Jeff Potter plays with his food and wants to get you to as well. He experiments with equipment, techniques, chemistry, even the psychology and genetics of flavour. Sometimes it's delicious, and sometimes he blows up the kitchen. Sometimes both.
When Potter wanted to make really good pizza, he went down to his local pizza joint to check out how it was done. The oven they cooked pizza in was between 427C and 538C, and his oven at home only got that hot during the cleaning cycles.
Potter disconnected the latch and set it to clean. With the oven up to 427C, he slid in his home-made pie. "You can cook a pizza in about 45 seconds, and it will taste fucking delicious," says Potter. "But you may break your oven." He did that too - thermal shocking the glass window with a drop of tomato sauce left the oven door in shards. But he replaced it with the material used for rocket nose cones in the '60s, ordered from the net.
"I want people to be excited about science and cooking, anything that gets them playing around in the kitchen and having a good time." He says. His HOPE talk, named for his forthcoming book, Cooking for Geeks, focused on what he'd found surprising and interesting in the kitchen. (Disclosure: I worked on Potter's book, but have no further financial interest in sales.) He introduced the audience to Sous Vide: slow, low temperature water bath cooking. In most methods of cooking the environment is hotter than the target temperature, and timing is key to making sure that the interior of most dishes doesn't get nearly as hot at the oven, pan or grill. Because Sous Vide is exactly at the desired temperature, cook times can be much longer. But meat cooked Sous Vide and pan seared can be perfect all the way through.
Potter explained that searing the meat causes browning called the Maillard reaction, changes in the proteins and sugars at the surface that both cause browning and taste yummy. But you can vary the temperature needed for the reaction chemically. "Spray on tanning is a room temperature Maillard reaction," he said. Yes, that orange/brown is partly a cooking process.
Potter distributed kits to much of the audience, containing little paper strips coated in Phenylthiocarbamide, or PTC. Putting the strip on the tongue tests for super tasting, a genetic propensity to taste certain compounds, notably bitter ones, more strongly than the general population. The tests aroused a few moans of distasted from the audience, but he moved on explaining that super tasters tend to salt things to mask bitterness only they taste, the role of genes in whether cilantro tastes like soap, and the neurology around what makes peppers hot.
He showed a combined chicken/bacon meat, that instead of being cut from a chick-pig bred by a diabolical mad scientist, it was connected during preparation using transglutaminase, an enzymic meat glue that sets up covalent bonds between proteins. Scary stuff to work with, Potter confirms, since we're made of protein too.
"I think, what can I tell somebody that will inspire them to go into the kitchen and try things?" For the home he distributed pill bottles with two grams each of a white powder called agar that thickens liquids. He took out a plate of gelled rum made with the agar and showed he could roll and fold, and suggested "nailing jello shots to the wall".
The Hackers on Planet Earth conference is an outsized 2600 meeting that happens every two years in New York. It's come a long way in its time, ideas of hacking expanding from software to hardware, society, food and even sex. Quinn Norton is reporting live throughout the weekend.