Q & A With Professor Amy Rowat: Food and Science at UCLA, Danish Gastro-physical Societies + Experimental Cakes
Professor Amy Rowat
courtesy Amy Rowat
If you've been attending UCLA's Science & Food lectures, which began in April and continue through next month, you'll know who Professor Amy Rowat is. She's the one who put the series together, whose happy task it was to find sand fleas and an old electric blanket for Rene Redzepi and Lars Williams (from Noma and the Nordic Food Lab, respectively) for their recent presentation, and who will be introducing David Chang (Momofuku) tonight at Moore Hall. Before Rowat brought the series here, she organized similar lectures at Harvard, bringing Ferran Adrià and company to Cambridge.
At first Dr. Rowat might seem like an unlikely champion of modernist cuisine. She's a professor of integrative biology and physiology at UCLA, with a Ph.D. from the University of Southern Denmark. She's also young, Canadian and bakes a mean pie. Or, as Jonathan Gold described her the other day: Imagine Zooey Deschanel with a physics doctorate. We caught up with her recently, over coffee at Espresso Profeta in Westwood, to talk about how she got into this in the first place, her take on emulsions, and where to get a centrifuge. Turn the page.
Squid Ink: How did you get into this? You're a physicist.
Amy Rowat: I guess the backstory is that I've always been passionate about food. It was my childhood hobby to bake experimental cakes. There was a time in my life when I contemplated going to culinary school, after I finished my undergrad. Then I went to grad school instead, but as a compromise I went to Denmark. Primarily that was driven by the science I was excited about, which was membranes.
AR: Lipid membranes that are the barrier of individual cells. So I studied science, and I majored in physics. I had the opportunity to work in a lab -- at Mount Allison University, it's a small college in Canada -- so then I realized that working in a lab is a lot like cooking. You know, you're mixing things together and making things happen, and I really liked that -- it was like a craft. So I kind of got hooked on research. I was always curious, even as a child, about the how and why. Why does an elastic band stretch and then snap back to its original form? How is it that blood cells are able to deform and traverse through capillaries that are much smaller than the individual cells themselves? I've always been fascinated by biophysics especially: explaining the how and why of biological materials.
There came a point when I realized that the things that I was working with were things that you eat. Like lipids and lipid membranes -- we eat that all the time. So my master's thesis looked at the effects of alcohol on lipid membranes. Which made for great party conversation. And then during my postdoc, which I did at Harvard, I studied emulsions.
SI: Emulsions. Of course.
AR: Mayonnaise, vinaigrettes, right? My Ph.D. supervisor, Ole Mouritsen, was heavily into food -- he went on to write books on sushi and seaweed. He actually collaborates with Lars Williams of the Nordic Food Lab.
SI: So had you known Williams and Redzepi when you were in Denmark?
AR: I had met Lars at a seaweed workshop in Copenhagen. Ole had organized the meeting and he invited Lars and all these people who work on seaweed -- because seaweed is his latest obsession. So that's how it started. And then when I was in Denmark we formed this gastro-physical society, as we called it, where we basically just went around and ate and talked about food. At Harvard I continued to think about the intersection of science and food, and worked with a professor who was doing lectures for a general audience on a yearly basis. We put together a lecture on the science of pizza.
We did a follow-up on chocolate, and around that time Ferran Adrià came to visit. He wanted to have more interaction with scientists at Harvard, so a natural way to do that was to have a class. At the same time Harvard had a general-education program, like they do here at UCLA, that was seeking out new courses that were science-based, with hands-on activities and real-life experiences of students. Of course, food is a natural way to do that. We already had quite a bit of evidence that these lectures -- on pizza and chocolate -- were drawing hundreds of people, so we put together this class.
SI: This was the first time that Harvard had done this?
AR: It was the first time it had happened. And Ferran invited a bunch of his chef friends. José Andrés [The Bazaar, Jaleo, etc.] and Dan Barber [of Blue Hill] and Wylie Dufresne [of wd~50]. And then a bunch of Spanish chefs as well. So when I came to UCLA, one of the requirements was that I develop and teach a class. I incorporated into the UCLA class more of my own experiences in biophysics and tried to bring out some of the things that I find so fascinating. Like why different cuts of meat have different textures depending on animal physiology and why plants have different compositions -- why carrots stay sweeter in the winter -- and bringing it all back to the plants and animals and the molecules in them.
SI: When did you come to UCLA?
AR: I've been here for just over a year.
SI: Is this something that you're going to do every year? Please?
AR: Yes, I'll be teaching it again next spring.
SI: You started the last lecture, with Redzepi and Williams, by talking about the strange requests your guests have had. Crickets. Blenders. What else have people asked for?
AR: Nothing as weird as sand fleas. Adrià didn't do any demos. But Grant Achatz brought his own essence of grass.
SI: What did he do with it?
AR: It was part of a dish where something or other comes out on a pillow filled with the essence of grass, and they poke holes in it. And then the weight of the plate compresses the pillow and the scent of the grass wafts out as you're eating the dish. Not all the chefs have done tasting samples -- and we didn't do tasting samples at Harvard. But that's something I try to incorporate into almost every lecture.
SI: Audience participation is very fun. You're talking about food; It's great to be able to actually eat it.
AR: It was a super-useful way to teach scientific concepts. A great example is diffusion. We marinated tofu in soy sauce for different periods of time. And during the time the soy sauce molecules diffused into the tofu, including the salt ions, and of course the tofu becomes saltier the longer you leave it in the soy sauce. So I presented them with an equation to describe the process and how they can calculate how many molecules per time passes across the surface area into the tofu cubes. We passed out the tofu cubes that had been marinated for 20 hours, and one hour -- and boy, those kids will never forget eating the tofu that had been marinated for 20 hours. Really salty. And of course having chocolate melt in your mouth is always a pleasant thing, but it also gets you thinking about phase transitions and how things melt.
SI: I read somewhere that you became interested in flaky pie crusts?
AR: I do enjoy baking pies. It has to do with the formation of the gluten protein network.
SI: And lipids, right? Butter, shortening, lard.
AR: You coat the proteins to prevent them from binding to each other. Another trick I learned was from J. Kenji López-Alt at Serious Eats. While he was at Cook's Illustrated he published this recipe where you add vodka to the pie dough.
SI: I remember that one.
AR: It's the water that's involved in forming the gluten network, so the alcohol doesn't have an effect. It evaporates.
SI: With bakers the big question has always been shortening, lard or butter?
AR: Personally, I appreciate an all-butter crust, although a good mincemeat pie with a lard crust is excellent. But the butter definitely has a different phase behavior than lard or shortening, as it melts at a lower temperature. But I haven't looked into it. Maybe we can add the topic to the list in the future.
SI: So has your research changed how you cook?
Professor Amy Rowat
courtesy Amy Rowat
AR: It has, yes. I don't cook with recipes at all. For me it's a very creative process -- in my time off -- and I never really want to think very much about it. So it has changed the way that I cook in that I do think more when I'm making a pie crust: OK, I want to be careful to prevent gluten formation now. It's changed the way I think about it. I still don't really like to use a thermometer, for example.
SI: Yeah, I was going to ask if you've gotten an Anti-Griddle or something.
AR: No, no. I experimented with some different gels and spherification, but only because I had to develop the labs for the class.
SI: You're not going home and making tomato spheres?
AR: No, and I don't think I'd even serve them at a dinner party because, quite honestly, I'm not a big fan of their texture. So yes, it definitely changes the way I think about things, but not so much how I cook. But I have other science friends who are completely nerdy about, you know, weighing things out to the nth degree and measuring the temperature inside a cake and having it hooked up to a computer so it can be controlled from afar.
SI: Wow. Do you guys have a centrifuge?
AR: I do in my lab.
AR: You can order them from eBay. But you have to be careful because sometimes the equipment isn't in a working state.
SI: You need AppleCare. So do you have any plans for future people to have come lecture next year?
AR: I do, but I have to work that out. The interest has been huge. It's a question of balance, of topics, of having people who have come before, or other people who might be fun to have come. Definitely Sean Brock is pretty keen to come.
SI: So where to you like to eat in L.A.? I hear Jonathan Gold took Rene Redzepi to Night + Market after the last lecture. Did you go?
AR: Yes. It worked out really well. I end up at the Napa Valley Grille a lot because I really like their kale salad. I love to go to the Santa Monica farmers market and cook with their fresh produce. Gjelina I adore.
SI: So after Canada -- where you're from -- Denmark and Cambridge, Mass., it must be kind of nice to have California produce.
AR: It's so refreshing -- all the avocados, the citrus, the local nuts. I really like the Beverly Hills Juice Bar. But I haven't really been out much yet.
SI: What do you think is one thing that average people don't know about the science of food that would really be helpful?
AR: I've been trying to focus in the public lectures on little encapsulated messages. One thing, which I emphasized in the last lecture, was the molecules of food and how there are all these misconceptions -- and fear -- around molecules. These are parts of our bodies; these are parts of us.
SI: People can get really intimidated by scientific terminology.
AR: That's one thing that I tried to highlight. I don't completely understand ingredient labels myself all the time, and there are definitely certain chemicals that you do want to avoid. With the upcoming Chang lecture: They're really into fermentation now, which Rene and Lars discussed as well. We'll be focusing more on that. There's also general fear of microbes, and an important thing to realize as well is that microbes are beneficial in cooking. Obviously in beer and bread, but also in a lot of other things as well. Xanthum gum, for example, is produced by a bacteria; that's just something that the bacteria naturally secretes. There's obviously bacteria that can make you sick, but bacteria helps in how we grow our food, how we prepare our food, and how we digest our food.
SI: Also because "molecular gastronomy" has gotten so popular so quickly, I think it's also pretty misunderstood. And mislabeled. But it's just chefs playing with their food; they're not exactly changing it. Your series seems to demystify this.
AR: That's true. I didn't initially think about it from that perspective -- look at the beautiful science of a pizza -- but it does have that effect. Demystifying what a pizza is, where tomato sauce comes from. It's shocking how removed people are from the origins. I think students appreciate learning about lecithin, for example.
SI: Once you say it's in chocolate...
AR: Exactly. And the use of fresh fruit in marinades because they contain enzymes that naturally break down protein and things like that. The concept of freezing point depression. We had Barbara Spencer from Windrose Farm, Cynthia Sandberg [of Love Apple Farms] and David Kinch [from Manresa] and they talked about the importance of sugars in fruits and vegetables and how that's really important in temperature fluctuations. It's important in developing the flavors in apples, for example.
In class the kids made rock salt ice cream, which is a very simple elementary school kid's experiment. But when you couple that with measuring the temperature, and calculating the freezing point given the amount of salt they added -- and suddenly it clicked. And that was a really beautiful thing to see. And how they can relate that now to why an Antarctic fish might produce more salt because it has to survive at very low temperatures. So all those things are helping to demystify science -- and our food at the same time.
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