Sous Vide
I came across this article which describes a DIY approach to this new style of cooking called sous vide. I guess there is some trend in cooking fashion and media these days for cooking with science. I never knew there to be any different, but here is the link:

Mostly I think the style is not so scientific but simply improving observations and information in the kitchen, and of course to produce more accessories and make you feel your kitchen is never finished ;)

It was a common joke among biologists I worked with that many who leave biology become successful chefs or cooks. The reason is that all the training required is mostly there, and especially for microbiologists who I was frequently with, they are cooking all the time in their experiments and work. Cooking up bacteria, fastidiously maintaining cultures and heavy multi-tasking. Manipulating temperature, pH, salinity and so many other things on a daily basis with as much reproduce-ability as possible.

Some scientists even eat at their laboratory benches as depicted occasionally on the popular TV show, highly recommended; FRINGE. This is a habit I was sternly against, being aware of many unseen hazards. In fact, eating in the same room as cages of rats with surgery by-products, waste containers for 'sharps' and radioactive material never really appealed to me. The smells of reagents, animal dander and an ever present lingering tinge of synthetic ethyl alcohol also to me was not complimentary or conducive to proper degustation, if that is the right term.

I have had experience with this clash of classical and modern recently this week. In conversation with a friend explaining how they were working on a project it became apparent that quite a large degree of decisions were made using 'sensations' instead of objective observation and application of unambiguous rules. This is hard to communicate and share, as one would perform a particular kind of art analysis, how to interpret patterns and make a decision in someone elses' place for what is 'good' and what is 'bad'. The habit and position is well known where you must assume an open mind and absorb as much as possible to learn the insanity that is inside a persons' mind and in the end for consistency rather than accuracy or objective truth, select and determine where the polarizing boundary exists between good and bad, or pass fail. While unavoidable there are often in science moments like this that depend on people to make decisions. Learning how to separate female from male fruit flies under a microscope looking only at external features is not something most machines can be taught which in reduction is identical to determining any unambiguous set of rules to follow in a shared procedure.

In the laboratory I found that I could absorb these details quite readily and further, that I could both learn these classical aspects and teach them to others. My goal as even in teaching or instruction to create not a result, but another teacher since in the lab one works often on even footing with the rest of man, and the universe. The other reality being that if you fail as a teacher, you might end up with radioactivity in your coffee or left as an invisible trail down the hall and out the building.

Cooking classically surely proceeds the same way and as much depends on a persons' exposure to standards as their ability to experience good cooking and methods based on 'sensations'. Sensations for some time in certain realms has fallen out of favor. It started in the western world with a fellow named Descartes who famously penned 'I think, therefore, I am' but who also brought to light so to speak the dangers of relying on ones' senses to understand the world. He indicated in his flourishing french language that senses are not consistent or reliable and open to distortions. Mostly this was a consequence for an individual, but he raised an important point at a stage in the development of rational thought that perhaps information of anything could be best 'served' on its own plate instead of through the eyes of a beholder. Descartes' most enduring impression may be through his mathematical contribution in the form of the Cartesian plane, a depiction of a classical greek plane with regular divisions that can be used to represent a relationship between an objects' number for example a position on the bottom X-axis for example age, and a corresponding quality like height. If given alternating red squares we might imagine soon a container for oregano and crushed red pepper.

Simply having tools to make observations and grids to show comparisons however do not a fine scientist or cook; make. For young cooks the first problem to solve is the apparent conflict between recipes or procedures and the expected results. One finds in their training as a cook to eventually not rely on the number and proportions in any recipe, but to instead use their own experience from repetition and their sensations to create...a meal? To create....satisfaction? To prevent....starvation?

Before this sous vide became demode dejour, the habit of using objective measures to characterize food was the exclusive jurisdiction of food product manufacturers like Nabisco and Purina but a whole industry of food commodities and channels. In the food science labs, things are strange where experiments for new products are considered. For people to do this on their own at home, or at large is great! But I don't think the shift is just related to food.

Even if we have the tools to see what may be happening, science is a long term process that involves communications and validation at a higher level. We can make observations and use standards in cooking, but how do we communicate and share the experience of cooking if not just through all the numbers?

Some fear that science will deflate or remove some fun and mystery from the process of cooking. In approach I can imagine not only having a food lab or kitchen, but simply amassing a database of extant cooking habits as represented in all the earth based eating venues. That cross section against the personal required envelope for minimal nutrition and some partial caloric restriction needed for longer lifespan could be seen as the risk vector for food intake. It is possible to make public the exact materials list of every meal produced in a county or state. How recipes are represented and subject to copyright laws is similar to how many text collections are restricted for propriety. These fundamental restrictions harm not only learning about cooking methods, but how medical data is shared, and information about the world beyond our country.

There are Chefs whose exclusive meals could be regarded as works of art and themselves a performance that must be consumed immediately. To reduce this god like creation to a list of materials, proportions and conditions may be anathema to the whole goal of providing a unique and pleasurable experience which probably does not begin with a scientific exposition and presentation of the meal with Cartesian charts. Degustation, as they say. In brief, there are plenty of reasons people want to keep their ideas a secret and as a scientist and cook I can only acknowledge this exists in my universe though it may not be a personal preference.

But how is this different from some Thai restaurants? There it is typical to walk along a produce section and pick out all the materials for your dish and then select the meats or seafood in particular for preparation. In the US there are 'mongol' style restaurants. But interesting to note is a separation between materials and conditions, and how they might be partitioned in a society. Within an information warehouse for cooking conventions, there could easily be a separation between materials, nutritional reporting and conditions. The necessity being that conditions themselves offer the last frontier for the artiste, the mad wizard or common plagariste.

Conditions themselves of course from an understanding of chemistry very much determine what nutrition exists in a meal. Perhaps to refine the previous suggestion it would be the food 'preparation' script or recipe that might take on some wider social persistence. Since conditions preclude nutrition in the causation of meal preparation, then as required for medical monitoring, institutional commissary, and legal risk if harmful effects are involved; they must be made transparent.

Besides learning how to fix cars, assuming some medical awareness and learning how to cook, some people have to confront food worship. Whether they really need the wizard to remain behind the curtain or behind the double doors to enjoy food. Whatever comes out of the kitchen we will accept and put into our person. We will swallow the food after mixing it with copius amounts of saliva, mucus and mastication until it is reduced to a slippery and semi viscous bolus that is optimized and prepared for peristalsis. Peristalsis is the constriction of muscles in sequence as to produce a propelling force or gradually over time as in the action of smooth muscle in the lower gut; transition, rather than squirt, propel, burst or stream the semi viscous material in question. People probably need to confront worship on a variety of levels, but in the area of food people can become cooks instead of just eaters.

In my own experience which may coincide with anyone reading this terrible letter who is human and who possesses the power to elect their food intake and constitution; private preparations are not only as good, but in fact far surpass the potential of commercial purveyors. For the simple reason of scale and operational limits, a commercial kitchen cannot provide the same level of detail and execution that a well equipped and experienced home cook can provide. The difference is made much more extreme when that kitchen is further enhanced and ultimately legitimized with standards of materials and practice. In reality we find that the strongest sensations and opportunities for learning about cooking can be found in our own practice at home and abroad.

I think here the classical is in balance and the skill of any modern cook being supported by the vigor of both sensations and experience, as well as empirical standards for cooking practice. The kitchen is a lab where some standards can help you out. Where this interferes with artistry or the romance of simply experiencing food, it may depend on your propensity for role playing and rotation, or that you must simply step up your game. The additional consequence being that we assume some competence to not only make consistently good meals equalling or surpassing commercial quality, but competence to put our methods in a bottle with a label.