“I want to be a true scholar, I want to grasp, by the collar, What’s on earth, in heaven above, In Science, and in Nature too…”
This summer, I am spending 7 weeks interning for Fundacion Alicia – a gastronomic center located in a picturesque village outside Barcelona. The mission of Fundacion Alicia – a foundation started in 2003 by Ferran Adria of El Bulli (If you don’t know this man, look him up. He is the Dali of the kitchen) – is simple. Fundacion Alicia, according to its website, “is a research center devoted to technological innovation in cuisine, to the improvement of eating habits and to the evaluation of the food and gastronomic heritage. We are a center with a social vocation, open to everyone to promote healthy eating.” In other words, Alicia aims to improve the life of all cooks worldwide – professionals as well as amateurs.
At Alicia, this mission comes to life in its two different departments: research and health. The health department focuses a lot on educational outreach, holding workshops for people with special dietary needs (cancer patients, diabetics, people with allergies, to name a few) and children. The workshops are held on a daily basis in Alicia, but some are actually held “on the road”; Alicia has a big truck that travels in all of Spain to ensure that their work reaches those who really need it (very similar to Jamie Oliver’s truck in the U.S). Comprised of cooks, nutritionist, and scientists, the health department works closely with the research department to optimize the processes that will lead to a greater understanding of health issues.
The research department in and of itself, however, is different. The research department houses some of the best food scientists and chefs in the world (Chef Marc, for instance, was the pastry chef at El Bulli for 15 years). In this interdisciplinary environment, chefs, scientists, historians and nutritionists join forces in developing and exploring the cutting-edge techniques and products that lay the groundwork for modern cooking. The work ranges from historical research on olive oils to product development of high-calorie foods for arctic adventurers. Even though much of its work is simply spearheaded by the foundation itself, the research department takes on missions from large businesses and other outside actors. Due to the fact that this involves product development and recipe development, there is a lot of secrecy surrounding this work. Thus, I will not be able to provide as many details as I would like about the work conducted in this department.
Every year, Alicia brings in people from across the world to train at the foundation. There is a limited amount of spots, and only around 8 lucky people are accepted for each training period. Most people who come have a lot of experience working in high-end restaurants, gastronomic labs, or other similar environments. As you might understand, that I had been accepted was a pleasant but equally shocking surprise. In fact, when I found out that I was accepted to the internship program (as one of the youngest people ever) I realized that this summer I would embark on a once in a lifetime adventure, working with some of the best scientists and chefs in the field of modern cooking.
After one week at Fundacion Alicia, I am in paradise; after only one week at the foundation, I have become immersed in the wonderful and inspiring world of science and cooking. As I have gained plenty of gastronomic knowledge from coworkers, scientists and chefs, the form and function of the prism through which I view food has changed completely. Now, I am starting to understand not only that certain things happen, but why and how they happen – how the interaction of numerous variables creates what we know as texture and flavor.
I am doing research on texturizers, which include gelling agents, foaming agents, thickening agents, and emulsifying agents. Currently, the foundation is developing a gastronomic lexicon that will be published later this year. The book provides detailed descriptions of the underlying chemistry of texturizers and how they can be used in the culinary arts, and it is mainly target towards chefs. Together with Gashaw Clark, another intern and a rising junior Harvard, I am testing and optimizing different recipes from the soon-to-be book as well as revising the language in which it is written. Synthesizing material from various sources, I am combining theoretical and practical work. It is least said enjoyable; not only to I get to learn and understand the theoretical aspects of the texturizers, but I get to see the texturizers in action while replicating incredibly inspiring recipes. If nothing changes, I will probably work on this project until I leave in the end of July.
Every day, visitors from all the corners of the world visit Alicia to observe Alicia’s amazing 2 hectare organic farm, its facilities, and, of course, the work that’s being conducted within its boundaries. Simply, these people come to observe a beautiful process that Ferran Adria in the book Cooking Science: Condensed Matter eloquently describes as, “with every day that passes, scientific and culinary knowledge are establishing closer ties in order to consolidate a stable relationship.” At present, I am honored to have the privilege to be at the forefront of this development, and as the days go by, I am becoming more and more certain that this is what I see myself doing in the future.