I finally got to eat at WD-50 restaurant the other day in NYC-and all I have to say is-I am really glad that the food tasted so good because all that molecular gastronomy stuff would have irritated me if the food was just average, but since the meal was truly spectacular-I am going to interpret Wylie’s food science discoveries as simply creative cooking that happens to employ the usage of ingredient technology that suppliers have been hawking at IFT for the past 50 years… and try to live with that.
Because the alternative will be for me to be impressed with the salmon threads, charred avocado, popcorn puree or “cookie that looked like glass but shattered and wasn’t sharp” thing. And I really shouldn’t be impressed because I was freeze drying kid meals in a clean room lab at U-Mass back in 1994 and grinding up the hamburger and bun into a powder so the professor could analyze it for lead and no one from the NY Times thought much of that, and apparently neither did the U-Mass chemistry department, who paid me $4.30 an hour for my molecular gastronomy experiments. The NY times also seems to be quite proud of the Harvard undergrads who recently “discovered” xanthan as a way to thicken sauce, despite it being a laboratory shelf staple in any technical food lab that I have ever worked in.
But I couldn’t help it! I was impressed with my meal at WD-50 because I saw things done that I had never seen done before. The foie gras that oozed out passion fruit when sliced in the middle was like a big piece of Cinn A Burst gum and the thick droplet of Tabasco sauce reminded me of a hot sauce project I worked on years ago when I had to find just the right starch mixture that wouldn’t be destroyed by low pH and disintegrate during accelerated shelf life studies. Thanks Cargill for helping me pinpoint exactly which starch would do the trick.
However, just because I really liked my very cool WD-50 meal does not mean I am going to forget my food science roots! The real food scientists are the ones that actually figured out how to invent the hundreds of different starch’s that can create different textured soups and the flavor chemists that train for 8 years in France and all the lipid, protein, and carbohydrate scientists out there who no one knows or cares about. These are the ones that have provided the molecular gastronomists with the tools they need to make their nifty dishes. I know that I speak for many Gen-x food scientists when I say that we get annoyed when chefs start pulling out their containers of TIC gums, mix it with juice, freeze it, slice it, char it with a blow torch and are then invited to teach their techniques to eager undergrads and wannabe chefs –who then jump on the culinary bandwagon the second they graduate high school (and subsequently go 50K into debt and find themselves working 80 hours a week for minimum wage). I want to emphasize that it is mostly Gen X food scientists that are disgusted with the fame these chefs are getting-why, because we have been doing the exact same thing for the last 15 to 20 years. (Gen-Y food scientists aren’t old enough to be bitter-and Boomers are mostly retired and don’t really care because they know they invented all those ingredients anyway!) We have quietly been working behind the scenes creating practically every single shelf stable product on the market and not only are we not appreciated or thanked, we are actually condemned! We are creating *gasp* processed foods! We are putting unidentifiable ingredients into our products to extend their shelf life. We are the reason why Americans are obese.
The media has not done much to boost the image of the application food scientist. But yet, practically hand out Nobel Prizes to molecular gastronomists who pretty much do what we do (they even stole our equipment like freeze dryers, centrifuges and flavor distillers) which is, essentially using the tools that were created by the great food scientists of years past, follow the directions, and make food do what it does not do naturally. One chefs freeze dried fruit powder $9 dollar dessert is a food scientists cost saving fruit filling reduction plan! Dufrense’s black fermented garlic, tomato and almond paste “Romesco” is a food scientist’s savory concentrated paste that can provide tons of flavor at a 1% usage level.
So to the young chef who dreams of being a molecular gastronomist and follow in the footsteps of Dufrense, Achatz, and Adria, you should reconsider that plan and become a food scientist. Why? Because you get to do exactly the same thing as the molecular gastronomists except you will be solving real life food industry problems like how to keep tomato sauce thick on the pizza even in the years when tomato solids are low, or how to improve instant mashed potatoes that sits on steam table all day, or how to cost reduce products by taking out the real ingredients and replacing it with a combination of starch, gum and flavor, or how to jack up the probiotic content of your dairy products. You can do all this and more –while earning a decent living and having guaranteed job placement for life.
I look forward to the day when the media gives the food scientists the same amount of attention they have lavished on the molecular chef guys and every food science department in the country will be flooded with applications. The question is, how can we channel that rock star image over to our side of the biz?
That all being said, I still loved my meal at WD-50 –Thanks Wylie-from one food application developer to another-and if you need any help in the kitchen, let me know!