Published: Wednesday, October 10, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 19:01
An eclectic crowd of people piled into Harvard University’s Science Center on Monday night, eagerly waiting to see, smell, and taste what all the buzz was about. This excited group comprised the audience for Harvard’s public lecture series “Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to the Science of Soft Matter.” The series is hosted by Harvard professors Michael Brenner and David Waites, in collaboration with sponsoring organizations, and supplements the widely popular “Science and Cooking” General Education course at Harvard.
The lectures can be viewed on YouTube and iTunes, but following them in order is not necessary unless there is a desire to get into the nitty-gritty of the science behind the cooking. Students in the class play an active role in welcoming the chefs to Cambridge. All the ingredients for the series have been provided by the local Whole Foods in Cambridge. Some students, along with teaching assistants and teaching fellows, help prepare these ingredients before each show commences. Every session begins with either Brenner or Waites delivering a brief presentation about the science behind that evening’s meal. This past Monday, for instance, the aim was to exemplify heat transfer by cooking paella. The audience, as course tradition has it, applauded at the “equation of the day,” which is explained at the most basic level before the cooking portion of the show. Once the science has been explained, world-renowned chefs take over the lecture. This week’s chef was Raul Balam Basculleda, a Barcelona native whose passion for cooking with local, fresh ingredients began when his family opened a market stand to sell their homegrown produce in 1974. He began cooking after his mother opened her restaurant, Sant Pau, in 1988.
Eventually, his love of bringing brilliant flavor developed into a business of his own, and he opened Moments, a restaurant on Barcelona’s famous strip, Passeig de Gracia.
Basculleda, accompanied by his translator Pep and the director of Moments, Jordi Ciuraneta, walked the audience through the complex procedure of making “soupy rice,” which is essentially paella with extra broth. Just as on a cooking show, a video camera hovered over the countertop to give viewers a birds-eye view of Basculleda’s hands at work. Audience members cringed as Basculleda snapped live lobsters in half and pureed their heads, preparing a main component of the “picada” broth that is indispensable to the dish. They watched in fascination as he explained the four-hour long browning process of onions. Throughout the lecture, Basculleda slipped in cultural tidbits, such as the system of grading eggs in Spain. This system requires egg cartons sold in markets to receive a rating of zero to three, depending on how the hens that laid the eggs were raised. A carton of eggs rated a zero are the most fresh and natural, since they come from a hen that was free to eat, exercise, and sleep as she pleased. In other words, the happiest hens yield the best-tasting eggs.
Basculleda wowed the audience with a sideshow of injecting an egg yolk with onion puree. The audience erupted in praise of his successful syringe. Several “foodies” in the lecture hall had pen and paper, vigorously taking notes so they could attempt to replicate the egg and paella recipes themselves. Most spectators, however, were there simply to be educated and entertained. All were pleased to receive a sample of the finished product, “soupy rice” with lobster, tomato, and garlic.
Before serving, Basculleda reminded everyone that while this recipe was not technically paella, “there are as many paellas as there are people that cook them,” emphasizing the aspect of individuality in the art of cooking.
The lecture received rave reviews from its onlookers. When asked about his thoughts on Basculleda’s showcase, Felipe Jaramillo, a Colombian chocolate-maker, had nothing but positive commentary: “It’s definitely a different experience than seeing them online, and some of the main differences are the food and the smell and seeing the food be prepared live.”
All installments of “Science and Cooking” are on Monday nights at 7 p.m. at the Harvard Science Center and are free of charge. The lecture series will culminate on Monday, Dec. 3 with a lecture by Ferran Adria, owner of El Bulli, which has consistently been rated the best restaurant in the world by the toughest food critics across the globe.
Harvard’s “Science and Cooking” lecture series is a highly recommended way to expand your mind and taste buds, Boston College foodies!