Chemistry in the Kitchen, Cooking in the Classroom

Duke's chef-in-residence discusses the science of cooking

Part of the Eat What You Learn Series
As part of her talk, chef-in-residence Justine de Valicourt provided samples of olive-oil gummy squares, toffees, sucre à la crème and apple slices. Photo by Ashley Yeager
As part of her talk, chef-in-residence Justine de Valicourt provided samples of olive-oil gummy squares, toffees, sucre à la crème and apple slices. Photo by Ashley Yeager

How often do you crystallize, spherify, disperse, diffuse, or temper in your kitchen? According to award-winning chef Justine de Valicourt, these seemingly complex chemical processes are actually basic aspects of food preparation.

de Valicourt, a chef-in-residence at Duke this semester, spoke April 9 on the importance of "demystifying" the close relationship between chemistry and cooking. The talk, a chemistry department seminar, included a historical overview of gastronomical science -- a chemistry-based and more quantitative approach to food preparation -- and numerous food samples.

de Valicourt's presentation was a feature of her term as chef-in-residence. She is also co-teaching a first-year chemistry seminar called "The Chemistry and Physics of Cooking" with chemistry and physics professor Patrick Charbonneau. de Valicourt said her goal was to renew students' interest in the pure sciences through a more artistic approach. To emphasize the course's creative approach to chemistry, the seminar will host a banquet featuring original student recipes in late April in place of a final written exam.

"We want them to love science, and giving them food is a very easy way to accomplish that," de Valicourt said.

While discussing the chemical processes behind foods such as toffee, chocolate lava cake and ice cream, de Valicourt distributed samples of laboratory-prepared food. From spherical drops of vanilla pudding to microwave-baked cake, de Valicourt's food samples linked scientific processes and creative artistry.

"These are fairly simple concepts that we learn but it takes a certain genius to make them something useful and beautiful," Charbonneau said. "We're also trying to justify that there are still exciting things going on in the so-called old sciences like chemistry. This shows my colleagues that we can really sell ourselves to students better."

Third-year student Bora Kang said current nutrition issues like obesity and the controversy over genetically modified organisms are making de Valicourt's points about chemistry and cooking increasingly relevant.  

"More people are getting interested in how our food is made," Kang said. "We used to be more removed from our food. We would stick something in the microwave and expect it to come out cooked. But in reality, this is one of the most basic chemical processes. And I think with so many nutrition issues in our world, more people are starting to notice the science behind it all."

The topics of the science of cooking class have ranged widely, touching on whisking, toffee, heat diffusion, chocolate's crispiness and even meat glue, a binding agent.

The class ends with a final banquet at The Cookery on April 22. The students will help de Valicourt prepare appetizers and a four-course meal inspired by their mid-term projects. They will give presentations about the science and art of the food being served and share the meal with their friends and those who supported the class.