Il se dit beaucoup de choses à propos de la gastronomie moléculaire et de la cuisine moléculaire, il se publie beaucoup de choses à propos des rapports entre la science et la cuisine, et je vois une immense confusion.
Perhaps you've heard about IBM's giant Watson computer, which dispenses ingredient advice and novel recipes. Jaan Altosaar, a PhD candidate at Princeton University, is working on a recipe recommendation engine that anyone can use.
“Augmented cooking with machine intelligence”, with interesting remarks on generating food analogies… https://t.co/UluYk6p8TV
— michael_nielsen (@michael_nielsen) February 2, 2017
I found the article in it so interesting, there was some brief conversation around it and I thought to recommend it to my then new friend Jeremy Cherfas, whose Eat This Podcast I had just recently started to enjoy. Mostly I thought he would find it as interesting as I, though I hardly expected he’d turn it into a podcast episode. Though I’ve been plowing through back episodes in his catalog, fortunately this morning I ran out of downloaded episodes in the car so I started streaming the most recent one to find a lovely surprise: a podcast produced on a tip I made.
While he surely must have been producing the episode for some time before I started supporting the podcast on Patreon last week, I must say that having an episode made from one of my tips is the best backer thank you I’ve ever received from a crowd funded project.
Needless to say, I obviously found the subject fascinating. In part it did remind me of a section of Herve This’ book The Science of the Oven (eventually I’ll get around to posting a review with more thoughts) and some of his prior research which I was apparently reading on Christmas Day this past year. On page 118 of the text This discusses the classic French sauces of Escoffier’s students Louis Saulnier and Theodore Gringoire  and that a physical chemical analysis of them shows there to be only twenty-three kinds. He continues on:
A system that I introduced during the European Conference on Colloids and Interfaces in 2002  offers a new classification, based on the physical chemical structure of the sauce. In it, G indicates a gas, E an aqueous solution, H a fat in the liquid state, and S a solid. These “phases” can be dispersed (symbol /), mixed (symbol +), superimposed (symbol θ), included (symbol @). Thus, veal stock is a solution, which is designated E. Bound veal stock, composed of starch granules swelled by the water they have absorbed, dispersed in an aqueous solution, is thus described by the formula (E/S)/E.
This goes on to describe in a bit more detail how the scientist-cook could then create a vector space of all combinations of foods from a physical state perspective. A classification system like this could be expanded and bolted on top of the database created by Jaan Altosaar and improved to provide even more actual realistic recipes of the type discussed in the podcast. The combinatorics of the problem are incredibly large, but my guess is that the constraints on the space of possible solutions is brought down incredibly in actual practice. It’s somewhat like the huge numbers of combinations the A, C, T, and Gs in our DNA that could be imagined, yet only an incredibly much smaller subset of that larger set could be found in a living human being.
The additional byproduct of catching this episode was that it finally reminded me why I had thought the name Jaan Altosaar was so familiar to me when I read his article. It turns out I know Jaan and some of his previous work. Sometime back in 2014 I had corresponded with him regarding his fantastic science news site Useful Science which was just then starting. While I was digging up the connection I realized that my old friend Sol Golomb had also referenced Jaan to me via Mark Wilde for some papers he suggested I read.
I don’t think he mentioned an oven even once….
… an odor in the kitchen is a symptom of odorant molecule loss (logically, kitchens should not smell good, because then we would be sure that the pleasing odors remained in the pots.)
–Hervé This, on page 154
Chapter 5 has had some of the most useful bits for the experimenting chef.
Oh, if only more of my cookbooks had fantastic sentences like this one:
Now the flow of a liquid in a canal varies as the fourth power of the diameter.
Then there’s this lovely statement, which is as applicable to jellies and consommés as it is to our political leaders:
Today, as heirs to the (political) ancien regime, we all want jellies, like bouillons and consommés, to be transparent.
I’ll note that chapter 4 has some interesting recipes as well as one or two long-term experiments which may be interesting to try.
This just keeps getting better and better! This isn’t the fluff on food writing that I supposed it might be based on its title which drastically undersells the overall work. This is a great writer, and the translation is generally excellent. It borders frequently on poetry in its descriptions while maintaining a heavy reliance on underlying science. It manages to maintain enough generality to keep a broad audience while still expounding on the science at play. It will eventually sit in a place of pride on my bookshelf on next to Harold McGee who is one of the few writing at this level.
This does an excellent job of debunking some commonly held misconceptions about food and cooking while simultaneously creating a new vocabulary to make future descriptions and work easier to grasp.
Somehow I had been under the misunderstanding that the author was a chef when in fact he is a physical chemist. And the translator is a poet by trade.
His poetry just keeps flowing. This is not only great food writing, this is really great science writing. The introduction has some interesting philosophy both of and on science.