“From the perspective of the natural sciences, cooking is basically about modifying water, protein, carbohydrates, fats or combinations of these mechanically by means of kneading or whisking, or by changing the saline-content, the pH-level or the temperature. This is why basic knowledge of the physical and chemical processes in foods will enable chefs to meet challenges more easily and to implement new ideas in the kitchen”, says Morten Christensen, PhD, gastrophysicist in Taste-for-Life. He has recently co-authored the article “Teaching science to chefs: The benefits, challenges and opportunities” with Rachel Edwards-Stuart, PhD, lecturer at Westminster Kingsway College in London.
The two scientists and lectures draw upon their experience in teaching natural sciences to apprentice-chefs and their knowledge about how apprentice-chefs can benefit from this type of education.
Science is a tool for chefs
In the restaurant-kitchens, chefs do not ordinarily have analytical equipment at their disposal. They have mainly to rely on their senses. Evidently, this is a considerable tool when preparing and seasoning the food. According to Morten Christensen, however, it is beneficial for chefs to acquire knowledge of the fundamental structures of foods and how they influence each other mutually, if the task is to engage in problem-solving, development or innovation in the kitchen.
“If you replace the approach through trial and error with the capacity for testing hypotheses in a scientific manner, a new dimension for developing new foods, new manners of preparation and new dishes is added to the craftsmanship of the cooking profession. When we introduce scientific methods in the kitchen to apprentice-chefs, they are given the opportunity for examining and understanding causal relationships between the foods and the preparations.”
Rachel Edwards-Stuart and Morten Christensen both emphasise that the physics and chemistry classes are about enabling the apprentice-chefs to work methodically with problem-solving or creating novelties in the kitchen. It is not about doing research. There is neither time, nor reasons for doing the latter.
“The scientific perspective is not about substituting the craftsmanship of the chefs. It is merely a part of the toolbox that the chef can make use of”, says Morten Christensen.
Gastro-labs enter the vocational schools
According to Rachel Edwards-Stuart and Morten Christensen, the increased attention given to innovation in the field of food means that there is a need for more knowledge of and experience with approaches to teaching scientific subjects and methods to apprentice-chefs. They have – along with other colleagues – experience in transferring learning-processes to a gastro-lab. That is, a room that is a mixture of a professional kitchen and a scientific lab.
“Apart from the gear available in professional kitchens, the gastro-lab provides opportunities for analysing the food and the preparations through microscopes, texture-metres, pH-metres and other types of analytical equipment capable of quantifying the properties of the food. This makes it possible to approach the teaching of apprentice-chefs in a scientific and systematic manner”, says Morten Christensen.
As of yet, there are few gastro-labs in the vocational schools. This is the case in both Denmark and other places across the world where the science behind food and cooking has typically been done in universities. According to Rachel Edwards-Stuart and Morten Christensen, however, the time is ripe for promoting a closer collaboration between the vocational training and the scientific educations.
With this in mind, Taste-for-Life is in the process of establishing collaborations between Kold College, UCL Vocational Academy, University College Lillebaelt and Techcollege Aalborg. The collaboration aims at developing the framework for the teaching of natural science to apprentice-chefs and the students at other food-related educations in the two cities.
A need for developing new approaches to teaching
The new gastro-labs are a first and a strong point of departure, says Morten Christensen. There is, however, a need for developing new teaching materials targeting the scientific perspectives of the food-related educations as well as acquiring more didactical knowledge regarding this type of teaching.
When apprentice-chefs are taught natural science at Westminster Kingsway College in London, practical training in the kitchen makes up the guiding principle. Rachel Edwards-Stuart is convinced that the majority of the apprentice-chefs are more than happy to have escaped the classroom where they were supposed to listen, read and write. They are obviously content with working in the kitchen and step into the framework of their chosen education.
“It is our experience that teaching natural science to apprentice-chefs benefit from taking the practical work in the kitchen as the point of departure. This might be about a specific type of food or a method pf preparation and not physical or chemical properties as it is customary in the scientific educations. However, there is a lack of knowledge regarding the organisation of the classes in terms of how to obtain the best possible outcome. This is what we will be examining in the future”, says Morten Christensen.
Mentioned in the article
Lecturer, PhD, UCL University College.
Morten Christensen is part of the focus area Gastrophysics. He engages in research as well as communication. He works within the field of biophysics and gastrophysics with microscopy, texture and structure in food.