An interview with Peter Barham

“There are certain tricks…although that’s a bad word, because really it’s about understanding.”

Last friday I strolled the 500 meters or so across the University precinct to the Physics department. I was on my way to see Peter Barham. I’ve written about Peter before. He is basically the guy who taught Heston Blumenthal the first things he learnt about taking a scientific approach to cooking. He’s also worked with the guys at El Bulli (who unfortunately announced that they’re closing just a few weeks back) and even – the restaurant everyone’s talking about now – Copenhagen’s Noma. He’s also author of what might be considered the first real text book on the science of cooking and is also in the record book for being the world’s fastest ice cream maker.

Since my fledgling science section in the student paper is struggling a bit, I begged Pete to give us an interview and he kindly agreed.

Cooking might seem a strange research activity for a physicist, but then again Peter also counts penguin conservation alongside polymer physics amongst his scientific endeavours, so perhaps one should not be surprised.

I began by asking Peter what his favourite scientific food is. “Pea dust” he explained, obviously savouring the memory of it. “It’s something I helped devise during a visit to Copenhagan (at the University of which he holds a guest professorship in molecular gastronomy). “The peas are freeze-dried to remove all of the water and then shaved extremely finely using a precision instrument” he tells me. The result is pea material which has been super concentrated and is so fine that it spontaneously wafts into the nose as you lift a spoon of it to your mouth – the combination of intense smell and taste gives a very powerful pea hit, allegedly unequalled by the boiled or steamed variety we usually eat.

Peter Barham. Like all the best scientists Pete has an inspirational beard. Novelty waistcoats are less well established, but equally amazing in my opinion.

That’s all lovely and everything, but not really the sort of thing one can do in their own home. I wanted to know whether the average cook could use peter’s molecular gastronomy principles in their own kitchen?

“I have 3 vacuum pumps at home, but not everyone has access to that sort of equipment” Pete admitted. “There are certain tricks though; although that’s a bad word because it’s really about understanding.”

What we need to do, explained Peter, is to understand the things which alter our perception of food. Most people don’t associate the colour blue with nice-tasting savoury food, so identical dishes on blue and white plates will often seem quite different. Something as simple as “putting food on a clean, white plate can make a world of difference to how people perceive your cooking.”

It is the understanding of the psychological appreciation of food that molecular gastronomy is all about, and that is something which we can probably all put in to practice in our homes. For example, Peter tells me studies have shown complexity is usually appreciated by diners, so most people will subconsciously enjoy being served a mixed juice with their meal more than just plain orange juice.

But we can’t use this new science as a bit of fun; despite the fact that when used properly the results are intended in such a way. Like all science, this is about thinking carefully about what actually happens when people eat and experience food and how we can modify and improve these experiences through cooking.

“Heston came to me because he wanted to understand some of the processes that go on in cooking; he wasn’t ready to accept rules about cooking just because they were in books” professor Barham relates. And what an admirable sentiment that is. It would probably be good for all of us if we questioned our attitudes and investigated more throughout our lives. Whether that is our political stance, our energy bills or where we do our shopping. But if there is one everyday place where we can do this then the kitchen is surely it – especially when the results are so endlessly fun and entertaining.

And because I believe the best thing about blogs is links(in a similar way to Martin Robbins), here’s a couple more of them:

Here’s a video of Heston Blumenthal and Peter discussing tastes. There are some more like it here including one where Peter breaks the world record for ice-cream making with liquid nitrogen.

This entry was posted in Interviews, Popular science, Science. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to An interview with Peter Barham

  1. Mother in law says:

    Liked this article – great to see a penguin waistcoat – speaking as a fan of penguins. Interesting to think parmesan is not just an indulgence. Hard to imagine a ‘pea hit’, but an interesting idea…..

  2. Pingback: Open Laboratory 2010 – submissions now closed – see all the entries | A Blog Around The Clock

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