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HARVARD’S SCIENCE & COOKING LECTURE RECAP: Wiley Dufresne

Oct 24: Proteins & Enzymes: Transglutaminase

wd~50  was started in the Lower East Side of Manhattan by Chef Wylie Dufresne in 2003. Three years later, it landed a coveted Michelin star and has maintained it since then. The name developed from the chef’s initials, the address, and a play on WD-40. Wylie Dufresne, who worked under highly acclaimed chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, has played a large part in advancing the idea of molecular gastronomy in American cuisine. His method and work with transglutaminase made him a prime candidate to give a talk at the Harvard University Science & Cooking Public Lectures. His lecture was given on October 24th, and was about the use of specific enzymes in cooking. 

The Harvard University Science & Cooking Lecture series is in its second year, bringing together the field of science with the joy of cooking and experimenting. It has featured speakers such as David Chang (Momofuku, Momofuku Ko, Má Pêche), Dan Barber (Blue Hill), and Ferran Adriá (El Bulli) in 2010-2011. They were invited to speak again this year, among many others. The lectures begin with a 15-20 introductory science lecture on the topic of the day, followed by a presentation by the chef on his or her expertise. For more information, visit Harvard’s site: http://www.deas.harvard.edu/cooking

The lecture commenced with an Organic Chemistry professor from the Harvard Chemistry Department give a talk on proteins and their role in structure and signaling. His lecture was the basics on proteins and how they build up and denature in the body and in food. This segued into Wylie Dufresne’s talk about the enzyme transglutaminase. Enzymes are made up of proteins and function to catalyze (speed up) reactions. Wylie Dufresne harnessed this idea and used it to develop many of his signature dishes.

Chef Dufresne began with a brief introduction and a description of his restaurant, wd~50. He started the restaurant as a place to continue his education after graduating from the French Culinary Institute and after training under notable chefs. He had the classic techniques down, and was looking to expand his knowledge of cooking. This is what led him to meat glue. Transglutaminase, or meat glue, is an enzyme that can break and reform bonds between the proteins lysine and glutamine. These proteins are present in most meat, fish, poultry, etc.; hence the name—meat glue. Time to experiment!

Wylie took the idea of being able to break and reform bonds between meats and tested it out, over and over with a variety of cuts and types. The dish he first introduced to the audience through video was a flap steak, which is a cut from the diaphragm that varies in thickness and therefore is hard to cook evenly. He showed how the enzyme was prepared by blending it in water and then pulling the air out using a vacuum. This formed an enzyme paste that could be painted onto any meat! For the flap steak, the enzyme was brushed on and then the strips of meat were wrapped up and left overnight for the enzymes to do their work. When unwrapped, the meat had a barely visible seam and each piece was uniform, allowing for even cooking. This success took Wylie even further into experimenting. He’s tried different skins on different cuts of meat, like chicken skin on salmon, fish skin on poultry and many other combinations.

He’s tried to apply this to vegetables too, but was unable to without the use of gelatin, rendering the dish non-vegetarian. Fruits and vegetables could be impregnated with gelatin before applying the enzyme. His example was a sheet of thinly slice radish that was soaked in gelatin before being laid out on a sheet and then dusting the enzyme on the sheet. The result of this was a large sheet of radish that could be cut and curled up, creating a whole new realm of structure for vegetables. There were many more examples such as a sheet of peanut butter used to make peanut butter noodles, barley in cake form lightly toasted with a torch, tofu, and sheets of meat stacked upon each other. By the end, he had gotten most of the audience incredibly excited about meat glue and its uses to create new things that would not have been accomplished without combining science and food.

Science is about experimenting and testing hypothesis. Chef Dufresne applied the experimenting aspect to cooking and took it to a whole new level: he’s created many delicious dishes but has faced many failures in his path. The purpose of wd~50 has stayed true, as it seems that Chef Dufresne and any other chef that passes through that restaurant has learned many new techniques by applying a concept and testing it out.

– Article & Photos by Christina Pan

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