New Course Cooks Up Stirring Debates

Harvard professors and world-class chefs come together in the classroom to explore the science behind the art of gastronomy

How much is cooking an art, and how much is it a science? While it contains an objective, scientific part that can be explained, there is also a subjective, artistic side to cooking that remains intuitive.

A new General Education course called Science of the Physical Universe 27: “Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter,” taught by professors Michael P. Brenner and David A. Weitz, will focus on the science behind cooking. It will help students discover, for example, what role butter plays in the making of cookies, or what the chemical differences are between baking soda and baking powder. When Harvard was introducing the General Education program, the administration encouraged faculty to invent new ideas that connect classrooms to the “life outside,” an approach which students tend to welcome.

Christopher J. Taylor ’12, who attended the first class, recognizes the benefit of learning something both academic and practical. “Cooking is a basic thing you have to know how to do. In this class you’ll be learning scientific properties to enhance your affinity to cook. The class looks fabulous,” he says.

When the course met for the first time last Thursday, students swarmed the Science Center, filling up every seat, all the space on the stairs and aisles, and even lining up in the back of the room. “I’ve never experienced so many people trying to get into a science class,” Brenner said during the class.

According to Brenner and students alike, the highlight of this course is that some of the world’s best-known molecular gastronomists like Ferran Adrià are coming to Harvard to lecture and even cook with students. For example, master chocolatier Enric Rovira will visit from Barcelona to demonstrate how he prepares his famous chocolates. “Making chocolates is an enormous art form,” Brenner said in class. “And yet tempering, the process of cooking chocolate, is the same physical process used to make steel,” he added.


The maximum amount of people this course can accommodate is 300, but some of the lectures the chefs give to the class will be open to the general public. The first lecture of the series is today and will feature renowned chefs Ferran Adrià and José Andrés.

Scientists are interested in exploring the chemical reactions that occur as different ingredients mix. While chefs acknowledge a scientific aspect to cooking, they also consider it mainly a creative and oftentimes spontaneous process. Steve “Nookie” A. Postal, the executive chef of the Boston Red Sox, mentions how cooking a good meal can be unpredictable: “Cooking is not only about following a recipe, or understanding how a recipe works. It all depends on the setting and if you’re having a good day.”

He adds, “I have noticed that if you’re in a good mood, and the weather is nice, everything you make will taste better to others.” Postal thus brings up a less linear, more artistic side to being a chef.

Jacky Robert, originally from Normandy, France, and chef of Le Petit Robert bistros in Boston, makes a similar point: “Chefs are chemists­—when you are experienced and have been cooking for 40 years like me, you always keep the reactions of food in mind. But cooking also has a certain mystery to it: most of us do it by feelings, and most of us cannot explain why we cook in a certain way.”

However, other chefs completely reject the scientific side of cooking. According to Antonio Castellano, co-owner of Italian restaurant Gran Gusto in Cambridge, cooking comes from the heart.

“Cooking is more than anything a passion as well as an art. You have to be inspired just like Pablo Picasso was inspired while painting. When you cook, you feel an emotion, and when others eat, they feel that emotion. Cooking is a creation that comes from love, a love of people as well as a love of food,” he says.

Just as it is possible to explain how minerals react to form paint, but harder to explain the process of painting itself, the feelings chefs put into cooking cannot be traced scientifically and yet they are essential to the way they prepare food. This course cannot and is not meant to explore cooking’s artistic aspects, but will help students gain practical knowledge by illuminating its scientific components. At the same time, the course and lecture series will open a new and interesting discussion on campus about the multi-faceted, somewhat technical and mysterious nature of cooking itself.

—Staff writer Elizabeth D. Pyjov can be reached at