considered as the “go to book.” Every piece of literature, both new and old is evaluated for its relevant information.

Don’t be fooled by the precise equipment and easy access of information, this program is hard! The majority of the information covered in this class is new material, and the concepts are challenging. If you don’t believe me, just walk into Apple Pie Bakery and witness the mass of culinary science students studying away as if they were in wines again.

As far as courses go, there is a 60/40 mix of kitchen/lab to classroom spread with first lab classes during 7th term. Let me be the first to clear up any rumors that all these hands on classes are just like a college chemistry lab, they’re not. Like stated earlier, this is a professional science degree, if there is no practical application towards food then it defeats the purpose of the program. Really, what these classes are designed for are hands on understanding of the subject being covered.

So sure, the curriculum is cool, there’s fancy gadgets, the program gets their own special kitchen/labs; but, what isn’t mentioned is the culture. Remove yourself from the idea that you have to use greasy sheet trays and dirty pots to cook your consommé. Instead, imagine that you live in a place that every pot and pan is scrubbed by the students, spotless. In this “perfect world” you not only have access to one hand sink, but four! Here you’re not only taught by a single instructor, but co-taught by a scientist and chef so practicality, application, and collaboration are all expressed harmoniously. If that wasn’t enough, these instructors remove the pedestal of student teacher; here they sit alongside of you for lecture, discuss concepts, and lead by not delegating, but doing it with you.

Forget about wearing a foot long hat and easily dirtied chef jacket, there’s skull caps and bib aprons for practicality and less stress on the laundry machine. Bakers and culinarians both working together in the same kitchens, on the same project? It’s true. In this program, ergonomics and efficiency are taught through developed and tested systems, so you never waste a motion. And the cherry on top? Anyone who has been through Caterina de Medici knows that all produce and trash is picked up by the facilities maintenance crew. The Culinary Science Program (located below Caterina) has the option to do that, but instead sprayed their trashcans with the programs label. Everyday these students walk from the furthest kitchen on campus, armed with soapy water, to the compost area and scrub all three containers, spotless.

So what do the future graduates of this program choose to do for a career you might say? Well, their post-graduation opportunities are as diverse as the program. Some students wish to be product developers for large companies such as Kraft or restaurants, others wish to be entrepreneurs, some want to change food policy and school feeding systems, a handful just want to be more knowledgeable as they move on as cooks in a high end restaurant. Needless to say, opportunity awaits.

More information about the program is available on the CIA’s website.