Modern Cooking & the Erice Workshops on Molecular & Physical Gastronomy
There's much interest these days in what I like to call experimental cooking--a relatively recent approach to food that invents new dishes, and explores new ways to make traditional dishes, with the help of the tools and ideas of science. Its sudden blossoming around the turn of the 21st century has been a fascinating development in the history of food and eating.
For a number of reasons, the term "molecular gastronomy" has come to be applied to various aspects of experimental cooking. Where that term came from, what it means, and how it should be used, are a source of confusion and debate.
There's no doubt that "molecular gastronomy" was first used publicly in the title of a scientific workshop held at Erice, Sicily in 1992, before experimental cooking became prominent. The Erice workshop and "molecular gastronomy" have therefore become associated with the rise of experimental cooking, and even given credit for causing that rise.
The confusion about "molecular gastronomy" begins with confusion about the pioneering Erice workshop. I was one of the three co-organizers of the workshop. To my knowledge, its origins have been accurately recounted only twice, in a little-known article by David Arnold in the trade journal Food Arts (June 2006), and in Nathan Myhrvold's recent Modernist Cuisine (2011). As a result, a key figure in the story remains largely unacknowledged, and the nature and influence of the workshop itself have been misunderstood.
I've put together this web page to provide the raw materials for an accurate history of the Erice workshop, and to help anyone who's interested in modern cooking evaluate the significance of "molecular gastronomy" in its development.
Two people were primarily responsible for the creation of the Erice workshop: Elizabeth Cawdry Thomas and Nicholas Kurti.
Sadly, neither is still alive. But in the interests of documenting the workshop's origins, both Nicholas's widow Giana, and Elizabeth herself before her untimely death in 2007, have given me permission to publish a handful of their letters here. So too has Professor Ugo Valdrè of the University of Bologna.
The Erice meetings on the science of cooking were set in motion not by scientists, but by a cooking teacher.
Elizabeth Cawdry Thomas had studied at the London Cordon Bleu and ran a cooking school in Berkeley, California. Her first husband was a physicist, and she accompanied him to scientific conferences and counted many physicists as friends.
Elizabeth Cawdry Thomas
In December 1988, Elizabeth attended a meeting in Erice, Sicily, at the Ettore Majorana Center for Scientific Culture. During dinner one evening, Professor Ugo Valdrè of the University of Bologna agreed with her that the science of cooking was an important and undervalued subject, and encouraged her to organize a workshop at the Erice center. Professor Valdrè recalled this conversation in a 1992 letter to Elizabeth, shortly before the first workshop was held, and again in a 2007 letter. On both occasions he expressed regret that her role had not been more fully acknowledged.
Elizabeth eventually approached the director of the Ettore Majorana center, physicist Antonino Zichichi, who was intrigued by the idea and asked her to find a scientist who might act as the official director of the workshop. In the summer of 1990, Elizabeth and Ugo Valdrè asked a mutual friend of theirs to consider being that director.
Nicholas Kurti in 1969
Oxford physicist Nicholas Kurti was already in his 80s at the time, but full of energy and interest in the subject: in fact he had done a television program on the science of cooking long before, in 1969. Nicholas agreed and wrote to Zichichi, making it clear in his letter that the original idea came from Elizabeth Thomas and Ugo Valdrè, and anticipating that the subject might seem "frivolous" compared to the usual Erice meetings.
Elizabeth and I had met at Nicholas and Giana Kurti's Oxford home in 1985, the year in which Nicholas had reviewed my first book in the science journal Nature.
At the 1985 Oxford Symposium: Elizabeth Cawdry Thomas, Harold McGee, Sharon Long, Astri Riddervold, Nicholas Kurti.
We both lived in the San Francisco area. When Nicholas agreed to head the workshop, Elizabeth phoned me to ask whether I would be willing to help him out as a co-organizer. I immediately agreed. Nicholas also invited a young magazine editor in Paris, Hervé This, to form what he described to Zichichi as "a triumvirate to run the Summer School."
Most of the planning for the workshop took place in 1991. Two of the many faxes that flew back and forth among us are noteworthy. In one to me, Nicholas reiterates that Elizabeth "sparked off" the whole project. And in the second, he names the workshop's subject as "Science and Gastronomy," the title that he continued to use through the end of 1991.
According to Elizabeth, Nicholas changed the title to "Molecular and Physical Gastronomy" in early 1992 to answer Zichichi's request for something that sounded less "frivolous" and more suitably academic for the printed announcement of the workshop. At the time, "molecular biology" was the hot scientific field, so named because it studies with great precision the specific molecules, DNA in particular, that are the foundation of living things.
The first Erice workshop was held in August of 1992.
Five more were held over the next dozen years. I stepped down as a formal co-organizer after the first, but attended all of them, as did Elizabeth.
Nicholas died in 1998. In 1999 Hervé This retitled the next meeting the "International Workshop on Molecular Gastronomy 'N. Kurti.'"
Each workshop lasted about four days, and included 30 to 40 participants, mainly scientists from universities and from the food industry, and professional cooks. The majority of participants were from France and England, and were scientists; about 1 out of 5 were cooks. At Nicholas's insistence, the presentations and discussions were informal. They were never published.
Erice 1995: Hervé This, Pierre-Gilles de Gennes, Nicholas Kurti, Raymond Blanc, Harold McGee
Of all the chefs who have come to be associated with "molecular gastronomy," Pierre Gagnaire and Heston Blumenthal were the only ones to attend the Erice workshop. Gagnaire was entertainingly ambivalent about the idea of technical innovations in haute cuisine. Blumenthal came to the last two, in 2001 and 2004, but had already begun to apply science to restaurant cooking. He memorably demonstrated that cooks outside the small Erice circle were using the ideas and tools of science with great imagination and creativity.
Ferran Adrià, the most influential pioneer of experimental cooking, was never invited to the Erice workshop--nor was any chef working in Spain. Adrià had begun his programmatic pursuit of innovation in 1988, and set up a laboratory-workshop dedicated to research and innovation in 1997.
The workshops in Molecular and Physical Gastronomy did not delve into cooking at the molecular level, à la molecular biology. Nor did they primarily emphasize innovation. The focus was on traditional kitchen preparations, how they work and how they might be improved by an understanding of the basic physics and chemistry involved. The idea that the workshops marked the birth of a new scientific discipline was never brought up in general discussion.
These are the facts of the Erice workshop's beginnings. Of course there's plenty more to be said by way of commentary. On this page I'll simply say:
Elizabeth Cawdry Thomas, a cook and teacher, should be remembered for initiating the feasts of conversation between scientists and cooks that took place at Erice, and for choosing Nicholas Kurti to lead them in his enthusiastic and entirely undogmatic fashion. Elizabeth and Nicholas were both deeply curious and generous people. For many of us who were fortunate enough to participate, their example is the lasting legacy of the Erice workshops.