"Caviars" -- edible beads.

MAD SCIENTIST: Among Ted Russin's work — "caviars," or edible beads, and a solution that keeps them in suspension. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

A low-slung, '50s-era office complex in the middle of a commercial park in San Diego doesn't look much like a hotbed of progressive cuisine.

But here in Food Lab 1 at a company called CP Kelco, food scientist Ted Russin is doing his part to spark the imaginations of chefs.

Russin is holding a blowtorch to a disk of what looks like lemon-yellow Jell-O, except that it's made with gellan gum instead of gelatin. He keeps blasting away at it, in the interest of demonstrating its heat-resistant properties (gellan gum is produced by bacteria discovered on a lily pad in Pennsylvania in the 1970s).

"If you've ever blowtorched gelatin, it's a horrible, horrible thing," he says. But the gel in his pan looks generally unfazed; the sugar is starting to caramelize, but the disk is otherwise holding its shape.

Rancho Bernardo Inn: In Wednesday's Food section, an article about a food scientist at CP Kelco stated that Rancho Bernardo Inn is in Escondido. The resort is in San Diego. —

"It can withstand deep-frying. You can serve warm gelées," he says. Or, as Fat Duck chef Heston Blumenthal uses it, you can make sorbet and ice cream that don't immediately melt when flambéed.

That's the magic of hydrocolloids, substances that can thicken liquids or turn them into gels. They hold a special interest for chefs who are looking for ways to present familiar flavors in new forms, the crux of cutting-edge cooking. CP Kelco makes hydrocolloids such as pectin, carrageenan, gellan gum, cellulose gum and xanthan gum. "Our expertise is texture modification, anywhere where you need to control water," Russin says. "There's a lot of water in food, a heck of a lot of water."

Familiar pantry items such as starch and gelatin are hydrocolloids, as are agar and pectin.

Keeping it together

Hydrocolloids are what prevent bottled salad dressings from separating into water and oil. And they're staples in many high-end chefs' repertoires, whether they want to tie foie gras into knots or make smoother, silkier sauces.

But encapsulating liquid in a gel exterior or making sure the gellan coating for one's fish has a desirable texture requires understanding some of the science behind these ingredients.

"It's like being a choreographer," says Russin, who has studied ballet. "You have to have a certain amount of technique before you can create a dance."

Chefs such as Thomas Keller and Corey Lee of the French Laundry and Kyle Connaughton, research chef at the Fat Duck, have tapped Russin to help hammer out ideas, perfect methods or discuss the science of cooking in general. "He has been a great resource for us in understanding these ingredients," says Lee, who has visited the lab in San Diego. "He has worked on several experiments with us so it's not just trial and error. There's an approach to ingredients where we're not just throwing darts here."

In Keller's latest book, "Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide," gellan gum is an ingredient in a recipe for a mango "yolk," a sphere that has a gel exterior surrounding mango juice. He credits CP Kelco with helping to develop the recipe, which involves dropping spoonfuls of mango juice mixed with gellan gum and sodium hexametaphosphate (used to keep the mixture from setting right away) into a bath of water containing calcium gluconate, which sets the gel.

This is the technique behind Ferran Adria's "liquid olives," though he uses different hydrocolloids.

Most of CP Kelco's business is with major food manufacturing companies that make sauces by the vat, but Russin says working directly with high-end chefs gives him a chance to bridge the gap between the culinary arts and food science -- "to straddle the divide between these two related yet somewhat distant disciplines and create new food ideas from this collaboration."

The '50s and '60s were the golden age of food science, Russin says. "Frozen dinners were a huge leap." Another big innovation in food was laminated packaging, he says. "And Cool Whip is extraordinary," from a food science perspective. Who knows whether chefs deep-frying mayonnaise and making drinks that are simultaneously hot and cold could spur the next transcendent leap?

"I'm assuming this is kind of how haute couture works," Russin says. What starts in cutting-edge restaurants may inspire what ends up in the aisles of the supermarket. "I'm somewhere in the middle. It's a very exciting place to be."