Imperial College London is including cookery lessons in its chemistry degree courses, starting this September. The Introduction to Culinary Practice module, created in collaboration with chef Jozef Yousuf from the Basque Culinary Centre, will allow students to “experience the ambiguities and challenges of translating written instructions into action” (AKA “following a recipe”). There are several reasons why I think this is a great idea, only some of which hold academic weight.
I met Yousuf several years ago, and he is one of the most absurdly good-looking men I have seen. He looks like a young Antonio Banderas crossed with a Magimix in Zorro’s kitchen. His science-theory-inflected food is extraordinary, too. At the tasting menu I attended, we ate origami pasta, oyster ice-cream and fossilised squash. One course was based on a Mexican folk tale and there was a mushroom dish based around the scent of petrichor. I was like a child in a candy store. Not a real candy store, obviously, a virtual one, with piped custard aromas and implanted happy memories. Molecular gastronomy gets a bad rap from traditional food critics, but it’s right up my street. Spherification, emulsions, foams, there’s a Roald Dahl-esque theatre to this type of food that I love.
Another good sign is that Imperial’s professor of surgical education and engagement science is called Roger Kneebone. I hope that’s not one of the techniques he has pioneered. Is there anyone who doesn’t feel their purpose on Earth bolstered by such a delightful piece of nominative determinism? I wonder if the years of hearing bad jokes have broken him. Anyway, his involvement guarantees the course’s success. It’s meant to be.
Is cooking really educational? It’s not a trivial question. According to Kneebone, the thigh bone’s connected — no, hold on. According to Kneebone, many surgical students spend so much time on screens that they have lost the dexterity to stitch patients. Okay, he does sound a little bit weird. The idea behind this course is that the practical skills required by cooking will be invaluable to a new generation of scientists. And I believe that’s true. Just look at The Great British Bake Off: Some of its best contestants, such as Rahul Mandal and Andrew Smyth, make brownies with a set square.
Cooking is one of the best teachers I’ve known. Not only has it kept me sane and healthy, it has also got me more interested in the science of food and its preparation, despite being a chemistry brain-dud who thought an ionic bond was a Greek spy. Through cooking, I became interested in Maillard reactions and nasal receptors, fermentation, the hydrophilic-hydrophobic magic of egg yolks, denaturing proteins and the vibrational spectra of courgettes. There’s no reason this wouldn’t work the other way around — that booksmart students can’t develop their powers of observation, adaptation and hands-on ability by making chips or turning out a spotted British pudding, traditionally made with suet and dried fruit and often served with custard.
The university has indicated that, as part of the module, the students will have access to research instruments such as centrifuges, rotary evaporators and sonic homogenisers; just picturing these gadgets has me breaking out in excitement hives. It’s great these chemistry undergraduates will be bettering our understanding of the world; and if that dream collapses like a souffle, they will still have some great transferable skills. They could open an organic vegetarian restaurant, called Stems.
No? Jeez, you get more of a reaction from helium. Thank you, I’m here all week. Try the veal.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Rhik Samadder is an actor and columnist.