Last night’s opening lecture of UCLA’s Science and Food Series left us hungry for more—in more ways than one. Over the next several months, the campus will welcome culinary powerhouses like David Chang (Momofuku), Sherry Yard (Spago), and Rene Redzepi (Noma) for a public lecture series in conjunction with physiological science professor Amy Rowat’s general education course entitled “The Physical and Molecular Origins of What We Eat.” Rowat said the class is designed to teach non-science students more science-y concepts using the context of food texture and flavor, and homework assignments involve undertaking kitchen experiments with Jell-O and ice cream.
As a UCLA undergraduate myself (who’s still a little bitter about the class’ enrollment cap of 50 students), I was blown away by the credentials of Rowat and the speakers she snagged for the series. Last night’s inaugural lecture, all about the science of barbecue, was given by UCLA alum Nathan Myhrvold, whose achievements include the six-volume, 2,400-page Modernist Cuisine, a post-doctoral fellowship under Stephen Hawking, Chief Technology Officer for Microsoft, a guest chef appearance on Top Chef, and—maybe most importantly for tonight’s lecture—being a member of the winning team at the 1991 World BBQ Championship in Memphis.
Throughout his lecture, Myhrvold used images from Modernist Cuisine to illustrate the scientific basics of barbecue, beginning with the differences between barbeque and grilling (there’s a big one) and moving on to the molecular structure of meat. He disproved the myth of searing meat to seal in the juices—a technique which actually allows the juice to escape and overcooks the top and bottom of the meat. Myhrvold is the epitome of a food geek and he knows it. The audience laughed good-naturedly throughout the talk, like when Myhrvold casually mentions that he spent an entire day cutting an oven in half for one of the book’s photos.
Myhrvold’s lecture was followed by a Q&A session with surprise guests Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo (Animal, Son of a Gun), which was moderated by KCRW Good Food host and author Evan Kleiman. The panel addressed topics like the recent pink slime panic (“The primary cause of foodborne illness is eating shit,” said Myhrvold. “If you’d just stop eating shit, you’d be fine.”) and foie gras fines (“If you want foie gras you’ll have to write us a really, really big check,” joked Shook.) Shook’s response to a question about pink slime had the audience erupting in applause: “I personally believe that the foie gras we serve in our restaurants is better than chicken served at KFC or in our schools.” Well said.
The next lecture, “The Exploration of Deliciousness” on May 7, will feature Rene Redzepi and Lars Williams. Don’t worry, we’ll be there.