The crowd that gathered last night at UCLA's Moore Hall to hear chefs Rene Redzepi and Lars Williams and Professor Amy Rowat give a lecture on food and science had more fun than is customary at most academic gatherings.
Redzepi, the chef and founder of Noma in Copenhagen, and Williams, the head of the Nordic Food Lab, also in Copenhagen, handed out Chinese take-out cartons filled with cucumber powder and cricket sauce to the audience. They passed around containers of seaweed ice cream (everybody got a spoon). They cautioned about the hazards of foraging (don't eat hemlock; try bringing along, as they do, a survivor book from the Swedish Army). They showed images from Babette's Feast, one of Redzepi's favorite films. Then Williams made sauce from fermented barley and live crickets in a blender on the stage. Nobody, it is safe to say, fell asleep during this lecture.
It was also a very good crowd, as you might imagine, filled not only with UCLA students (the series is, after all, tied to an actual class) but with many local chefs: Michael Cimarusti, Hans Rockenwagner, Josiah Citrin, Ludo Lefebvre, Vinny Dotolo and Gary Menes, just to name the people we picked out in the nearby seats. Ilan Hall and C.J. Jacobsen passed around tubs of fermented and caramelized barley like they were working a game show audience.
Redzepi and Williams, whose Nordic Food Lab is actually on a boat moored near Noma, discussed many things, including their firmly-held belief that deliciousness is the primary goal of their work. We learned that sourcing and preparing insects is another goal -- great source of cheap protein -- and that there are currently ants on the menu at Noma. Apparently Redzepi and crew source them from Western Denmark, and they taste remarkably like kaffir lime. "We're for sure going to have many, many more insects on the menu at Noma," Redzepi said.
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Watching Williams blend a box of jumping crickets in a blender was kind of fun, but it must be said that the Danish chefs didn't get quite the reaction they seemed to expect from the crowd. Maybe because in Los Angeles you can find crickets on the drinks menu at John Sedlar's restaurants, get ant tacos at Starry Kitchen, and find little tubs of chapulines for sale at Guelaguetza. For the record, the cricket sauce tasted remarkably like soy sauce, maybe with a hint of fish sauce.
What else did we learn? That Redzepi really likes to ferment green peas. That Noma has four kitchens, if you include Williams' boat, and that he calls the experimental one "the kitchen for intuition." (Cool.) That, when asked what their favorite kitchen utensil is, both chefs said the same thing: a spoon.
The presentation, called "The Exploration of Deliciousness," was part of UCLA's Science and Food Series, curated and hosted by Professor 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; Momofuku's David Chang is up next.
Photo credit: The gorgeous photos of the Noma dishes on the screen behind chefs Lars Williams and Rene Redzepi are from The Nordic Food Lab.