This post was written by new World’s Fair guest blogger Rachel Carr.^
“You’ve heard of Le Laboratoire, of course?”
We would have, had we been keeping up with NPR, Science, the LA Times, or, er, The World’s Fair. Evidently, most of us gathered to hear Jonah Lehrer discuss his new book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, weren’t so fresh on our Third Culture news. Lehrer had just wrapped up his presentation – a spirited rehearsal of the book’s art-inspires-science theme – and we’d started a roundtable Q&A.
“It’s a new exhibit space in Paris,” the questioner, a U.Va. engineer-cum-artist, explained. In case you too have missed the headlines: The venue is an invention of David Edwards, a Harvard biomedical engineer, nonprofit organizer, and writer.** His book, Artscience: Creativity in the Post-Google Generation, calls for a breakdown of disciplinary barriers. Le Laboratoire aims to show the way. It opened in October 2007 to provide, says its press release, “a new creative space dedicated to experimental collaboration between artists and scientists.” The first major exhibit meshed a French artist and an MIT stem cell researcher; the product was a collection of paintings and sculptures called “Food For Thought.”
I’d never heard of this place, but my first thought following “Le Laboratoire” was also food. Mind you, it was almost 5:00 and Lehrer’s Power Point had included a 2×2 picture of a butter-sauced steak. Anyway, the name immediately recalled Laboratorio, the private dining suite attached to Roberto Donna’s DC restaurant, Galileo. In seconds, the thoughts “steak” and “Galileo” began to coalesce into one delicious idea. How about an “experimental collaboration” between a star chef and a big-time scientist?
The concept is nothing new – if David Edwards isn’t a household name, Alton Brown surely is. And “molecular gastronomy” seemed to make everyone’s list of Most Overrated Food Trends of 2007 (or 2006). Still, an edible exhibit felt like a grand possibility for Le Laboratoire.
Turns out, the gallery beat me to it. After the talk, I found my way to its website and checked out the current feature.*** This one, in place until June 3rd, offers food for, well, eating. “Dans la Sphere de Thierry Marx” puts a chef and a physicist in the kitchen and serves the result to tables of visitors (reservations required). Marx, a Michelin-starred chef, has teamed up with French physicist Jerome Bibette to produce bento boxes full of — drool reflex ready? — colloids.
Hmm. “Colloid” doesn’t have quite the gustatory promise of “pan-seared ribeye.” It suggested church potluck, circa 1960: jellied salads, mayonnaise-based dips, some kind of marshmallow fluff dessert. But again it appears I’m behind the times: Lehrer’s blog, The Frontal Cortex, chronicled hydrocolloids way back in November. Apparently, squishy suspensions are back a la mode.
Come to think of it, I had encountered a new colloid recipe not long ago. Just before Valentine’s Day, The Washington Post‘s Andreas Viestad highlighted an unusual chocolate mousse. It took just two ingredients: bittersweet chocolate and water. No cream, no eggs, certainly no marshmallow fluff. The trick was careful temperature modulation and a vigorous whisking. I was skeptical. But in the spirit of experimentation – and with zero likelihood of visiting Paris this spring – I thought I’d engage in a little Artscience.
My kitchen served as le (petit “l”) laboratoire. I made do with the materials at hand: strongly chlorinated tap water and a 6-ounce dark chocolate Easter bunny (see the little fellow, cozied up on Madeleine pan?). The starting hypothesis: failure. Stage one of the procedure went surprisingly well: the water and hacked-up rabbit bits melted together beautifully. Stage two required some recalculations. Five minutes of hand-whisking was clearly going nowhere. I upped the RPMs with an electric eggbeater, and finally I saw some loft. After another few minutes, this hyrdocolloid turned downright mousse-like.****
Result: hypothesis rejected. Too bad Edwards wasn’t there to experience the result, a gorgeous bowl of emulsified art and science. And it tasted spectacular – smooth, rich, and astonishingly airy. All this, from a half-cup of water and a single bunny. How’s that for post-Google creativity.
Have I heard of Le Laboratoire? Oh, I’ve gone one better. I’ve eaten it.
*Edwards’ novel Niche has co-authors named Cantor and Faust – surely a herald of genius.
**Reader, beware: the site has spastic tendencies, and the “English version” is still 60% French.
***Meanwhile, in a scene uncannily akin to the cover of Artscience, the beaters splattered chocolate globs everywhere.
^Rachel Carr is a 3rd year undergraduate at the University of Virginia, regular writer for the Cavalier Daily, Biology/Philosophy double major, aspiring science writer, student of the history and philosophy of science, fan of bikes, debates, China, small-scale agriculture, and plants of all kinds, and an insightful observer of the culture from which art and science are together born.