Photo by Bob Nichols , courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture
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Chef José Andrés, shaking things up at a government meeting in Washington, D.C., 2012.
Photo by Bob Nichols , courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture

Tempting Fate for the Sake of Food Science

I have been cooking since I was a young boy, but the day I actually fell in love with it was more than 20 years ago, when I was a teenager working at Ferran Adrià’s elBulli.

Ferran wanted to do an experiment which involved putting cold water in a vat of hot oil. We all thought he was crazy, and not surprisingly, the experiment didn’t work out for him that day. But it was just the first step in his process, and a year or so later, he developed the dish he intended when he tempted the fate of science–when he created his liquid croquettes.

From there, the seed was planted for me, and throughout my career, I have not only been trying to cook, but have constantly been trying to learn. Not just learning about the ingredients and how I cook them, but also “the why” for what will happen when I do, the scientific explanation for what happens behind the cooking.

As chefs, we need to always challenge what we know and build upon that knowledge, and knowing “the why” will help us do that. Because if we’re able to understand the chemistry of a certain cooking technique, then we are to look at it a new way and be inspired by to do something different.

Sources of inspiration can come from anywhere. They can come from our ingredients, like when we walk through the farmers’ market and see a beautiful tomato on a hot summer day. They can come from nature. Like how water is not just a liquid but is a solid, a gas. There are so many possibilities with cooking when you reflect on that idea.

It can also come from other forms of art, and I will give you an example of how. One of my favorite artists and a good friend of mine is a man named Dale Chihuly. He uses glass and light and color to create something that, he hopes, “overwhelms people.” Let me tell you, his sculptures are some of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. So amazing, that I had to capture them in some way, and so I created the Chihuly salad with delicate garden vegetables, caramel glass olive oil, and tiger nut horchata. It tries, but hey, it’s no Chihuly.

Sometimes, your source of inspiration can be as simple as what Ferran did that day back at elBulli. Challenging what you know – understanding the science behind the dish, and reimagining a different outcome. When we wanted to create a pesto pasta dish at my restaurant minibar in Washington, D.C., we asked ourselves: does the pasta have to be made from grain? Does the pesto have to be the sauce? And the result was our Fusilli dish, with pasta made from Parmesan water and gelatin that is injected with a pesto sauce.

When you consider the “why,” whether it’s with cooking or any other profession in life, you will start to see that things don’t always have to be what they seem. If we had stuck to the idea that, as chefs, we are supposed to only cook in a kitchen and serve people meals, we may never have realized how interconnected food is to the rest of the world, and what an important role we can play.

Just like how Ferran found a way around the cold liquid exploding in hot oil, we can all rethink how we see and use food, and instead of it being at the root of so many problems, we can make it the solution. Food can be used to solve hunger. It can help fight obesity and malnutrition, and it can be used to create jobs that will support our economy. It can be the answer. And that gives me hope for the future, because with that in mind, maybe feeding nine billion people is possible.