Recap: Last Night’s Science & Food Lecture with David Chang, Peter Meehan, and J. Gold


Los Angeles magazine food intern and UCLA undergrad Gabrielle Hendren shares her take on last night’s powerhouse-filled Science & Food lecture:

Last night, Professor Amy Rowat of UCLA’s Physiological Science department hosted the series’ third talk, “Microbes in My Ramen?” with guests Chef David Chang of Momofuku, Peter Meehan of Lucky Peach, and the Jonathan Gold as moderator. At the heart of the discussion was bacteria. Don’t you wrinkle your nose just yet—despite their dirty reputation, microbes are essential to creating all those complex flavor profiles and textures we enjoy so much in food. As David Chang said, “It’s not that sexy to talk about, but it’s very interesting.” True enough.

The lecture first explored some of the science-meets-culinary-genius undertakings at the Momofuku lab. (Yes, there is one.) Chang asserts that we know a lot more about food today than we ever have, and that we’ve moved past rigid French techniques toward embracing modern compounds to manipulate food. Chefs are now increasingly challenging the status quo by expanding on microbes to create unique, innovative flavors. To Chang, that means letting stuff rot.

Chang worries he might die from breathing in (and tasting) the contents of his petri dishes. Don’t try this at home, kids – the Momofuku scientists are experts at recognizing the potential dangers of microbial activity. They never taste anything without first getting the green light from their partnering Harvard research team. The ultimate goal? Let everything go to rot in hopes of creating new flavor profiles in unexpected places.

Chang went on to stress the importance of umami, that fifth taste that’s dominating not just the burger world, but the culinary world as a whole. According to the Momofuku lab’s findings, microbes create enzymes which create amino acids, which in turn lead to the umami flavor. Therefore, since umami is delicious, microbes are also delicious!

And it wouldn’t be an evening with David Chang without a rant. Expressing his views on the controversial flavor enhancer, MSG, Chang said that the vilified additive is nothing more than an amino acid that contributes to making food tastier. Whether you use MSG or dry-aged beef, both are basically different means to the same end. To prove his point, the audience received tastes of both MSG powder and Momofuku’s own pistachio miso. Though one was clearly more artificial-tasting than the other (there was no getting around licking white powder out of a plastic cup), I have to admit my tongue was equally tingly after both samples. David Chang might have a point.

The only let down? Chang admitted to never having eaten ramen in Los Angeles. (The audience was not shy about its disapproval.) I’ve got a hunch Jonathan Gold enlightened him following the talk.

Next week marks the final Science and Food lecture, “The Science of Sweetness.” Panelists include White House executive pastry chef Bill Yosses, Jimmy Shaw of Loteria Grill, and Sherry Yard of Spago. My sweet tooth and I will be there.

PS: If you haven’t yet, pick up a copy of Lucky Peach, Momofuku’s quarterly food magazine. Peter Meehan touts the rag as “insider access to chefs with minimal padding.” It’s also just cool. 

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