Building food, molecule by moleculeby Wendell Steavenson / August 20, 2014 / Leave a comment
Published in September issue of Prospect Magazine
I arrived at the National Institute for Research in Agronomy in Paris at nine o’clock in the morning. Founded in the 19th century to study the chemistry of fertilisers for agriculture, it occupies a handsome yellow brick edifice in the quiet environs of the fifth arrondissement, not far from the Botanical Gardens of the Jardin des Plantes with its venerable museums of natural history, paleontology, entomology, minerals and evolution. I was there to meet Hervé This, the scientist who has been at the forefront of the new scientific discipline of molecular gastronomy that has changed the way chefs cook—turning mousses into gels and foams, determining the precise temperatures that denature meat proteins, understanding the complexities of the perception of taste itself. Now he is pushing the very idea of what food is to a new frontier. Having deconstructed cooking into chemical and physical principles, he wants to reconstruct flavour itself. He had finished his morning meeting with his PhD students and was attending to emails.
“Come in, come in, I’m so sorry about the odour!” He pointed to two beakers of yellowish oily looking substances. “We were playing! They are emulsions.” His laboratory was messy and full of curious juxtapositions, a jar of preserved lemons next to a flask of cobalt flakes, a microwave oven next to a fractional distillation flask. Homilies had been tacked up on the walls—“Please don’t forget that I am smiling!” “When I speak you have to interpret!” —and so on. “Even my sons complain they don’t know when I am being serious,” This told me. An article from a scientific periodical on the texture of eggs had the word “Nul!” scrawled across the bottom. On the far counter there were bottles of vinegar and plastic tubs of flavour compounds: a litre of limonene, enough to flavour 10 tonnes of lemonade, something called turpenol which smelled of turpentine and pee. He opened a tub of methional so that I could take a sniff and for the whole rest of the day a miasma of cooked potato (not unpleasant) hung in the room. He was wearing a white collarless shirt and black trousers. His face was wobbly and mobile, directed by a long thin nose; his hair was a white disordered halo. He had the look of a harried café waiter and the manner of the mad scientist.