Bryan McCarthy of Greene\'s restaurant, Cork

Bryan McCarthy of Greene's restaurant, CorkBryan McCarthy of Greene's restaurant, Cork

Aoife Carrigy heads to Cork for Science Week Ireland to get a flavour of the scientific principles at play in artful cooking

Is cooking an art or a science? The answer usually depends on who you’re talking to, and what style of cooking floats their boat. Traditionally, the conceived wisdom was that – while pastry chefs draw on both art and science – the archetypal chef is more alchemist than scientist, concerned less with deconstructing the mechanics behind the transmutation of substances than with its delicious results.

In recent years, chefs like Britain’s Heston Blumenthal popularised the chef as mad-scientist-cum-gastro-inventor. This avant garde kitchen trickster plays with our perception, demonstrating the observation of gastrophysicist Professor Charles Spence’s that “The pleasures of the table reside in the mind, not in the mouth”.

Spain’s Ferran Adrià redefined modernist cuisine with El Bulli, his Catalan restaurant that famously closed for half the year to allow the team retreat to their laboratory for six months of R&D. Adrià became the world’s poster boy for molecular gastronomy, though he himself strenuously rejects the term calling it “the biggest lie in the history of cooking”. The name was borrowed from scientist Hervé This’s 2002 book, ‘Molecular Gastronomy: Exploring the Science of Flavor’, by a media struggling to conceptualise a new lexicon of next-level cuisine.

Adrià embraced techniques previously confined to industrial food production and added some of his own. He gave us spherification in which sodium alginate and calcium carbonate react to encase a liquid in its own delicate skin, allowing chefs and mixologists create ‘caviar’ from fruit juice or other flavoursome fluids. He democratised the use of liquid nitrogen with its extreme temperatures for instant freezing; of gellifying hydrocolloids to thicken sauces without relying on flour or butter; and of maltodextrin to convert high-fat liquid into powder. And he embraced high-tech kit like the PacoJet (which produces instant frozen foam) and paved the way for a rethinking of technologically advanced approaches like sous vide cooking (aka vac packing and slow cooking at very exact, very low temperatures for consistent results).

The more recent wave of Nordic influence lead by René Redzepi of Copenhagen’s Noma appeared to bring things right back down to earth, with its love of all things local and wild. Those new techniques didn’t disappear, however, but became absorbed into the contemporary chef’s toolkit and employed by fine-dining kitchens alongside age-old techniques.

“Science is an attitude,” as Adrià has said. It can be concerned with an empirical understanding of the principles behind everyday or ancient cooking activities such as searing meat or fermenting vegetables – or applied to new-fangled modernist transformations. We know today that a chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars gives browned or caramelised foods their distinctive flavour. You don’t have to have heard of French chemist Louis-Camille Maillard or understand his 100-year-old explanation of this ‘Maillard reaction’ to know that marshmallows taste great when toasted on an open fire. But it might help you to reproduce that effect elsewhere or understand why steamed marshmallows just ain’t the same.

Some of these broad-ranging concepts were explored at a fascinating dinner in Cork city during the recent Science Week Ireland. Cork Science Festival had teamed up with chef Bryan McCarthy of Greene’s Restaurant to host a seven-course dinner celebrating ‘The Alchemy of Food: Science and Flavour’.

The menu was a romp through kitchen techniques old and new, with a light seasoning of scientific explanations without ever becoming turgid. A first course of brined pork with apple and kohlrabi highlighted how a couple of very simple ingredients together can work really well, the brining retaining moisture and the Maillard reaction accentuating the pork’s natural sweetness. Next up “a little liquid nitrogen fooling around and gimmickry”, as described by Bryan, in the form of a lychee, green tea and lime foam piped into a table-side liquid nitrogen bath. Frozen and crisp on the outside and light and fluffy on the inside, the result was “like an egg flottante but frozen at -196ºC rather than cooked”. Pickling and dehydration came under the spotlight for the next dish, a spanking fresh piece of halibut in a nuanced dashi-infused cream. “Dashi,” Bryan explained, “is a Japanese stock made from kelp or royal kombu seaweed which is native to Japanese waters and Irish waters. When you heat the dried kelp to about 90ºC and hold it there for about 10 minutes it releases flavours that can only be described as the fifth taste, which is umami.” Bonito flakes (dried, smoked and steamed tuna flakes) add dashi's signature smokiness. The dish also featured foraged sea beet, pickled seaweed and dehydrated pepper dulse preserved from earlier in the season.

After a crunchy and suitably seasonal granita of rosehip, crab apple and fennel – frozen with, you guessed it, liquid nitrogen – came the main affair of Skeaghanore duck. Again, brining in a 5% salt solution was key to the process, which also involved cooking sous vide to very rare before finishing skin-down on the plancha to render the fat and form a deliciously caramelised skin.

Our final course was a modernist take on a chocolate tart. In place of the traditional ganache, which relies on cream for its texture, cubes of ‘chocolate gel’ had been formed with a high quality 70% cocoa solid chocolate melted together with hydrocolloid-rich powdered Iota (carageen) seaweed. The result was a firm texture that felt light to eat.

There was much discussion at the table about whether the zingy yuzu mousse was better eaten together with the chocolate for a starburst of flavour or consecutively as a palate-refreshing counterpart. This echoed a similar discussion earlier in the kitchen as they played around with various plating options, noting the striking degree to which the visual presentation affected not just how you tackled the dessert but also how rich it tasted.

So, is cooking an art or a science? As ably demonstrated by Bryan and his talented team (which includes former Eurotoques Young Chef finalist, Ruth Lapin), the best kind draws on both, whether self-consciously or otherwise.