Issue Date: July 7, 2008
Food For Thought
It has become increasingly popular among cooks, be they professional chefs or simply food aficionados tinkering around at home, to think about the chemistry of cooking. Although the trend is helping attract the general public to science, it could also help draw students to chemistry departments.
Richard Silver, a chemistry graduate student at New York University (NYU), came from a family that emphasized cooking. He continued that culinary tradition when he went to college; during his junior year at Skidmore College, in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., he moved off campus with two friends, and the three ate about 95% of their meals together, all cooked by Silver.
In the back of his mind, Silver knew there was a connection between chemistry and cooking, but he says that "never in a million years did I think I could incorporate the two when I went to grad school."
When he visited NYU as an undergraduate contemplating the next step in his academic career, he mentioned his love of cooking during an icebreaker game. He was introduced to Kent Kirschenbaum, a professor who was starting up a new venture, the Experimental Cuisine Collective (ECC), to bring chefs and chemists together to discuss the intersection between food and science. Kirshenbaum, a polymer chemist whose main area of research is biomimetics, was also starting up some food-related projects in his lab.
Kirshenbaum invited Silver down for the first ECC meeting, and the student was hooked. Silver recently joined Kirshenbaum's group; in addition to his regular studies, he has been an active participant in ECC and the professor's food experiments.
During a recent polymer chemistry class, Silver found striking parallels between what he learned in the classroom and an experiment he is working on in Kirshenbaum's lab involving a "stretchy" ice cream that is a traditional Turkish dessert. The group is trying to understand the functional role of two biopolymer-rich ingredients: salep, a flour made from grinding orchid tubers, and mastic, a resin obtained from trees on the Greek island of Xios. Eventually, the group hopes to discover other ingredients that may replicate the function of salep because orchids may become overharvested.
Silver also sees parallels between being creative in the lab and being creative in the kitchen. As an undergraduate, he gained some research experience, but it was largely driven by someone else's ideas. In graduate school, he's expected to develop his own ideas about research projects and is starting to understand how inspiration often comes out of curiosity about others' work. Similarly, he's found his exposure to chefs through ECC has expanded his cooking palette; instead of simply following someone else's recipe, he's coming up with novel dishes based on the techniques and creativity of others.
Silver sees himself as connected to food in some way, whether it's in the lab or just in the kitchen, for the long term. He has done a few small catering jobs for friends and ultimately hopes to expand that pursuit after graduate school.
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