Food Makes Science Appetizing

How Beakerhead's Engineered Eats helps everyone get a healthy dose of knowledge.

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Photo of Mark's Modern Irish Cream Cocktail at Modern Steak by David Kotsibie

Written by Laurel McLean

Art, science, engineering, and food: Beakerhead’s Engineered Eats is a program that focuses on the science and art of gastronomy.

During Beakerhead’s five-day citywide spectacle each September, participating restaurants and bars throughout Calgary feature Beakerhead-themed creations.

“The idea was that if people are going out and seeing creative art and science applications and installations throughout the city, they should also have somewhere they can get something cool and creative to eat and drink,” explains Paul Gordon, a bioinformatics specialist, food enthusiast, and one of the masterminds behind Beakerhead’s Engineered Eats.

“Cooking really is one of the first sciences,” states Gordon. “People developed recipes through trial and error and they came up with a protocol to say, ‘This is how you get this result starting with these things.’”

“Experimentation and engineering has been a key part of cooking since thousands of years ago.”

Photo of Ox and Angela's Chef Andrew holding up an egg-citing 'before and after' Arzac Eggs by Raymond Wong

Gordon and his wife, Marika Poulin, were invited to help shape the Engineering Eats two years ago. Together, they have helped expand the program, growing it from the original six restaurants that participated in Engineered Eats’ inaugural year, to 32 restaurants participating in 2016.

“It’s also evolved from [the restaurants] doing whatever they want, to them being given a theme ingredient for a little more cohesion and adding in tours and workshops related to the theme ingredient,” says Gordon. “So it’s just expanding year by year.”

In the past two years, the theme ingredients have been milk and eggs. This year, restaurants and bars will work with barley and transform the ingredient by using different processes to create unique results.

“We try to pick a theme ingredient where there’s a lot of different things you can do because we don’t want all 30 restaurants making the same dish,” says Gordon. “That was fairly easy with eggs because eggs are so versatile since they have the carbohydrate, the protein, and the fat, so depending on how you manipulate that with temperature and everything makes a huge difference in what you get as a result.”

Gordon helped further the public educational elements of Engineered Eats by attaching a science factoid to each dish that explained concepts such as why the food has a certain texture or why it doesn’t fall apart.

Photo of The Floating Alaska from Buttermilk Fine Waffles By Penny Breedon

“So it’s a lot of fun with a mix of education,” describes Gordon. “There are some cool dishes people can eat and enjoy, but they can also learn a bit of science with it.”

A new segment of Engineered Eats to be introduced this year is a workshop for the chefs participating in the program. The workshop will help the chefs expand their knowledge and explore science in a similar way to the other scientists and artists creating installations for Beakerhead.

“I think when people see science all by its naked self, they can be intimidated or tune out right away because they don’t think they’ll understand, so art is a way to bridge into that knowledge by making it more approachable,” says Gordon.

“And, everybody loves food, so it’s a really great way to approach science.”