Science of Cooking Proves To Be ‘Haute’ Draw for Undergraduates

Large crowd samples cooking class; Too many cooks in the Science Center kitchen

Students lined the stairs and poured out of the double doors of Science Center Hall C yesterday afternoon, as Applied Mathematics and Applied Physics Professor Michael P. Brenner debuted the new course Science of the Physical Universe 27, “Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to the Science of Soft Matter.”

According to School of Engineering and Applied Sciences postdoctoral fellow Otger Campás-Rigau—one of the class’s three other instructors—the student audience numbered around 600, far exceeding the 350-person capacity of the lecture hall.

The course, which will explore the physical and chemical properties of matter through the lens of cooking science, will incorporate cooking and eating into lab sections. Weekly lectures will feature prominent chefs and food experts in the field of “molecular gastronomy”­—a discipline that uses science to re-engineer food.

For example, guest lecturer Wylie Dufresne is known for creating noodles made almost entirely of shrimp.

“This is an extraordinary opportunity to teach science,” Brenner said. “We hope that students will be able to understand the science and learn to see it in the things that they cook.”

Brenner said attendance may bloat even further next Tuesday, when world-renowned chefs Ferran Adrià and José Andés will be joined by food critic Harold McGee as guest lecturers.

“We’ve been changing our expectations—we started out thinking 200 or 300, but as we got closer to today, we started thinking somewhere around 600,” said teaching fellow Emily R. Russell, a third-year physics Ph.D. student.

According to Campás-Rigau, the class will be lotteried down to 300 students by next Wednesday, a significantly larger class size than the 190-student cap discussed last spring. Despite the high level of student interest, Campás-Rigau said the class size could not be increased because of constraints on the number of possible sections.

“It is simply that we don’t have any more space in the labs,” he said.

The lottery will not take seniority into account.

Students who shopped the class said they were drawn by the opportunity to learn from celebrity chefs while fulfilling a science requirement for the Core or General Education.

“It will be different for me [to take a lab class], and I’m not looking forward to it,” said Charlotte H. Nicholas ’13, who plans to concentrate in English. “That’s why I’m hoping to do cooking instead.”

Students also said that the class had generated a significant buzz since it was announced last spring.

“It’s one of those classes that everyone has been talking about since the end of last year,” said Tessa M. Kaplan ’13, who also shopped the course. “I think it goes without saying that something about food and something that involves lab sections where you’re cooking and getting to eat your experiments is pretty cool.”

While both Nicholas and Kaplan were able to grab seats, students in the entrance of the hall periodically jumped up to catch a glance at Brenner and cupped their ears to hear him. Those unable to make it into the classroom are not entirely out of luck, as the course was recorded and will be available on the course website.

— Staff writer Evan T.R. Rosenman can be reached at erosenm@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Gautam S. Kumar can be reached at gkumar@college.harvard.edu.

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