But he's also excited to bring together a room full of scientists and an engaged public, hoping it will spark the next big philosophical questions for the food world. "If the last 20 years have been a flurry of creating modern techniques," says Chang, "then the next 20 will be: how do we discover new flavors?"
A fervent attention to the inner workings of ingredients is what separates today's culinary titans from the "old guard" of our grandparents' era: "The old guard was certainly all French," Chang notes. "The new guard has to have much more knowledge about gastronomy." Among them are chefs like fellow lecturer Wylie Dufresne, who dropped by Harvard in October to talk about transglutaminase enzymes.Though Dufresne's name has become synonymous with molecular gastronomy (most famously as the creator of New York City restaurant wd~50, where the hollandaise sauce for your eggs Benedict comes in form of a cube), he spent his formative years studying classic French techniques. "I started off like any other cook, learning the old-fashioned way," he explains. "It was more a function of my desire to continue my culinary education, and recognizing that it was time to go outside of the traditional formats."
Cubed hollandaise aside, the Michelin-starred chef tends to shy away from associating what he does with pure science.
"I'm not a scientist, I'm a cook. My job is to make food that tastes good. It is a part of what we do, but it's not only what we do," Dufresne says on the phone from his home base in NYC. "I don't think I would call our cuisine science-based, because that boxes us in. And it doesn't really sound delicious. It's just understanding how to be a better cook — whoever knows the most wins."
For food critic Ruth Reichl (Gourmet magazine's last editor-in-chief), the collaboration between chefs and the scientific community makes perfect sense: "It seems to me that it's an obvious development," she says over the phone from her home in New York. "We've been cooking the same way since man discovered fire, and it's about time that someone started taking the developments we've made in the last 2000 years and applying them to food." Reichl credits a select few "enormously curious" American chefs — "Dave and Wylie in particular" — with speeding up our culinary evolution.
So it all comes down to curiosity. Science, after all, has never been solely about the equations.
"All this scientific stuff will never take away the individual nature of cooking," says Dufresne. "There's never going to be a right way or a wrong way to roast a chicken, there's just going to be a more- or less-informed way."
All lectures take place at 7 pm in the Harvard Science Center, One Oxford St, Cambridge. For more information, call 617.496.3815 or visit seas.harvard.edu/cooking.