By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 24, 2010; E02
The gastronomic rumor mill went into overdrive last month when Ferran Adrià announced that he would close his world-famous restaurant, El Bulli, in northern Spain. What would the Catalan culinary wizard do next?
The answer: spread the gospel. In 2014, El Bulli will become a foundation, giving culinary scholarships to chefs with avant-garde leanings. And this fall, Adrià will join Washington chef-restaurateur José Andrés to help teach a first-of-its-kind course in culinary physics at Harvard University.
Over 13 weeks, Andrés and Adrià will teach multiple times, while such renowned chefs as Blue Hill's Dan Barber and another Michelin-starred chef from Spain, Joan Roca, will appear once. Students will attend chef demonstrations, physics lectures and labs that explain the structure and characteristics of a classic emulsion (a liquid dispersed into another liquid) and more recent inventions such as Adrià's famous foams (air bubbles surrounded by thin sheets of fluid).
With a greater understanding of the physical parameters of food, students will learn how to manipulate them. Ditto for the chefs. Much of the culinary invention in recent decades has been a result of trial and error rather than scientific research. Adrià is reported to have invented the foam after a friend gave him a canister of nitrous oxide with which to experiment. Andrés developed a hot and cold foie gras soup at Minibar not because he knew that liquids at different temperatures have different densities (he learned that later) but because he had seen the technique used in Irish coffee.
"All cooking, if you look at it, is soft-matter physics," said Otger Campas, a Harvard research fellow and native of Barcelona who is helping design the course. "This is designed to create a dialogue between cooks and scientists."
Both Adrià and Andrés have lectured at Harvard. In December 2008, Adrià demonstrated "caviar" of melon droplets and "pasta" made of ham. While there, he signed a memorandum of understanding, agreeing to collaborate on gastronomic science with the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
For chefs, the association is a chance to learn about cutting-edge science and refine their techniques, said Andrés. But what's in it for Harvard?
"It's a way to convince people that it's fun and that there's a lot of stuff we understand from a scientific point of view that chefs exploit," said David Weitz, a professor of physics who will co-teach the course. And unlike in other physics classes, "we can say at the end of the day you'll have something you can eat."