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Are world's top restaurants lab experiments?

High-end restaurants should wrap you in luxury. They can also seduce you with science

Vegetables and microgreens undergoing lacto-fermentation.
Vegetables and microgreens undergoing lacto-fermentation. ( Ingrid Beck, Pexels)

You should expect to be pampered when you dine at high-end restaurants. The best do it with such luxurious ease that any buyer’s remorse for dropping upwards of $500 ( 41,686.28) on a meal is ameliorated by the joy of the experience. Among these culinary destinations, a subset provides an additional attraction: Being part of an enterprise to better the world through the intersection of science and cuisine.

Also read | What makes a city a dining hotspot?

The amalgamation of hedonism and altruism is, to say the least, a delicate art. But it can also be a potentially lucrative extension of a restaurant’s original business proposition.

It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that Rasmus Munk — chef of Alchemist, the modernist dining wonderland in Copenhagen — has set up a 1,000 square meter (nearly 11,000 sq. feet) research laboratory called Spora practically next door to his award-winning, multiple Michelin-starred restaurant. At Alchemist, Munk has extended the sci-fi approach to food that was pioneered by Ferran Adria’s historic, now shuttered El Bulli in Spain. That vision of cooking is “better eating through technology,” for want of an overarching description. With Spora, Munk promises to pursue the development of new protein sources (that is, meat and seafood alternatives) as well as products resulting from fungal fermentation. Or better living through mushrooms.

For starters, Spora has received about $1.5 million from the founders of Nordic Bioscience, a Danish medical-research firm that itself has received $100 million in investment from private equity behemoth KKR & Co. Munk has a record for attracting attention from financial giants. The majority owner of Alchemist — a stunningly theatrical experience where you can see where the money went —  is Lars Seier Christensen, one of the richest Danes in the world (he lives in Switzerland), a restaurant aficionado and the co-founder of Saxo bank (he sold his stake to Chinese and Finnish concerns in 2018).

Since the discovery of fire, cooks have used kitchens as laboratories to perfect their recipes, long before scientists (and, indeed, alchemists) took to experimentation. With Spora, Munk follows the evolutionary (and commercial) path of Adria and other top chefs. The Spanish chef tried to shake the label of “molecular gastronomy” — which he’s said is limiting and an inaccurate description of El Bulli’s innovations. Still, the Catalan wizard helped popularize the use of foams in haute cuisine and came up with spectacular edible inventions like reconstituted olives presented on spoons as beautiful green spheres that exploded with flavor once they touched your tongue. The year before he shut the restaurant, he — along with his friend and fellow chef Jose Andres — lectured at Harvard to help draw attention to physics and chemistry 101 courses, seducing students with cuisine to fulfil freshmen science requirements.

Adria came away from Harvard learning a few things himself. After listening to a fellow presenter, he said, “I always assumed that what we were doing was chemistry. I didn’t realize it is actually physics." (1)Adria has spent the last decade or so setting down his legacy in books (among them, the gorgeous and expensive Bullipedia series published by Phaidon). He has also turned the site of El Bulli into a museum. He and his brother Albert will be collaborating with Munk on a widely anticipated celebration of El Bulli’s legacy at Alchemist in February.

Dan Barber, the chef of the acclaimed Blue Hill at Stone Barns just outside New York City, has expanded the perspective of his customers with a grassroots farm-to-table approach. On the restaurant’s surrounding farmland as well as collaborations with agriculturalists everywhere, he’s developed innovative plant breeds that have been adopted by chefs all around the world. He’s helped popularise the habanada, a variant of the habanero chili but without the fire. Personally, I like heat but the habanada at least delivers the sweetness of the pepper for diners who have a low tolerance for capsaicin. Barber also helped spread the philosophy of low- or no-waste cooking, continuing an insightful program by Massimo Bottura in Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy. It is now practically de rigueur for culinary virtue-signaling in up-and-coming restaurants.

Also read | Around the table, we are all equal: Massimo Bottura

So far, the most popular marriage of science and cuisine to emerge is from Alchemist’s nearby neighbor (and rival) in Copenhagen. Rene Redzepi’s Noma — which just celebrated its 20th anniversary — won fame with the pursuit of foraging: finding flavor and sustenance in the fruits, plants and animals in a restaurant’s nearby natural habitat. But his most recent innovation was the haute cuisine fermentation lab. The Noma Guide to Fermentation, which he co-authored in 2018 with David Zilber, then head of the restaurant’s lab, became a worldwide bestseller. Its trumpeting of probiotic virtues helped make koji — the Japanese name for the aspergillus oryzae mold — a household word. Meanwhile, diners flocked to Noma to sample the miracles of decay. (2)

Now, top-ranked restaurants around the world boast their own fermentation labs — cold rooms where cooks can control the fruits of decomposition. In Istanbul, two-Michelin star Turk Fatih Tutak experiments with indigenous products. In Bogota, Colombia, the appeal is evident in chef Leonor Espinosa’s Restaurante Leo: Several drinks in the cocktail tasting are clearly labeled “fermented” including one made with coca leaf. 

Indeed, selling commercial versions of the fermentation lab products appears to be Redzepi’s way of reincarnating Noma after he shuts down his dining room at the end of 2024. It is proof that something rotten in the state of Denmark can actually be a very good and tasty thing. You can grow a restaurant out of a lab experiment.

(1) Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen is an excellent guide.

(2) Pioneering work popularizing the field was done by Sandor Katz in his books Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods (2003) and The Art of Fermentation (2012).

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