Food Lab At Eculent
Not too far from NASA’s Johnson Space Center, chef David Skinner has a different kind of food lab at his Kemah restaurant, Eculent. A science lover who learned how to cook at an early age from his grandmother, Skinner treats guests to multi-course meals meant to engage their five senses.
From an iPad by the pass, Skinner changes the artwork displayed on the digital frames hanging on the walls, the lighting, the music, and the scents that get released into the air during the multi-course meal. And much like NASA uses technology in its labs, Skinner uses techniques such as freeze drying and distillation to come up with unique preparations and ingredients to use in his food.
Retired astronaut Clay Anderson was among Eculent’s early guests. After visiting a few other times, he thought NASA food scientists and Skinner might be able to learn something from each other so he arranged for them to meet in 2016. While these encounters weren’t in any official capacity, they got Skinner thinking about ways in which flavor could be intensified in space.
Scent came immediately to mind. At Eculent, Skinner works with a fragrance designer and creates his own scents to enhance a dish. “You can entirely change your perception of a dish just by the smell,” he said. “To me it’s like the final spice of a dish.”
There is no scientific evidence that microgravity changes your sense of taste but some astronauts have anecdotally reported that their taste dulls in space, particularly in the early weeks of the mission when fluid shifts in the body cause congestion.
Skinner envisioned scent capsules, which weigh very little, that astronauts could pop open before a meal as a way to enhance a meal’s flavor. Or wasabi tablets that could help with plugged sinuses. Highly concentrated extracts of herbs or fruits, which Skinner creates using a rotovap— a rotary evaporator that distills volatile components without applying heat—could also be added to foods for extra flavor or to prepare concentrated condiments.
“They send up ketchup packets, why not come up with their own line of condiments? You could make the most intensely flavored ketchup or cocktail sauce you can,” said Skinner.
However, when it comes to feeding astronauts in space, budget and practicality limit what can be done, but Anderson for one hopes collaborations and idea exchanges with chefs like Skinner can one day be a possibility.
Eculent (eculent.com) is located at 709 Harris Ave., Kemah.