The Flavor of Science
Awareness, culture, and the value of food
By Maxime Bilet
The most important piece of information the realm of food has to offer is the awareness that all parts of life count equally towards a balanced and healthy human ecosystem. Art informs science as equally as science informs art. Likewise is the case for farming and creativity, philosophy and politics, pop culture and tradition and so on. Food provides the coloring for the invisible yet inherent threads that bind knowledge, matter, and practice in all of their forms. It is our true universal language.
As a young practicing artist and curious cook, I believed that imagination was based on intuition and spontaneously discovering the unknown. Science was the enemy of creativity because scientists based everything on hard facts and had lost their creative capacity. I was wrong and am very grateful I had the opportunity to gain clarity and insight through my experiences working at the Fat Duck and creating Modernist Cuisine.
Science, like art, has the capacity to create a fundamental bridge between the familiar and unfamiliar. When I began my journey as a food scientist my eyes were opened to the creative potential of discovering the unknown through the lens of how and why things work.
A scientific experiment after all is the combination of fact, projection, and interpretation of the inner workings of life. You become a practicing chemist and physicist when you crack an egg into a sizzling oiled pan, and a mathematician when you scale up a recipe to accommodate a large group of friends and family. The one never negates the other, it only enriches it.
The way we perceive food is complex and transformative.
Taste is comprised of the five basic tastes (arguably seven); sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami (and mineral and fat), which are primarily identified in our mouths. Aroma refers to the three trillion aromatic compounds floating around us at all times that we observe through our noses (apparently space smells like raspberries). Texture, color, and sound all contribute to the sensory triggers that determine our understanding, our pleasure, impartiality, and distaste of food. All of these but especially taste, aroma, and texture--combine to form what we know as flavor. Flavor is the sum of the sensory stimuli that allow us to form a basis for judgement in any given food related experience.
There are important current terms that embody the convergence of these threads in the world of food that you may have heard of: terroir, environment, organic, and non-GMO. We are witness to the beginning of a new generation of our food culture. Embracing the science of food, the how and why, and valuing what we eat is as important as anything we put in our mouths.