The chemist in the kitchen: Rachel Edwards-Stuart cooked up a career from applying lab techniques to modern cuisine

April 4, 2013 5:16 pm

The chemist in the kitchen

By Emma Jacobs

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In her elements: Rachel Edwards-Stuart uses her academic studies to create culinary transformations

Nervy, nerdy Rachel Edwards-Stuart fizzes about the kitchen in her north London higgledy-piggledy flat, pulling out bits of equipment. A water bath, a blow torch, pipettes. Ah, here is the smoking gun. “The tube is over there,” she yanks a foot-long piece of rubber from a shelf. “My cleaning lady hides things in weird places.” She pauses. “I don’t know where you’d normally put a tube from a smoking gun.”

The 30-year-old food scientist is such an enthusiast for the overlapping spheres of science and gastronomy that she interrupts one train of thought with another and another.

Her primary job is to teach the science of cooking and ways of creating gastronomic experiments to chefs – professionals in restaurants as well as amateurs who aspire to make such gourmet confections at home. But she also advises chefs and the food industry. She shares the evangelising passion of a mad professor desperate to communicate their ideas while baffled by their audience’s ignorance.Molecular gastronomy – the style of cooking that embraces science and technological advances in equipment and natural enzymes used in the food- processing industry – has been exemplified by Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adrià, creating such dishes as snail porridge, bacon and egg ice-cream and lots of culinary foam.

The innovative style has its amateur imitators. Cream Supplies, a kitchenware maker, noted the growing interest in this market and five years ago launched a variety of new products for science-based cooking including the smoking gun, the sous vide (water bath) and stainless steel whippers. The company says the market has increased dramatically and now sells £500,000 worth of molecular ingredients and tools annually.

The science of food

While working at Pour la Science, the French edition of Scientific American, the chemical scientist Hervé This met the late Nicholas Kurti, Hungarian-born physicist and president of the Royal Society. They coined the term “molecular gastronomy” to describe a discipline concerned with the chemical reactions that occur during “culinary transformations” – when boiling an egg, for example.

They wanted to use this knowledge to enhance the quality of cuisine.

In 1992 Prof Kurti and Mr This organised the first International Workshop on Molecular Gastronomy, attended by chefs and scientists from around the world. The idea was to launch a scientific discipline devoted to investigating wculinary transformations.

As Prof Kurti put it: “It is a sad reflection on our civilisation that while we can and do measure the temperature in the atmosphere of Venus we do not know what goes on inside our soufflés”.

A steady seller, despite its £300 price tag is Modernist Cuisine, a six-volume, 2,400-page book by Nathan Myhrvold that “reveals science-inspired techniques for preparing food that ranges from the otherworldly to the sublime”. Science cooking fans perceive this as their bible. In 2012, a more affordable, condensed version was instantly sold out at Cream Supplies.

Ms Edwards-Stuart is driven by the desire to explore “the role science plays in perceiving food flavour. I try to create innovative textures and flavour experiences using food science and technology.” Understanding how flavour is perceived by our senses means it is increasingly important to have a range of textures and colours. She explains: “The more of a range you’ve got, the more sensory neurons are going to fire messages to the brain, and therefore perception of enjoyment you’re going to get.”

She pulls out some transglutaminase – an enzyme that sticks different proteins together. “They use it in the food industry for chicken nuggets, crab sticks, things where they’ve processed meat. But they use it in more exciting culinary applications for things like gluing chicken skin to scallops.”

When testing the enzyme at home she glued a pork chop to a chicken breast that she served to her boyfriend. Despite being a regular tester of her meals, he was nonetheless taken aback by the meaty feast.

While much of her job as a food scientist is experimental she has also worked in more traditional areas such as for the supermarket J Sainsbury, where she was responsible for the safety, quality and legality of their own-label gluten- and dairy-free products.

She is asked periodically to advise factories on allergen control.

For someone so slender, she spends an awful lot of time fixating on food. “I don’t ever snack. I try and invest my 2,000 calories wisely. I won’t eat much during the day and then I’ll really splash out on the evening meal because that’s where I can get creative. I spend my whole day slightly fantasising about how my evening meal is going to develop”.

She never follows recipes. “I go for formulas in my head”.

Food was important to her family. “We have very few family meetings that aren’t revolved around food.”

After studying natural sciences at Cambridge university she worked in Paris for Hervé This, the French chemist and author of Molecular Gastronomy (2005) andKitchen Mysteries: Revealing the Science of Cooking (2007), and one of the founders of molecular gastronomy.

She tested old wives’ lore to see if there was a rational basis for recipes: for example, does adding vinegar to water when poaching eggs make any difference? (It does, she says, because it speeds up the coagulation). It was then she realised she could merge her twin passions of food and science.

After a consultancy role as a scientific adviser to Le Doyen, a three-star Michelin restaurant, she embarked on a PhD studying “creating innovative flavour and texture experiences” at Nottingham University, sponsored by Mr Blumenthal. He wanted her to test concepts he dreamt of creating in his restaurant, The Fat Duck in Bray, west of London. One was to create Willy Wonka’s gobstopper, which starts tasting as tomato soup, moves to roast chicken and ends as blueberry pie.

It became apparent quite soon that the gobstopper format would not work because people eat them in different ways: one might put it in their cheek and suck it more on one side so that a layer of flavour would dissolve and thin at a quicker rate than the other, thereby mixing blueberry pie and tomato soup. Someone else might crunch it. So they decided on a drink instead as everyone drinks the same way if given a straw.

“As many scientists will attest, experiments do not always go as planned”, she says. “You don’t always get the results you are after. Although this can be hugely frustrating, it can sometimes lead to some surprising discoveries”.

Most of the consultancy she does is to enhance the perception of flavour for large-scale events, for example, helping create a five-tonne chocolate waterfall in Whiteley’s shopping centre in west London. She developed the recipe, which enabled 12,000 litres of chocolate an hour to tumble down the falls.

While a chocolate waterfall is un­like­ly to make a scientific journal, she points out that fun is key to transforming the public’s perception of science. “Everyone thinks scientists are in a white coat, stay in a lab and don’t talk to anyone else,” she asays.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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