New Gen Ed Course Will Explore the Science of Cooking

Internationally-acclaimed chefs will perform demonstrations and lecture alongside science professors this fall

Next fall, some students fulfilling the Science of the Physical Universe General Education requirement may conclude lectures with a taste test rather than a pop quiz if they enroll in a new course entitled “Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to the Science of Soft Matter.”

Professors from the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences teamed up with Spanish chefs Jose Andrés and Ferran Adriá to design a curriculum that explores physical and chemical principles in a unique way.

“It is, in the end, a science course, but it’s science that you learn with a purpose,” said one of the course’s creators, physics professor David A. Weitz. “Food is something we all need, all eat, all enjoy—so why not connect science with food?”

A new chef will lecture alongside the professors every week, and cooking demonstrations during class will correlate with scientific topics. For instance, students will learn about heat processing from a chocolatier, study complex phase changes by frying eggs, and explore fermentation by learning about wine, beer, and cheese.

The guest chefs will also hold lectures open to the Harvard community each Monday.

“What is unusual about this group of chefs is that they really use science in their cooking,” said Michael P. Brenner, a professor of applied math and applied physics who helped create the course. “Many of the things they’re renowned for are figuring out how to exploit the scientific properties of food.”

Adriá’s work is a prime example of the intersection between science and cooking, Weitz said. His restaurant El Bulli is only open six months a year; he spends the other six researching culinary science in a lab in Barcelona. Weitz added that El Bulli is so popular that reservation applications are only accepted one day a year and it is more difficult to make a reservation at El Bulli than to get into Harvard.

SEAS postdoctoral fellow Otger Campás-Rigau first suggested the course after hearing a speech by Adriá at Harvard in 2008. In designing the curriculum, Weitz and Campás-Rigau consulted the Fundación Alicia, a Barcelona-based nonprofit headed by Adriá that focuses on innovation in kitchen science.

After meeting with many of the chefs earlier this week in Barcelona, Campás-Rigau said that the chefs and the scientists are equally excited to learn about one another’s professions.

However, Weitz anticipates that it will be challenging to coordinate his teaching with the chefs’ because “our languages are very different.” This language barrier goes beyond just a difference in professions—many of the chefs do not speak English and will require translators.

“These chefs are the closest to rock stars of anyone I’ve ever met,” Weitz said. “This is such a unique opportunity that I’m hoping students won’t mind too much.”

Administrative Director of the Program in General Education Stephanie H. Kenen said the course “exemplifies the Gen Ed ideals of helping students make connections between the classroom and the rest of their lives.”

Weitz said he believes that “if we’re successful at making the science as interesting as the cooking, then we’ll have a successful course.”

—Staff writer Julie R. Barzilay can be reached at jbarzilay13@college.harvard.edu.

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