A&E

When science meets food

Muffie Fulton's Bold Food courses are an experiment in modernist cuisine

Imagine a cross between a science lab and a kitchen, and you might come close to visualizing what Muffie Fulton, owner of Bold Food, refers to as the "gitchen" -- her garage-turned-kitchen that's fully stocked with cooking gadgets.

These aren't just any cooking gadgets, though. And the dishes Fulton teaches her students at Bold Food, a Los Altos-based cooking-class company, aren't just any dishes. They run the gamut from sous vide carrot with beet noodles to apple-ginger paper to parmesan cauliflower foam -- all creations that are part of what's referred to as molecular gastronomy or modernist cuisine.

Bold Food offers an array of classes and curated travel experiences that focus on the science and cooking of modernist cuisine for "the adventurous home cook." Fulton's workshops, which cost $165 each, seek to break down what can otherwise be an intimidating and confounding genre of cooking, making it more accessible for the home cook.

On a recent Saturday afternoon at Bold Food, an intimate group of students congregated in the "gitchen." Some expressed an interest in trying new approaches to cooking while others had previous exposure to modernist cuisine. The class started with Fulton passing out a packet with the recipes they would be cooking that day, including information about hydrocolloids (molecules that change the viscosity of a liquid), sous vide cooking (a method of cooking that involves vacuum sealing food and cooking it in a temperature-controlled water bath) and resources to get started at home. Before long, Fulton was demonstrating and students were helping to peel, chop, puree, juice and vacuum seal.

With a background in neuroscience, biochemistry and biophysics, and a lifelong interest in cooking, it's fitting that Fulton would eventually find herself at the intersection of science and food.

"I had always cooked along the way -- my family is big into food," Fulton said. "At breakfast we would talk about what we were going to have for lunch, and at lunch we would talk about what we were going to have for dinner."

While studying neuroscience, biochemistry and biophysics at Brown University, followed by neuroscience at Stanford University and a long career at Deloitte Consulting, Genentech and 23andMe, Fulton continued to foster her interest in cooking. She read about food and food history and was constantly seeking "serious cooking classes," ones where she could learn the science of how things worked.

"Most of the time, I was kind of unsatisfied with the cooking classes I would take," Fulton said. "When I discovered modernist cooking -- this was the confluence of my interests. You really have to understand how it's working in order to be successful."

Fulton said that she first started noticing modernist cuisine in restaurants abroad about eight years ago. She read the book "A Day at elBulli," by Ferron AdriĆ , a Spanish Catalan chef considered to be the father of modernist cooking and the idea of taking a structured approach to flavors and experiments. But something was missing for Fulton -- the how.

"There was this mango and black olive recipe -- translucent olive disk and mango gel -- I wanted to try and make it and see what it was like. I looked at the recipe and I thought, 'I can't do any of these,'" she recalled.

It was then that Fulton sought professional courses and workshops while also continuing to read and teach herself techniques. She was surprised at the lack of modernist-cuisine course offerings in the Bay Area, given the high value the area places on science.

She decided to transform her garage into the "gitchen," a space for her to lead her own classes. She invited colleagues and friends in from Genentech, where she was working at the time. It wasn't long before she decided to teach full-time.

Fulton sees modernist cuisine as a creative outlet, "the type of cooking you do when you have more time." It's not just about making another chicken breast, but rather using different flavors and tools to change the presentation and texture, she said.

The food she makes is experiential. Take a "deconstructed French onion soup" she made for dinner guests. Using syringes, each guest injected a gruyere and roasted onion mixture into hot beef broth laced with methylcellulose, a chemical compound. This caused a chemical reaction, making the gruyere and french onion mixture turn into a solid "noodle."

Fulton said that her classes are geared to those who are interested in learning about how things work. In designing the curriculum for her classes, she first sought to convey the basic techniques of modernist cooking. Since then, her courses have evolved into a combination of the meal and the technique. A class on burgers is an example of this approach.

"In that case, it was really, 'How do you make the best burger, fries and ice cream. It was more about the meal than the actual techniques," she said.

Even so, this particular course also included plenty of science: what goes into making cheese, the theories behind why fries get crisp and how to make ice cream with liquid nitrogen.

This spring, Fulton will be adding a vegan class to her offerings, after realizing that everything she cooks is almost all vegan and that, by using modernist techniques, one can easily replace animal products in cooking. Fulton said that sous vide cooking, for example, lends itself well to cooking vegetables. The result? "(The) texture and flavor is improved with sous vide," she said.

This year Fulton plans to add a travel component to Bold Food's course offerings. Previously, Fulton organized food-focused excursions within the United States as a service for people asking for her guidance and advice. She said she realized should could simply plan and offer the trips herself. This April, participants will travel with her to Austin, Texas. The trip will include a BBQ tour, a demonstration by an artisanal knife-maker, a food-truck tour, meals at Olamaie and Barley Swine and a day devoted to tacos.

Next on her itinerary is Lima, Peru, in late July, with visits to the top two restaurants on "Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants" list as well as a crash course in learning how to make Peruvian ceviche and a cooking demonstration with a chef. Future trips are planned this year to Singapore, Malaysia and Chicago. The cost of the trips range from $2,000 to $7,000 depending on the destination, which includes food, transportation and travel.

Where modernist cooking was once reserved for big, flashy moments in restaurants, Fulton said that, more and more, it's making its way into the home kitchen. For those interested in dabbling in modernist techniques, Fulton recommends investing in a scale for precise measurements and a sous vide, which takes cooking to "the next level."

More information about Bold Food can be found at boldfoodco.com.

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