The Momofuku Culinary Lab started as a space where we could focus on creating and innovating. I didn’t want us to worry about working on projects in a restaurant; there are just too many distractions in service and running a kitchen to be able to focus on creating your dishes. It didn’t need to be high tech, but we needed an environment in a vacuum. In retrospect, what I thought was a luxury was an absolute necessity.
We began working with a microbiology team at Harvard that had been examining microbes in cheese. We started by asking simple questions about foods we were experimenting with. Is this edible? Is this dangerous? We had to learn chemistry, then biology. We built up a working scientific vocabulary. Now we’ve begun exploring the processes behind ingredients we use every day in our kitchens: soy sauce, MSG, other sources of umami flavors. We’ve launched experiments in fermentation, using various strains of bacteria to create strange and wonderful new tastes.
That said, I’ve also noticed a growing disconnect between the role of food science and today’s food culture. Cooking is a scientific process, after all, but calling food “processed” has become a slur. It’s almost as if we are expected to hide the science that goes into our food. This wasn’t always true: If you look at advertisements from the 1940s and ’50s, they celebrated that the latest chewing gum used artificial sweeteners and flavoring agents, because that was the hot thing. Today, though, everything is supposed to be “natural,” simple, old-fashioned. We’ve been brainwashed to believe that science is scary. Just think about MSG, which has been banned in certain cities and provokes an irrational fear in many consumers. But it’s just a sodium ion attached to glutamate, which is something your body produces naturally and needs to function. True, MSG doesn’t exist in nature; it’s a scientific invention. But multiple studies have failed to show that it makes anyone sick. It only makes food taste delicious.
- Chef David Chang talks to WIRED Magazine on the Joy of cooking with science (teamyello.wordpress.com)
- Why are you so afraid of MSG? (theverge.com)