At a scientist’s cafe, food is the next frontier
The next culinary sensation in Boston may not be a Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef, but a Harvard scientist whose high-tech tinkering with food has produced breathable chocolates and pods of frozen yogurt wrapped in an edible skin.
Those kinds of fantastical concoctions will join more recognizable plates such as duck confit and poached tuna Nicoise salad at Café ArtScience, a new restaurant in Kendall Square that is the latest product of inventor David Edwards’s frantic imagination. His “drinks” menu includes a Manhattan cocktail infused with cigar essence and Scotch that is ingested in vapor form.
“He is an adventurer. He explores places that are not easy to go, and he is not afraid of that,” said Remy Spengler, who helps Edwards run Le Laboratoire in Paris, an art and design salon of sorts that leans heavily on scientific experimentation.
An accomplished scientist who made millions inventing an inhalable form of insulin, Edwards has created a version of the Paris Le Lab gallery in Kendall Square. The adjoining restaurant opened Friday, and though the most mainstream of his endeavors, Café ArtScience is part of Edwards’s grand experiment with food.
“We’re hoping that this is an environment where the future of food is being curated in a very long-term sense,” Edwards said. “Food is the Internet of the current moment. There’s a lot of creativity going on. It’s a forum of exchange.”
The airy industrial space exudes a luxe laboratory vibe: bright white walls with floor-to-ceiling glass windows, plush green banquettes, and a honeycomb-like enclosure for private events.
The coffee and cocktail bar has some unusual instruments tucked amid the highball glasses and espresso machine: a centrifuge as a high-tech mixer, and rotary evaporator that distills essences of cigar leaves.
Even tasting samples is out of the ordinary. For their morning brews, customers can get a whiff of their chosen coffee’s top notes using oPhone, a device Edwards created to reproduce synthetic smells. The oPhone is controlled by an iPad application and has cartridges that release a puff of scented air with the flavors found in different coffees—cocoa, for example, or honey.
A private reception for Café ArtScience Wednesday night included a who’s who of Cambridge’s intellectual elite, and Edwards held court dressed in all black — jeans, T-shirt, and blazer.
At the bar, Donald Ingber, director of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard, sampled a Todd Collins Take II, a double-gin number with a splash of lemon juice and an ice cube studded with candied violets. As the cube melts, the violets change the flavor of the drink.
Nearby, Robert Langer, one of the most celebrated scientists in Kendall Square, rifled through a freezer for another of Edwards’s creations: a WikiPearl, a pod of ice cream contained in a flavored edible skin. The blueberry was interesting, but salted caramel was more to Langer’s liking.
“It’s more of a butterscotch,” Langer said, handing around a tub of the frozen nuggets, each the size of a golf ball.
The WikiPearl is an example of where Edwards is pushing his science: a future in which food will be packaged in edible casings to reduce plastic waste. He’s also developing WikiWater, an “edible water bottle” that will be given to runners of the 2015 Cape Town Marathon in South Africa.
Friends and colleagues invariably use the word “creative” to describe Edwards, but in an off-the -charts kind of way. His course at Harvard’s engineering school has the lofty title “How to Create Things & Have Them Matter,” and he has helped students produce such inventions as the SOCCKET, a soccer ball that collects energy from every kick, and can be used to power lamps in poor villages.
“Sometimes it feels like you’re following him in the wilderness a little bit,” said Rachel Field, a former student who proposed the idea that led to the oPhone in Edwards’s class. His demand that students come up with ideas beyond the scope of reality, Field said, took getting used to.
Edwards served as a postdoctoral student under Langer, whose lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was the launchpad for a string of successful biotech companies.
In 1997, Langer and Edwards proposed a radical way of delivering drugs and vaccines as inhalable aerosols. The company Edwards founded, Advanced Inhalation Research, was bought by Alkermes plc for $114 million, less than two years after it was founded.
“His contributions as a scientist are outstanding,” said Langer, who has gone on to start several other companies with Edwards.
Edwards used the money from the sale of the company to move his family to Paris, and in 2007 set up Le Laboratoire as an incubation zone for the fusion of art and science. He continues to live part of the year in Boston, on a Nordhavn Trawler yacht at a local marina.
The Kendall Square version of Le Lab includes a museum or gallery space to showcase some of the experimental works performed in the laboratory. The first exhibition, Vocal Vibrations, also debuted this past week, showcasing works by Neri Oxman and Tod Machover of the MIT Media Lab.
Tim Rowe, founder of the Cambridge Innovation Center, said Edwards has introduced a radical departure from the typical innovative enterprise in Kendall Square, which has its basis in hard science or engineering. “Le Lab represents culture with a capital C rearing its head for the first time in a serious way here,” said Rowe.
At Café ArtScience, Edwards has assembled a team of veterans from Boston’s top restaurants, including Patrick Campbell, former chef de cuisine at No. 9 Park and executive chef at Eastern Standard, and Todd Maul, who made a name mixing cocktails at Clio using instruments more commonly associated with Kendall Square’s biotech labs.
Despite the fancy instruments and high concepts, the cuisine at Café ArtScience will be a mix of adventurous French and American fare familiar to most epicureans — beef carpaccio (for $16), cauliflower veloute ($13), and Berkshire pork belly ($24). Lunch will offer salads and sandwiches.