By Lina Jamis
Bryan Voltaggio is not a neuroscientist. At least not by traditional standards. But his intimate understanding of the way in which our senses become intricately weaved with memories, indicates otherwise. Bryan Voltaggio, best-known for his appearance on Top Chef and his restaurants, VOLT, Lunchbox, Family Meal, and Range, transports his foodies to different times by targeting all the major senses.
“If I can take you there with a taste, touch, or sound, then I’ve done my job. And that’s why I wake up in the morning,” says Voltaggio. And indeed he does.
Voltaggio isn’t the first to have noticed this phenomenon. French novelist, Marcel Proust described in his À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, an incident when he was eating a tea-soaked madeleine, and a childhood memory of eating madeleines with his aunt arose “unflinchingly, in [its] tiny and almost impalpable drop of essence, the vast structure of recollection.” Voltaggio knows this, and he uses this technique to re-animate lost memories or incept his own experiences in the minds of his customers.
And that’s exactly what he did in front of an audience of hundreds of neuroscientists last weekend at the 44th annual Society for Neuroscience (SfN) conference in Washington, D.C.
Naturally, Voltaggio’s talk included a part that is not typical for SfN speakers: an experimental portion that involved a sampling of Voltaggio’s own creations on the SfN stage to a panel of neuroscientists.
For his first course, Voltaggio served up mock oysters made from salsify, a close relative of parsnips. His preparations gave it the same unique texture and salty taste as real shellfish. There was even an appearance by his immersion circulator, or what researchers affectionately call a water bath. His resemblance to a wet-lab scientist was uncanny. He also projected scenes from an ocean to the walls in the background. Voltaggio wasn’t just bringing recalling memories of the ocean to his panelists, he was giving them his own experiences; panelists who had never dared to try shellfish before, were suddenly less wary and more open to trying his faux-oysters and accepting his experience as their own.
Next, Voltaggio served salmon cooked sous-vide (a method in which the food is cooked in airtight plastic bags in water) served with propane-torched yogurt and the crumbs from an “everything” bagel, all of which was served inside a smoking bell jar. The goal was a simple bagels and lox, but the presentation and evoked sensations were so much more intricate and well thought. Voltaggio’s in-plate memories seemed to work: one panelist recalled eating bagels and lox with his parents on weekend mornings, joking that the only thing missing was his mother asking him why he hadn’t become a real doctor.
Voltaggio’s third course consisted of wild mushrooms served on congee en papillote — a parchment bag, where his mushrooms were not only baked, but wrapped like little presents. The earthy flavors, Voltaggio explained, were meant to evoke the forest in the fall; the woody mushrooms, the hearty congee, and the crackling bag reminiscent of crunchy leaves laid out on the forest floor.
For his last act, Voltaggio served an all white dessert: a frozen meringue dipped in liquid nitrogen. The white color betrayed all expectations or preconceptions. “Sometimes we choose to violate expectations by creating a discord in the appearance and the richness of experience to come.” What was met with wariness ended as a pleasant surprise, as the panelists were treated to an explosion of coconut, vanilla, and lavender.
By taking something familiar and presenting it in a new way, Voltaggio defies expectation and breathes life to old memories or even experiences that have never happened. At the same time, Voltaggio avoids foods that become redundant. For him, it’s about constructing dishes that provide the basis for new experiences.
Voltaggio is a master at retrieving autobiographical memories, a type of episodic memory, that is specific to the person who is remembering them. That’s why his craft is so interesting — it evokes memories that are unique to each individual. For this to function not only do we have Voltaggio to thank, but our amygdala — which processes emotional memories — and hippocampus, a seahorse shaped structure responsible for the formation of new memories.
When asked what his favorite meal is, Voltaggio says: “The next one.” An attitude that many research scientists can appreciate: that our best work always lies ahead. Voltaggio is indeed a scientist and creator at heart.
And possibly the first ever lecturer to use a blow torch at SfN.
PLOS Neuro blogger Lina Jamis received her neuroscience degree at Georgetown University and is currently studying biophysics at Penn State’s College of Medicine, with a thesis is on the role of human muscle myosin in sensory systems. Her interests include crossfitting, writing about science, and studying biomaterials and electronic devices to develop next-generation neural interfaces. @linajamis