- This information graphic artwork is part of a series featured in Top Chef Masters “Blinded Me With Science” Episode. (Shots with the art: Video 1, Video 2, Video 3, Video 4, Photos 15-26). Refer to the post Quick & Easy (Food) Science Art! to read about the governing process and all the topics involved.
- I was in charge of the whole design (like being my own client), with a team of scientists for research and advice, though I also did some research and learned everything they threw at me. On this illustration, the scientist mentors were Kevin Miklaz, Julia Stewart, Carolyn Tepolt, and Carlin Hsueh (the Elasticity scientist on the show), with participation by Augustine Urbas. The schedule only allowed me a few hours to understand the concepts at molecular levels.
- This is just a selection of the studies produced, by far not all of them.
- Unless noted otherwise, all quotes are my own, from the discussion with the scientists.
I felt most comfortable with this topic because I studied it in regards to architectural structures. In architecture, you look at the elastic property of a material to understand how far it can bend/stretch (how much force it can absorb) before it breaks or deforms forever, basically before it fails and the building falls down. Materials with more elasticity are used in areas where buildings need to resist more lateral forces (forces coming from the side rather than from the top/gravitational): wind or earthquake. The way that that strength is measured/calculated/compared is through a number/mathematical description called the “modulus of elasticity (E),” which is depicted plotted along a stress (force) vs strain (length of stretching/deformation) graph.
“But, how to show it… against the stress strain curve? Or a comparison again of this vs. that… I can start some sketches. Chewing gum is a very clear example… might be nice to show things deforming past their (E) like in Dali’s melting clocks… Have you guys come across images of gluten and how it works at the molecular level…”
With the first passes at organization and figuring out what to include in the design, I suffered from being an “in”: I tried to develop a graphic showing the modulus of elasticity of various food items, something quite difficult for someone unfamiliar with the topic to understand. “Steel vs. wood is like wheat vs. corn flour or all-purpose.”
This was based on the notion that it might be interesting to show the non-obvious: that ALL materials have some elastic property, even brittle ones (just very low). (I guessed that from knowing that concrete, which is brittle, has some elasticity). One would tend to think that stretchy/elastic materials have elasticity while other materials, like wood, stone or crackers, don’t, which is false.
(These early sketches are rather ugly. But when you are just trying to get an idea for what needs to be there and where it should generally fall, there is no point in wasting time making it look good. The “diapers” in the sketch on the left represent a material forever deformed.)
Structures aside, I had never thought about it from a cooking or food perspective. Kevin:“Food-wise, elasticity translates into chewiness.” Julia: “Elasticity is the springiness a food has…” Carolyn: “Elasticity measures a substance’s ‘bounciness’…”
And I was worried that the concept was too simple.
“Trying to think how to give it an edge also, like the use of the word extensibility, because this is a topic that most already understand… so much talk about growing old and your skin loosing elasticity (and stretch marks = deformation). Elastic is common word. Would you say the tears on the bread as it expands in the oven are like stretch marks or signs of deformation past its (E).”
There was a long debate about what materials or food items to use as examples. The best example was bread dough, because of gluten, but there was fear that baking on the show was not an option due to the time it takes (mixing, kneading, rising, kneading, baking). Kevin suggested jello. “Jello could be fun. Do you think we can find molecule examples? Is the elasticity also based on a protein? That could be an interesting thing to know, if true, that protein = elasticity…”
Finally, bread dough found its way in as Carlin suggested the possibility of using pizza dough… and that is exactly what her chef partner ended up using as an example on the show.
(Above) Realizing that the graph was too abstract, I thought to show the materials, and their reaction to forces acting on them, in relation to their manipulation by human hands – something more tangible. I used my own hands and finger as models. (That long squiggly line is a quick sketch representing the slinky approach to understanding how gluten in flour “springs back,” from the book “The Curious Cook” by Harold McGee, which Carolyn, who is really into baking, brought up. The zoom-ins are diagrams showing how gluten in bread can stretch.)
Finally some studies later, the graph was given a final rest (below). A comparison to the bread dough, pastry dough, was added to show the difference between bread flour high in gluten (elastic) and pastry flour lower in gluten (not very elastic).
Between that and the final design (below), several other changes took place that brought the process to a healthy stopping point:
- The illustration took on the color green, which hadn’t been used yet and is prevalent in foods. Also, as I have a tendency to use primary colors a lot (reds, blues, yellows), I have it on my personal design agenda to try to use more secondary colors (especially greens) and tertiary colors.
- The pastry was dropped so as to clarify the examples and not get overly worked up over the percentages of gluten in flour, which could get confusing.
- I really pushed to fit in the gluten composition/breakdown of roles diagram (glutenin + gliadin = gluten), not only because I had spent time researching and trying to understand it, but also because I thought it really was crucial to how it worked. “In terms of how the molecules rip when stretched, what would you say is ripped – would it be the green threads (so show them as dashed lines) or the orange connections between the threads get detached?”
- Finally, I fixed up the terminology, getting in my initial bit about all materials having some elasticity.