Harold McGee, the noted food scientist, was asked by the Spanish research center, Alícia, to write the preface to the Scientific and Gastronomic Lexicon, a book published in conjunction with Ferran Adría's elBulli Taller. In his preface, McGee touches on the history of food and science interaction, and explains how Spain, under the lead of Ferran Adría, has been critical in continuing to explore the relationship between food, science and technology.
Preface to The Scientific and Gastronomic Lexicon:
The Scientific and Gastronomic Lexicon
This book, the Scientific and Gastronomic Lexicon, is a landmark in the history of cooking.
It’s not a grand monument. It’s a concise, factual handbook. And it’s not definitive. It will be superseded by improved editions of itself. But this modest book does mark the arrival of a new era for the culinary profession. In recent years a few leading chefs have begun to take a fresh look at their craft, and explore new ways of bringing nourishment, pleasure, and meaning to our lives. The Scientific and Gastronomic Lexicon defines the chemical materials and processes that are the basis for the craft of cooking. It’s not the first book to present this kind of information. But it is the first such book to be initiated and shaped by professional cooks themselves, and to be so forward-looking. Many of the entries describe materials and methods whose current use is “in experimentation.” The book of cooking is now wide open.
Though the combination of cooking and science may seem fashionably modern, in fact these two disciplines go way back together. Cooks were among the first practical chemists on the planet. They discovered through trial and error that we could use tools, heat, and fermentation to transform natural foodstuffs into safer, more nutritious, and more interesting foods. When true experimental science developed in the 17th century, the early chemists learned important lessons from cooks and their water extracts of plant and animal tissues—their soups and stocks. As the knowledge of food chemistry grew, a number of scientists came to write about cooking and food preparation, among them Benjamin Thompson, Justus Liebig, and Louis Pasteur.
In the 20th century, the needs of the expanding industrial sector gave rise to the specialized field of food science. I began to survey the food science literature in 1978, and distilled the information relevant to cooks in a 1984 book, On Food & Cooking: The Science & Lore of the Kitchen. Then in 1992 came the first of a handful of biannual workshops on “molecular gastronomy” in Erice, Sicily. The idea of an Erice workshop on the science of cooking was proposed by a California cooking teacher, Elizabeth Cawdry Thomas, and organized by her friend, University of Oxford physicist Nicholas Kurti, who then invited Hervé This and myself to assist him. Though the term “molecular gastronomy,” coined by Kurti and This, suggests precise, state-of-the-art analysis (as in its model, molecular biology), in fact the Erice meetings brought together a very mixed group of scientists and chefs, and focused on the basic food chemistry of traditional dishes. The presentations and discussions were informal, and were never published.
Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, an experimental, open approach to cooking—often mistakenly named “molecular gastronomy”—has burst into prominence. This approach owes very little to particular books or meetings. It’s the product of broad historical developments, and a unique catalyst: the globalization of travel and commerce, the expansion of the internet and rapid access to information, the infiltration of modern technology into all aspects of life—and the vision of Ferran Adrià.
In the past, cooks and their creations have been constrained by many factors: the limited local and seasonal availability of ingredients, limited techniques and tools for transforming them, limited understanding of cooking processes, and the necessarily narrow expectations defined by local customs. Of course limitation can inspire inventiveness, and this is what has given us our great culinary traditions. But today there are many fewer constraints, and therefore unprecedented opportunities for the craft of cooking to grow and advance. Imaginative cooks are now able to work with the entire planet’s ingredients, cooking methods, and traditions, and draw on all of human knowledge and invention, to explore what can be done with food and the experience of eating.
Several remarkable chefs have been at the forefront of this new open cuisine, but its chief trailblazer is Ferran Adrià. In 1987, soon after rising to head the kitchen at elBulli, a small restaurant hours north of Barcelona, he began a deliberate process of culinary exploration that has been dazzlingly productive and influential. He and his team became prolific creators of startling, beautiful, delicious dishes that brought worldwide renown to elBulli and to elBullitaller, the Barcelona workshop that he set up in 1997. Science and scientists came relatively late to the workshop, but are now an integral part of its creative work. In 2004, Ferran Adrià agreed to direct the new Alicia Foundation, a joint undertaking of the Manresa Savings Bank and the Catalan regional government, whose name reflects the meeting of food (Catalan alimentació) and science (ciència). Alicia’s purpose is to foster collaboration among culinary professionals, food scholars, scientists, and educators, to improve the quality of food and so the quality of life for as many people as possible.
This book is the first major project of the Alicia Foundation, a joint publication with elBullitaller. It’s both a gift and a challenge. The gift is the book itself and the information it holds. The challenge is to make use of it creatively and generously, in the same spirit that has brought it to your hands.
Harold McGee is a writer specializing in the chemistry of food and cooking. A former literature instructor at Yale University, in 1984 he published the seminal On Food and Cooking, followed six years later by The Curious Cook: More Kitchen Science and Lore. In 1995, Mr. McGee was named to the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who in American Food, and in 2004, he released a fully revised and expanded edition of On Food and Cooking.
What is Alícia?
Alícia is a research center in Spain focusing on technological innovation in kitchen science and the dissemination of agronourishment and gastronomic heritage. It has a clear social mission in that it is open to the public, and is aimed at promoting good nourishment. It is a foundation created by the Generalitat de Catalunya and CaixaManresa, with a Board of Trustees headed by chef Ferran Adrià and consultancy services provided by the cardiologist Valentí Fuster.
Visit their website at www.alicia.cat.