Saturday, August 05, 2006

Culinary Science

New York, New York… so good they named it twice – and twice this year I’ve had the pleasure of working in this incredible city. I only visited New York for the first time back in Christmas 2004 as part of a six-week trip overseas with one of my closest friends, Melissa. It was one leg of a rather arbitrary itinerary that took us from Paris to Berlin to New York and finally Brazil, where we spent New Years in Rio de Janeiro before visiting Foz do Iguacu, Salvador da Bahia, and Manaus (the gateway to the Amazon Jungle).

I usually carry a journal on longer trips because I have a terrible memory and like to remember moments as well as favourite restaurants and places to visit. I’ve just been flicking through the pages of my 04/05 Journal for the first time since returning 18 months ago and not surprisingly (considering my obsession with food), much of my writing revolves around culinary experiences. Whether at home or travelling, food certainly comprises a disproportionate slice of my weekly budget. My return trips to New York in February and May this year were no different, although working 14-hour days did limit us somewhat. Nonetheless on the eve of our one-day off a week, I did manage to lure the crew to Balthazar – one my favourite restaurants and the same place I’d celebrated my birthday a few months earlier. Roasted Halibut was followed by drinks at a nearby Irish Pub, where we met up with some of the lovely girls we’d been working with that week. Actually, we were quite spoilt in New York. Filming for several days at Olives, a top restaurant run by renowned Chef Todd English (above), certainly had its edible perks.

The Food Profiling story commenced in Cincinnati at the beginning of our trip, continued into New York, and eventually finished at the Sydney Fish Markets where the powder was put through its paces. Like film and television drama, our stories are very rarely shot chronologically and quite often pick-ups are required (additional filming to round out the story). Such was the case for this story – both the opener and closer were filmed at the Sydney Fish Markets on returning to Australia. Most of the technology was shot at the company headquarters of Givaudan where all of the science comes together. It was here that we met the team behind Givaudan’s TasteTrek program, which aims to discover and tap into unique aromas and flavours throughout the world using proprietary headspace technology. Amazingly, the headspace process and apparatus captures the aroma molecules of a particular dish or food and uses that information to recreate the flavour for the consumer market. The first Givaudan TasteTrek occurred in Madagascar back in 2003. The aim of the mission was to discover new flavours and tastes, and species of plant life from an exotic part of the world... and what better way to seek adventure and discovery than soaring above the Madagascan canopy on a blimp (photo courtesy of Givaudan). The team was successful - discovering, among other things, a new berry with flavours similar to blackberries. Other culinary TasteTreks have seen the Givaudan team travel to authentic food stalls and restaurants in Thailand, China, South Korea, Philippines, Vietnam, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, France and the US – but its collaboration with celebrity chef Todd English was a first.

In its partnership with Todd, Givaudan created a range of five signature flavours. We followed the process for one specific dish, Lobster Puttanesca – prepared by English at his New York restaurant, Olives. The very difficult task of sampling it revealed incredible flavours; lots of chilli, garlic, onion, capers, and truss tomatoes. Simple but strong Mediterranean flavours that were then extracted as aroma molecules. The headspace capture process for the Puttanesca dish took approximately 2-3 hours and new versions of the same dish were replenished every 20 minutes or so to keep the aromas fresh. So how does the technology work? The apparatus is basically a glass dome and the area inside of the dome is referred to as the headspace. Attached to its top are three glass tubes with specialised filters. At the end of each tube is a soft, pliable tube connected to a small vacuum pump that draws air out of the headspace dome and up through the filter, capturing the aroma molecules in a glass ampule. A solvent in the ampule helps capture the aroma molecules in the form of liquid droplets and that information is analysed in the laboratory and eventually converted into a seasoning powder.

It’s quite a crazy looking apparatus and the procedure really is extraordinary. Essentially, scientists are creating a unique molecular profile of the dish so that you and I can cook authentic restaurant meals without the hassle or high cost. So does it taste as good as the real thing? I was eager to find out, but it would be another eight weeks before the fate of a Sydney lobster was sealed in my hands. It was certainly easy enough and, apart from the lobster, reasonably cheap – olive oil, linguine, canned tomatoes, and of course the essential ingredient. On first tasting, it wasn’t quite there so we added a little more powder… and then a little more… and finally, just one more teaspoon (we only had the sample, which didn’t carry instructions). Bingo. Lobster Puttanesca à la Sara Groen. While it tasted the part and didn’t look too far off the original, I have to admit I did miss the actual textures and colours of the real deal. Of course you’re not going to be too worried about that when you’ve just finished a long day at work, beaten off contenders for the grocery store queue, and succumbed to road rage on the traffic laden trip home.


  • At 1:47 pm, Anonymous Lex said…

    Hey Sara!

    Has anyone ever suggested that you go on 'Dancing With The Stars'? I think you would be great!

    Hope you had a good weekend, all the best
    a big fan x

  • At 1:16 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Hi Sara

    I used to be the biggest fan of Mcloud's Daughters, but ever since you started on Beyond, it is my new fave show.

    You are so smart. How do you know all those amazing scientific facts? You are pretty too.

    Do you have a best friend?

    Your number 1 Fan

    PS if you don't already have a best friend, I will be your friend. I know what it is like to have people be jealous of you all the time.

  • At 9:33 pm, Anonymous Vernon said…

    Hi Sara. Good to see you on Beyond Tomorrow enjoying yourself and appreciate your cheerful attitude. I'd love to have a job where they pay me to travel and check out gadgets and technology. I was at Army training when you debuted so was pleasantly suprised by your presence. Re:Culinary Science I'm not much of a cook and hoped by now we'd have the food machines they have in Star Trek but then again I thought we'd be floating around in Jetson style cars by now. Been a big fan of the show in the 80s when it was Beyond 2000 and hope the show keeps going. Since petrol prices is on everyone's minds is there anything new on your horizons regarding fuel cell or hydrogen vehicles? They're always saying this is the future but when are they actually going to start making them? I suspect it's still an oil industry conspiracy.
    Anyway I hope I haven't taken too much of your blog reply space. I hope I'm not intrusive in asking but have you any asian ethnicity?
    Travel safely,

  • At 12:18 pm, Blogger Sara said…

    Hi Vernon,

    With regard to fuel related stories, I suggest you visit the Beyond Tomorrow story archives [www.beyondtomorrow.com.au]. In episode 44, I travelled to Brazil to report on its alternative fuel industry (ethanol) and tetrafuel cars (episode 44). The hydrogen bike, which is fuelled by a 20kg hydrogen fuel cell, was covered by Matt in episode 23. And in respone to your final question, my grandfather is Dutch-Indonesian (my mum is English)!

    All the best,

  • At 2:42 pm, Anonymous Phil D said…

    Hey Sara!

    I think you are awesome. I have been following your career for quite some time now and I reckon your super dooper!

    It would be great if we caught up for lunch sometime. Do you like baguettes? I do! I know a little cafe in Surry Hills I went there once with one of my bestest friends ever...I think you might like it!

    Anyway I think you are gorgeous and a really nice person!

    Cookies and Milk! xo

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