Only a special kind of nerd would rather study food than eat it
Truth: We eat to live. But some of us—perhaps many enthusiastic fans of this magazine—live to eat. For us, food is a passion, an art form, a gift from the gods, an inspired form of creativity, a medicine and a comfort. And then there are those who take it a step further, those who find food a curious subject that inspires study, experimentation and analysis.
Not sure about what to major in at college? If you’re fascinated by all things culinary, why not food science? In this fertile field, food geeks utilize chemistry, microbiology and engineering to study the basic elements of food. They analyze nutritional content, advance ways of cooking and processing food and even invent new food products.
Some scientists study soil composition to see how it affects crop yields. Others look at how to enhance plant growth and study ways to fight weeds and pests. Animal scientists seek to improve the quality of life for farm animals by reducing disease and injury rates and improving animal environments.
Finally, there are those who prepare food, those who employ new techniques and methods of preparation, some of whom are simple chefs blessed with a curious mind and the desire to go beyond the tastes of the average diner.
Devour writers were themselves curious about the food geeks in our midst. They met with local university professors and innovative chefs to see what has captured their fancies and have described their research in the following pages. If their work intrigues you, better plan a visit to your favorite university or college and see how to climb aboard the food-geek train.
Wildlife biologist, author, artist: Grow your own!
Fred Montague warns that you might be depressed after talking with him. The former University of Utah professor will tell you that the human population is 700 times the amount the Earth could support if we were all hunters and gatherers again, that the world population is growing by 1 million people every four days, and that the way we 7.5 billion people survive—by eating food grown by industrial-scale farms—will prove catastrophic because of how it erodes soil, depletes water sources, deposits toxic material in the environment and contributes to climate change.
“It’s going to be the ultimate admission of human failure if we have to plow up the last wild place to grow food for people—and that’s where we’re heading,” he says.
But he has solutions, which are outlined in his book Gardening: An Ecological Approach. Planting in the dirt is one of the most important environmental actions we can take, he says.
Grow your own vegetables. Buy organic. Cook your own food. These are the ways we can increase soil fertility, sequester carbon, create safe spaces for birds and insects, conserve water. In short, think of food—how it’s grown and what we eat—as an “ecological sacrament, where something dies that you might live.” (Heather May)
Food scientist: A cricket a day
Ground-up crickets taste earthy, says Brigham Young University professor Laura Jefferies.
And once they are churned into a “slurry of cricket mush” and spray dried—the same method used to turn milk into the powdered cheese used in macaroni and cheese boxes—their texture is good enough to provide the protein in a smoothie.
Jefferies would know: The food technologist recently studied the properties of cricket powder to learn how to process the crickets to make them more palatable.
There are good reasons to wonder: Crickets contain, per ounce, about the same amount of protein as beef but use a fraction of land and water resources to raise.
After Jefferies learned of a Utah company that uses cricket flour in its protein bars, she realized that she could study what happens to the nutritional value of crickets after they are processed, and she and her students could explore consumer attitudes about eating crickets.
Ultimately, she learned that spray drying the powder is most acceptable.
“I feel pretty convinced that the edible insect market in the United States has a lot of potential,” she says. “But I think it’s still a niche market.” (Heather May)
BYU Nutrition, Dietetics & Food Science
Anthropology professor: Communal meals—the original social network
The Enga people of Papua New Guinea give pork and other gifts to their maternal kin to recognize their role in raising children. They wrap stones that represent their ancestors in pork fat as part of a religious ceremony. They hold grand feasts to mark their allies’ deaths in war.
Food is about so much more than nutrition, says University of Utah anthropology professor Polly Wiessner, who studies the Enga. It is the medium for social relations.
Lest you think it only functions that way in traditional societies, consider the spread that was served at the last wedding you attended, what you made for a loved one’s birthday, what you don’t eat because of your religion and why you shared a picture of your meal on Instagram.
Wiessner designed a college course around food and culture—the ways food is used to create social bonds, display status, mark social distinctions, exercise power and communicate with the supernatural.
Food, she says, is “very primordial. A lot of other primates share food. Birds share food. It’s very much a part of our evolutionary heritage.”
We aren’t meant to eat alone. The fact that so many of us do might explain all sorts of health and social isolation problems: People are looking to food to satisfy their need for human interaction. Instead, they should share meals to fill up emotionally and socially, she says. So what is her stress-relieving recipe? Buy food and invite friends. “Cook and sit around and enjoy yourself. Then you see you’re not alone.” (Heather May)
University of Utah
Department of Anthropology
Heroes and villains
Tamara Masters was seeing villains and heroes everywhere. A skull and crossbones for a woman’s perfume. An ad for a basketball star that ended with the word “villain.” Darth Vader and Yoda on children’s snacks.
The Brigham Young University marketing professor started to wonder: How do the hero and villain labels affect our food choices?
She and Arul Mishra, a University of Utah marketing professor, conducted seven experiments to find out, on items including ice cream bars, bottled water and cheese curds.
It turns out, we want our cake to be branded as heroic so we can eat it, too.
“Vice products like an ice cream bar—it’s already bad,” she says. If it’s also labeled as villainous, shoppers can’t justify buying it, she notes. But when a “vice” food is labeled heroic, consumers are put at ease.
And when something utilitarian like bottled water is marketed with Darth Vader, consumers are willing to pay more than if it were marketed with Luke Skywalker.
“A hero label will give them license to buy something that’s hedonic. A villain label makes things very boring more interesting to us,” she says.
Consumers and vegetable sellers, take note: The marketing doesn’t change how the products taste, but a well-placed Voldemort picture next to some kale could do wonders. (Heather May)
BYU Marriott School of Business Department of Marketing & Global Supply Chain
Better living through chemistry
Curiosity about food and how its chemistry affects human health took Robert Ward from the kitchen of a Park City restaurant to a laboratory in the food-science department at Utah State University. After graduating from the University of Vermont in the early 1990s, Ward moved to Park City to ski.
“I was working as a restaurant cook, and I got interested in how different ingredients would behave in predicable ways with different preparations, and it struck me there was a lot of chemistry going on,” Ward said. “I had also spent time in Italy and got very interested in food there as well. As a person who loves the outdoors and being active, I was very interested in how food affects health and athletic ability.”
Ward left Park City for the University of California Davis to earn a master’s degree in brewing science and later a Ph.D. in food science.
His Ph.D. work led him to study the chemistry of milk and the specific sugars that feed gut bacteria that make up the microbiome or the bacteria that live in the human digestive system. Scientists now speculate that our microbiome is much more important to our health and even behavior than previously thought.
Ward’s research at USU helped develop “the total Western diet” (a diet with fewer calories from protein and carbohydrate sources and twice that from fat), which is fed to laboratory animals to study models of human disease, including cancer. His work also led to investigations of how and why polyphenols—compounds found in foods like blueberries, green tea, dark chocolate and coffee that have low levels of toxin—seem to promote overall better health. (Brian Fryer)
USU Department of Nutrition,
Dietetics and Food Sciences
The chocolate degree
Everyone knows fats are where the flavor is at, right? Thanks to scientists looking at the physicochemical characterization of lipids and sensory properties of foods, we now know how fats work to create those crave-able flavors and textures. Utah State University food-science professor Silvana Martini was one of those food-nerd scientists. She earned a degree in food science from the University of La Plata in her native Argentina before finding her way to Utah’s Cache Valley in 2005. In addition to her research, her teaching has led to the creation of the Aggie Chocolate Factory that opened last fall.
“A few years ago, the food science staff were trying to think of ways of attracting more students,” Martini said. “First, we thought of fermentation—making beer and wine—but we knew that would be a problem. So, I said, ‘What about chocolate?’”
Her suggestion became a reality. Today, students in Martini’s class learn about every aspect of “the food of the gods,” from its history to politics. Along the way, they work in the lab taking raw cocoa from the bean to bar. The student-produced chocolate is not only available for sale at the factory but is also used in making the famous Aggie Ice Cream. Martini said the university soon plans to offer courses at the factory to the public for small, local chocolate producers as well as large-scale manufacturers. (Bryan Fryer)
USU Department of Nutrition, Dietetics and Food Science
director of conservation
Wild potato foraging in the West
“It took us about two years to become confident in our identification” of potato starch grains found on archaic grinding stones, says Red Butte Garden director of conservation Bruce Pavlik of the ground-breaking research. A team led by University of Utah/Natural History Museum of Utah paleoarchaeologist Lisbeth Louderback and Pavlik has been investigating the food sources of some of Utah’s earliest humans identified at North Creek Shelter near Escalante, Utah. The recovered starch granules of Solanum jamesii wild potatoes, dating between 10,900 and 10,100 years ago, are the earliest use of the tuber identified so far in North America. Pavlik notes that there’s a long oral history of indigenous people utilizing this species, that early cavalry officers called the area Potato Valley because they foraged wild tubers there, and that, during the Great Depression, area residents depended on the plants to make it through rough times. Next up? Louderback and Pavlik are investigating evidence for prehistoric manipulation of the species to determine if it was selected for taste or other qualities. They are also tracing the locations of nutrient-rich source plants from as far away as El Paso and Mesa Verde that might allow Native American farmers to bring S. jamesii to a market near you. (Darby Doyle)
Red Butte Garden
Natural History Museum of Utah
Luis J. Bastarrachea
Food engineer: Food safety and food preparation efficiency innovator
As a food engineer, Luis Bastarrachea’s interdisciplinary work at Utah State University touches on the physics, chemistry and biology of foods and their processing, handling and preservation. His research ensures the safety of foods while also trying to mitigate the negative effects of food preservation practices. For example, using heat to pasteurize dairy products or cooking with boiling water kills microbes, but it also has some downsides. “Heat helps keep food safe, but it can also cause loss of desirable attributes,” Bastarrachea says, such as texture, color, flavor and beneficial nutrients. Noting that for many reasons, consumers prefer more “natural” ingredients to chemical preservatives, his current research focuses on antimicrobial materials for different applications.
“Through the use of (mostly plastic) materials that are able to eliminate microbes, the application of heat and chemical substances could eventually be dismissed or even discarded,” he says, and the energy costs involved in heating methods would be considerably reduced. But how do these materials become antimicrobial? Along with his own research using antimicrobial plastics to inactivate bacteria in liquid foods, Bastarrachea is intrigued by other novel physical methods of food preservation such as using ultrasound and ultraviolet (UV) light. “It is exciting and evolving,” Bastarrachea says, of his research, which he hopes “will lead to relevant breakthroughs in the future.” (Darby Doyle)
USU Department of Nutrition, Dietetics and Food Science
Note: The above story has been updated from its original print version. The online version clarifies that while Dr. Bastarrachea is interested in novel methods of food preservation (such as ultrasound and UV light), they are not the focus of his current research (which is antimicrobial materials for different applications).
SLCPop chef: Bringing whimsy and wickedly good fun to the table
For SLCPop, Red Moose After Dark and private chef Katie Weinner, the thrill of using molecular gastronomy never gets old. “I’ve worked on some recipes for five or more years, and they seemed unachievable,” to get the wow-factor she’s aiming for. “Then, when I figure it out and finally have it all come together, it’s mind-blowing!”
She’s widely admired in SLC’s culinary community and beyond (she competed on Season 12 of Top Chef) for her creativity and wildly inventive plating.
“A lot of my food is inspired by nostalgia, and wanting to evoke moments for guests,” Weinner says, such as the time she created mini “clotheslines” to hang slices of charcuterie, inspired by the comfort of sun-warmed clothes hung outdoors to dry.
She’s also a master of “MacGyvering” tools and equipment to produce her desired results, such as when she used a kids’ cotton-candy machine to spin foie gras floss or a rigged-up smoke gun to create foggy edible “terrariums” using jars she found at a dollar store in Maine.
“It’s fun to make people laugh and smile, and it sets the mood for the evening,” she says. Whether she’s putting together an elaborate private dinner party or showcasing her original plates at SLCPop, her seasonal pop-up dining experience, it’s those convivial moments shared with guests that keeps Weinner creating. “When people at the tables are talking to each other,” she says, “they feel like they’re part of something unique.” (Darby Doyle)
Provisions chef: The care and feeding of a great master stock
It’s one of the most basic elements of any great restaurant kitchen, and one of the first things chefs learn in culinary school: a great stock. But it’s far from a “set it and forget it” enterprise. “It’s the baseline,” chef Tyler Stokes says, of making a superlative master stock. “The depth of flavor and that cooked-in umami is unattainable any other way.”
Based on a recipe he’s tinkered with since 2007 at his restaurant in Sun Valley, Stokes favors Asian stock ingredients such as soy sauce, ginger, orange peel, garlic, brown sugar and cardamom. “In China,” he notes, “there are stocks that are 400 to 500 years old,” whereas his current batch has been simmering for two years. It’s tended daily by removing any solids that may have accumulated during storage overnight, and carefully skimming off foam throughout the cooking process.
Stokes uses the aromatic, coffee-colored liquid to braise items like lamb shanks, pork ribs, and duck, which further add to the oomph of the stock with each meaty addition. “Probably half the items on our menu have this stock in them,” Stokes says of its versatility, though he notes that they’re careful not to use it in vegetarian items or for dishes served to guests with soy or wheat allergies.
Stokes will be splitting his current batch to jump-start another master stock at his latest endeavor set to open this spring, a Southeast Asian-inspired restaurant in the heart of downtown Salt Lake City. (Darby Doyle)
3364 S. 2300 East, SLC
Table X chef: Experimenting daily
Science and technique are important partners in creating great food. Even home cooks need to understand several variables in order to have success in the kitchen.
As chef Nick Fahs says, “knowing the science allows you to understand the ‘why’ in cooking.” The kitchen at Table X is a true “test kitchen” as all three chefs—Fahs, David Barboza and Mike Blocher—are constantly developing new menu concepts, focusing on technique and innovation as they test an idea, and then test it again. From braising to fermentation (they are now making kombucha in-house), they are learning about food science every day as they try to move cuisine in a forward direction.
“Probably the most important food science principle in our minds is the ‘Maillard reactions,’” Fahs said. This is a flavor-producing reaction that occurs in cooking foods such as bread crusts, chocolate, coffee beans, dark beers and roasted meats. “We are evaluating these reactions all the time, from making our breads to searing meats,” Fahs said. “All those things come into play.” (Aimee L. Cook)
1457 E. 3350 South, SLC
Executive chef at Maxwell’s and Myrtle Rose: Clams are his jam
Chef Dave Bible hails from the Pacific Northwest and gets particular satisfaction in working with raw ingredients from that region. One of his favorites is geoduck, a giant saltwater clam that is noted for its delicate, sweet and slightly crunchy texture.
Although many claim that the delicious mollusk might have aphrodisiac charms, it’s just as likely that its phallic properties of the long, protruding neck or siphon that stretches sometimes feet outside of its shell are to blame.
The sand-burrowing bivalve can be enjoyed either raw or cooked and Bible loves working with the world’s largest burrowing clam because of its versatility. “It’s super easy to prepare. You can serve it as sashimi, make a fritter from the belly or chop it up and put it in chowder.”
As the geoduck has become more of a delicacy and prices have skyrocketed, Bible, who has spent several decades preparing and serving geoduck, doesn’t get the opportunity to present them on too many Utah menus, but when he does, “It’s nice to be able to pull something from another region of the country and do justice to it,” he says. “It’s a really good clam. I like using it!” (Heather L. King)
Maxwell’s and Myrtle Rose
1456 Newpark Blvd., Park City