What do you get when you cross a chicken in a paper rocket with expensive perfumes with trippy videos with sugar globes? You get a lecture from Jordi Roca, the pastry chef of the current best restaurant in the world, El Celler de Can Roca — a talk that dazzles with its artsy components but leaves out the promised "science" of Harvard's second Science & Cooking lecture of the season.
The weekly public lecture series has been taking place each fall for several years now, running alongside the topics of the Harvard College General Education course "Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to the Science of Soft Matter." Attendees often start lining up two hours in advance to pack Hall C at Harvard's Science Center, and this Monday was no different, but the scientific content was notably absent this time around.
El Celler de Can Roca, located in the Girona province of Catalonia in Spain, serves traditional Catalan cuisine with modernist twists. It is owned by Jordi and his two brothers, Joan and Josep.
The promised topic was "Sous Vide: Savory and Pastry Applications," but Jordi, through a translator, never even uttered the phrase "sous vide." A Rotaval — a vacuum-based distillation device — sat on the counter, teasing attendees, but it merely served as the backdrop for a narrative about the restaurant's perfume-inspired desserts. The Rotaval serves as a means for creating a nearly infinite range of flavored essences by distilling solids at low temperatures (20-50 degrees Celsius), but there was barely any explanation of the process. One tidbit: it takes 10 kilograms of bergamot to produce a tiny vial of bergamot essence that appeared to measure about 10 or 20 milliliters. The Rocas have tried just about everything that they can fit into the machine, said Jordi, from roses and lemon rinds to soil and roasted chicken.
The idea behind the perfume-inspired desserts is to capture the memory of their scents with edible elements. Elder brother Joan, the chef (or the "architect of taste," according to the restaurant's website), once brought back eight boxes of bergamot from Sicily. What to do with them? Middle brother Josep, the sommelier (or "liquid king," said Jordi), was reminded of a specific smell: Eternity by Calvin Klein. And that was the beginning of a ten-year exploration of perfumes and the creation of desserts inspired by them. Jordi didn't want people to feel like they were eating perfume, he explained, but rather the "memory of a perfume."
As for the dessert inspired by Eternity, it includes elements like vanilla cream, basil water, orange blossom ice, and bergamot ice cream, which each hint at different parts of the perfume's scent. Other desserts in the series are inspired by perfumes such as Miracle by Lancôme (cream of ginger, lychee jam, pink pepper caramel), Angel by Thierry Mugler (toffee cream, bergamot sauce, violet jam), and Terre by Hermès (beet leaves, jasmine-whipped milk, chocolate mousse).
Next, Jordi moved onto a segment he called "Memory," sharing a video and stories behind three dishes, one for each brother. Food has always played a large role in the Roca family, and the original location of El Celler was right next to their parents' restaurant, El Restaurante de Can Roca. (El Celler has since moved.) Jordi spoke of "rescuing" tastes from memories rather than cookbooks. None of these dishes could be considered "contemporary cuisine," he said, but as he demonstrated some of the steps of making his gran bombón de chocolate, a modern approach was evident. A delicate globe of sugar was blown as if it were glass, coated with chocolate, and filled with layers of chocolate and hazelnut cream and cocoa sorbet. It was plated on a bed of tiny spheres of liquid nitrogen-frozen crème anglaise with toasted hazelnuts and topped with a shimmering gold sheet, reminiscent of the wrapped chocolates his aunt would bring to the family on Christmas Eve (she worked at Nestlé). Jordi wasn't much into sharing, he said, and would take all of the chocolate for himself, a memory that fueled the creation of his baseball-sized bombón.
When the lecture closed with a question-and-answer session, an audience member jokingly asked if he could have a bite of the dessert, and Jordi said that he could — "and I'll even give it to you for free." The audience member bounded down to the front and took a few tentative bites before being prodded to describe the dessert. Several hundred pairs of eyes watched with hunger and probably a good amount of jealousy as he ate and talked. The crème anglaise spheres reminded him of space ice cream, he said.
Next, Jordi spoke of "El Somni" ("The Dream,") a special dinner event that the restaurant had put on previously, a 12-act interdisciplinary "opera" meant to appeal to all the senses of 12 diners with images projected on screens all around the table, original music, and a specific theme to each course (or "act.") "How do you explain sex in one plate," mused Jordi. "Or death?" A movie about the project is in the works, and Jordi presented a trailer, available for viewing here.
Jordi showed a course that represented the "Glory" act of "El Somni," a "breathing" dish involving yeast ice cream. It gently pulsed up and down for fifteen minutes or so, but Jordi neglected to explain the exact science behind it, saying that it was "magical" — and a secret.
The lecture ended with a bit of absurd humor, a video showing the El Celler team exploring four potential new dish ideas: wild nature, stratospheric chicken, explosive flavor, alternative seasoning. Picture a giant grass-covered monster, that aforementioned chicken in a paper rocket (carried up into space with balloons and then released to plummet back to Earth, burning up during reentry and being caught in a pot back at the restaurant), and other assorted mischief.
While the lecture was less scientific than most were expecting, it was full of eye candy and an interesting look at the Roca brothers' process behind creating their menu. The takeaway is the role of memory in their food, whether it's a taste that represents the memory of a perfume's scent or a dish that comes from childhood nostalgia.
Next week, White House Pastry Chef Bill Yosses presents "Elasticity: Dessert = Flavor + Texture." The lecture will take place on Tuesday, September 24th (a departure from the usual Monday schedule) at 7pm in Harvard's Science Center, Hall C.
· El Celler de Can Roca [Official Site]
· Science and Cooking 2013 Lecture Series [Harvard.edu]