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Food Science

David Chang at UCLA: Umami Reverse Engineering + The Joy of MSG

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Fri, May 25, 2012 at 12:49 PM

click to enlarge David Chang at UCLA - A. SCATTERGOOD
  • A. Scattergood
  • David Chang at UCLA
So what did David Chang pass around at last night's UCLA science and food lecture? After Rene Redzepi handed out seaweed ice cream at the previous lecture, expectations were perhaps higher than they'd be at a normal university event, where people do not generally get experimental snacks. The Momofuku chef, who gave a talk entitled "Microbes in My Ramen?" with fellow Momofuku cookbook author and Lucky Peach writer Peter Meehan and Momofuku lab's Daniel Felder, instructed the crowd to eat samples of pistachio miso and powdered MSG.

"You basically ate the same thing," Chang told the audience, then launched into what might best be described as an apology for MSG, or monosodium glutamate, the oft-maligned ("I just think it's psychosomatic") stuff that is held responsible for "Chinese restaurant syndrome." An evening with David Chang is many things, but sedate is not one of them.

click to enlarge Jonathan Gold, Peter Meehan, Daniel Felder and David Chang at UCLA - A. SCATTERGOOD
  • A. Scattergood
  • Jonathan Gold, Peter Meehan, Daniel Felder and David Chang at UCLA
Another theme of the evening was fermentation, a current obsession of Chang's and a focus of Momofuku's food lab. Yes, Momofuku has a lab. It's not on a boat in Copenhagen, as is the Nordic Food Lab, although claustrophobia seems to be a recurrent design theme. Momofuku's research lab occupies 200 square feet of what used to be an office, where "for the last two years we've really just been letting things rot," said Chang.

So it seems. As well as messing around in the lab, running a literary magazine and cooking, Chang recently co-authored a scientific paper titled "Defining Microbial Terroir: The use of native fungi for the study of traditional fermentative processes," with Felder and Daniel Burns. (The terroir in question often being that of New York City's 10th Street and First Avenue.) Felder, who runs the Momofuku food lab with Veronica Trevizo, joined Chang onstage to talk about, well, things rotting. And science, which Chang characterized as "things I slept and cheated through in high school." Because what he's going for, Chang said, is umami. "It's all reverse engineering from there."

It helps that Momofuku's lab isn't terribly far away from NYU, whose centrifuge the chefs like to play with. Or that Chang has a cozy relationship with more scientists at Harvard. Because rotting things can get potentially dangerous, Chang and company just "sent it all to Harvard" for analysis. What sorts of things is he playing with? Lardo cured in koji (the fungus Aspergillus oryzae); chicken bushi innoculated with Camembert mold; apple vinegar made with an aquarium air pump; and rabbit "with a really strange funk to it." Maybe because it had been rotting for about six months.

After the lecture, Chang, Meehan and Felder fielded questions from the audience, in an often hilarious Q&A moderated by Jonathan Gold. The first one: When are you going to open a restaurant in L.A.? Sorry, folks. Chang said not anytime soon. Other questions included: How do you guys manage not to poison yourself? Credit Harvard. And: Does the NYC Health Department know what you're doing? "I don't know what you're talking about," said Chang. And finally: Where can I get more pistachio miso? "Bring your cup: we've got lots more."

The presentation was part of UCLA's Science and Food Series, curated and hosted by Professor Amy Rowat, the professor of integrative biology and physiology who co-developed a similar series of classes at Harvard. Last month, Nathan Myhrvold gave a lecture; Sherry Yard and Bill Yosses are up next.


Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook; reach the author at ascattergood@laweekly.com or on Twitter at @AmyScattergood.

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