Behind the Bar
Noma's Food Scientist on the Power of Scientific Reasoning Behind the Bar
Arielle Johnson plays an important role at Noma, the Copenhagen restaurant widely considered to be one of the best in the world. This young scientist works as the research manager for MAD, the food think tank and non-profit housed in shipping containers behind Noma. As research manager, Johnson investigates and creates solutions to food and flavor problems for the lab and the restaurant. She pushes boundaries for how ingredients can be used and taste can be invented.
Much of Johnson's inspiration comes from behind the bar, and just the same — her techniques and philosophies can be applied by bartenders willing to think analytically. Her dissertation in graduate school, after all, was on a flavor chemical analysis of bitters and Old Fashioneds. At this year's Tales of the Cocktail, Johnson talked on a panel with Dave Broom and Ryan Chetiyawardana about the elusive flavor of rancio, an enigmatic element of aged spirits. Afterward, she spoke with us about how similar modes of thought can inform bartenders (even if they don't have a graduate degree in chemistry).
How do you apply science to create food and drinks solutions at MAD?
I look into the food science literature and figure out what we could steal from that to be more creative ... We started sort of adapting lab equipment to flavor-oriented flavor uses, so a lot of the stuff that I actually learned from Dave Arnold originally about centrifuges and rotovaps and stuff like that, we've been kind of adapting, less for the bar and more for cuisine ... Like making a lot of oils in the centrifuge and juices that we do there.
How did you combine a love of science with a love of food?
I think part of the reason I was originally drawn to the idea of doing scientific investigation of food is because it's so tangible and immediate — so it's like this practical thing, but you can apply theory to it, so having this kind of immediate result is pretty rewarding.
Are cocktails ever a part of your job for Noma?
We don't really serve cocktails that much at Noma, there's a very good natural wines list that we do, and we also have a really amazing juice pairing — so it's non-alcoholic. so more of the stuff that we do goes into the juice menu, whether it's extractions or oils to add juniper or dill or things like that. We were doing a rose kombucha last summer, which was nice ... We were doing an event last year about food waste, so we took a butternut squash because we had that as a dish and there was a lot that we didn't end up using — [so we] juiced it and made it into a vinegar and made a cocktail with this waste pumpkin vinegar.
How does your love and interest in cocktails influence your research?
I try whenever possible at least to meet for drinks with friends of mine like Dave Arnold and Ryan Chetiyawardana and other guys like that, just to share ideas and stay inspired ... I've learned a lot about flavor from unusual — for a scientist — places, so I have done all the courses on it and stuff. But the way bartenders think about flavors, because I think in a cocktail there is texture and temperature and stuff like that, it is so much about the balance of flavors and how they get put together and what you're choosing and how they interact that it's a really really great way ... to learn about flavor in a very singular way.
What can bartenders learn from a flavor scientist?
To experiment well and to be creative at making new things, you have to think pretty analytically, and that's useful whether it's a drink or any dish ... It's helpful even at a very basic level to think, "how do I know what I think I know?" For anybody, the knowledge that we have is learned experientially or on the job or told to us by a mentor, and we know it works and we know what it does, but I think trying to go a little bit below the surface, like, "how do I know that that works?" Thinking even a little bit about chemistry can be useful — am I extracting something this way, could there be another method? Actually, one of the things that really helped me solidify my thinking was Gary Regan's book, "The Joy of Mixology."
Okay, but what if we don't remember anything from chemistry class? (Just asking for a friend.)
You don't necessarily need any chemistry at all, but if you just think about the lime juice in my drink: what is it functioning as? And how does it relate to other drinks? And how could I maybe think of one ingredient as a category or an archetype, rather than a single product? That can let you kind of think in this sort of free floating way about the way things are related and then use your experience with other types of citrus or other booze or other ways of making something into a bitter component to refine that into a new instance of one of these archetypes ...Thinking that way is an easy way to get into if you want to fall down the rabbit hole of learning about terpenoids and organic extractions — it helps if you're starting from this mindset of thinking analytically.
What is the next frontier for flavor science in spirits and cocktails?
There's been an explosion in craft distilleries now and that's been spread over the entire U.S. So, what I think that will make it possible to have is an exploration of expressing local flavors ... Getting really into the grains of an area and ultimately the flavors and the botanicals of an area could be like very very interesting and could one make some delicious things and two help these regional movements find an identity and differentiate themselves through thinking about local botany and stuff like that. I think we're going to see more stuff like that and it's exciting.
I'm hoping we're also going to see more bespoke distilling for bars and restaurants and bringing those bartenders and chefs into the conversation of exploring different flavor profiles, and maybe we'll develop products we hadn't even thought of before by doing that.
How will problem solving be a part of the evolution of spirits and cocktails?
Once you understand the processes you're working with a little bit better and a little bit more fundamentally, it becomes easier to identify creative solutions for almost any problem ... You can start to think of it as an opportunity rather than a problem. Whether that's some kind of second use for spent malts or some amazing amaro that's made from all the waste citrus that a bar comes up with. That kind of thinking about process and science can actually help you be more creative for those things rather than less creative.
It's easy to think "Oh, well, science is going to tell me what the right answer is, or how to do something a specific way," but I think the better use of that, the much more powerful use is to have scientific knowledge inform your intuition. Bartenders, distillers, chefs — they're very creative people, they have very good intuition about how flavors work, how the processes they're using works, so I think they should definitely run with that and trust their intuition but also feed it.
Will spirits and cocktails be a bigger part of your work in the future?
I certainly hope so, I'm not sure what form those are going to take yet.