tragedy to triumph

Chocolate chip cookies, cheese, icy poles - how culinary accidents can become staples, writes Kate Gibbs. FRANK Epperson sat on his back porch mixing powdered soda and water with a stick. Aged 11, he was experimenting, as children do, in a bid to make a soft drink. Distracted, he wandered off, leaving the mixture in the cold all night. Returning the next morning, he found it frozen solid. He pulled at the stick in the tub and, eureka, he had accidentally invented the Popsicle. It was 1905.

History is full of fortuitous accidents: penicillin, rayon, Scotchgard, Archimedes’ weight-to-volume ratio; each was discovered via serendipitous stumbling and each turned out to benefit or comfort mankind.

Since humans discovered fire and used it to roast mammoth, accidents and educated experiments have formed the foundation of what we eat. Ice-cream cones, chocolate-chip cookies, cheese; all were stumbled upon by accident and became, with some tweaks, culinary basics.

In 1894, Dr John Harvey Kellogg and his brother accidentally left a batch of boiled wheat out at their sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan. Wanting to waste not, the pair took the stale, dried wheat to rollers, hoping for dough. They got flakes instead, which they toasted and served to the residents with milk. Swap wheat for corn and the world’s most famous breakfast cereal — Cornflakes — was born.

In the restaurant business, where chefs make a living knocking down cliches and culinary adventurers are constantly on the hunt for the latest and newest, accidents and educated experiments help advance the industry. Ben Shewry, of Attica, says most of his innovation is based on accidents. "Every day, there are probably 20 or 30 things that go wrong if you’re pushing it. You have to learn from those mistakes," he says.

In the US, chef Ross Hutchison has captured the collective culinary consciousness with the creation of a spreadable porky condiment he calls bacon marmalade. He discovered what is basically pig jam when he burnt a batch of bacon and tried to cover it up by adding sugar. It is now selling so well that Hutchison has given up his day job to produce the condiment full-time.

Even some globally respected, tried-and-tested techniques are being overhauled as chefs make mistakes. Accidents can create an opportunity to improve what was previously regarded as the only way to make something.

Sometimes an accident is just an accident. Shewry thought he could flavour white fungi with something sweet such as passionfruit. ‘‘The fungi was supposed to be the texture and the passionfruit the flavour. It was awful,’’ he says.

‘‘I’d learnt about making mistakes in the kitchen that often the ideas you think are going to be great are the worst. Others you’re not that excited about can turn into something fantastic.’’

There is not some vast culinary laboratory test taking place in Melbourne’s restaurants based on a set of untested experiments and accidental bumbling. A refined knowledge of food and of the chemistry of ingredients and cooking forms the basis of a chef’s ability to see the potential in a kitchen accident. Too much playing with something already broken and you end up with cloying additions and food that suffers.

Chef Tomislav Martinovic, of Tomislav in Sydney’s Darlinghurst, discovered what is now one of his restaurant’s most popular desserts — the caramel pudding — when a caramel creme brulee he was making went wrong.

Instead of throwing them away, he whipped them through a Thermomix at 60 degrees, played with the temperatures, added gelatin and more cream and emulsified the mixture.

‘‘I had to get over the fact it didn’t have a creme brulee texture. In hindsight, it’s more satisfying discovering it this way. But at the time, no, it was not satisfying.’’

When it comes to deciding whether an accident is just an accident and not disaster food on the brink of brilliance, Martinovic says the key is to stop playing with it.

‘‘You can’t push it,’’ he says. ‘‘It’s about time and patience. Persistence is the key but it’s not worth pushing sometimes.’’

By pushing it, however, and by throwing the mixture in the Thermomix to see what happens, cooks are modernising what we eat, as well as inventing new techniques.

And if there was nobody making those mistakes, testing whether two wrongs can make a right, there wouldn’t be raisins, which the Egyptians found on their vines in 1490BC, dried and apparently spoilt by the sun. And there certainly wouldn’t be bacon marmalade.

This article first appeared in Good Living in The Sydney Morning Herald on 6 July 2010.