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.
This has spent his career investigating the chemical and physical phenomena of substances more commonly known as food. He is a physical chemist and professor of molecular gastronomy. He has written or co-authored more than a dozen books (Molecular Gastronomy: Exploring the Science of Flavour; Building a Meal: From Molecular Gastronomy to Culinary Constructivism; The Science of the Oven; The Secret of the Cooking Pot). He has designed molecular gastronomy syllabi for French primary schools and lycées, he is the president of the food section of the French National Agricultural Academy which advises on how labels such as “natural” or “home made” should be defined, he has just become the Director of the new International Institute of Molecular Gastronomy created under the auspices of the National Institute for Research in Agronomy and AgroParisTech University, and he has begun an open source online journal for scientists to share their work. He writes articles, he blogs and, by his estimate, gives 200 lectures a year to chefs, students and food industry operatives.
“I don’t sleep much,” he admits. “Sleeping is very boring.” He told me he calculated that if you take the 35-hour French working week and multiply it by 47 weeks a year for 40 years it totals 66,000 hours in a lifetime. But because about two-thirds of this time is spent not really working, if you work properly for 105 hours a week, “like me with no holidays, you will be two centuries ahead of everyone else in your lifetime!”
This asked me if I would like coffee. I said yes please. Orange juice? I shook my head and said, “I always find that coffee with orange juice at breakfast is acid mixed with another acid. I don’t like it.”
“Ah the minute you say ‘I don’t like it,’ this is not science,” This said with a demonstrative flourish. But then he added, “I have never checked the pH of coffee,” and immediately went off to find some litmus paper. Coffee, it turns out, has a pH of 5, mildly acidic. This is This: boundlessly curious, enthusiastic, energetic, possibly a little nuts. During a lecture a few years ago at Imperial College London he poured water into a hole he had made in a block of jelly. The water sat tight and he asked the audience why water would not seep into a gel if a gel was mostly water. He did not know yet. “An open question,” he declared, “is the promise of an answer.”
On 16th March 1980 (“I remember this date precisely!”), when he was still an impoverished student at the Ecole Supérieure de Physique et de Chimie (a physics and chemistry engineering college just around the corner from his lab at the National Institute of Agronomic Research) This made a soufflé and it did not rise. On the third attempt he was successful. But he had been intrigued by the instruction of the recipe to mix the eggs in two by two.
“And what difference did that make?” I asked.
“Absolutely none at all!” But the cookbook’s admonition bugged him. What were the reasons behind the dictums and cooking lore passed between old wives and culinary schools and chefs and printed so authoritatively in black and white? Why were they so inconsistent and untested? This has since collected 25,000 of these “culinary precisions.” What is the efficacy of pouring oil into pasta water? Of covering a pot of stock with a wet cloth to stop the odour escaping or whipping egg whites in a copper bowl? The scientific discipline of molecular gastronomy is still relatively young. In 1969, the Oxford physicist Nicholas Kurti wrote, in a paper entitled “The Physicist in the Kitchen,” “I think it is a sad reflection on our civilisation that while we can and do measure the temperature in the atmosphere of Venus we do not know what goes on inside our soufflés.” Kurti spent his retirement exploring science in cooking. This and Kurti became friends and collaborators in the mid-1980s. This had had a laboratory at home since he was six years old. By day he worked as an editor at the journal Pour La Science; at weekends he was putting things in his centrifuge and trying out rotary evaporation. It was around this time that the American science writer Harold McGee published his seminal investigation into the chemistry behind cooking, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. For the first time chefs could read that an egg yolk coagulates at 65 degrees Celsius and that the Maillard reactions responsible for browning meat (named after the French chemist Louis-Camille Maillard) occur at 160 degrees.
It took a cookery teacher married to a physicist, Elizabeth Cawdry Thomas, to persuade Kurti and McGee to hold a conference on science and cooking. Kurti asked This to be one of the three organisers. In 1992, they held their first seminar, in Sicily, a kind of workshop for food scientists to which chefs were invited. They decided to call it “Molecular and Physical Gastronomy.” In 1994, This and Kurti co-authored an article in Scientific American, “Chemistry and Physics in the Kitchen.” This inserted a forward-looking sentence at the end, as much for the sake of a dramatic conclusion as anything: “Perhaps in the cookbooks of the future recipes will include such directions as ‘add to your bouillon two drops of a 0.001 per cent solution of benzyl mercaptan in pure alcohol.’”
And here began the confusion between science and cooking, technique and technology, chemistry and chemical “additives.” Over the course of our conversations, This repeatedly tried to disentangle molecular gastronomy from molecular cuisine. “Look at this girl,” he said pointing across the corridor to a Chinese PhD student bent diligently over a beaker and a balance. “This is molecular gastronomy.” Molecular cuisine was everything else: chefs and stoves; sauces and desserts. Cooking produces food. “Science produces knowledge.”
This has determined, for example, that a single egg white has enough proteins (if you continue to add water) to support a whipped volume of between nine and 1,000 litres. He became excited when explaining. “Now if you turn this foam into one single bubble”—he scribbled rapid calculations—“it would have a radius of 30m!” A very very large bubble indeed.
“But this is theoretical,” I said. “Because a bubble this big would burst!”
He just shrugged. “Maybe it could exist in space…”
“But this is of no use,” the cook in me protested.
“Aha!” This had caught me in his favourite trap. “No use? You must be very careful! It reminds me of what [Michael] Faraday said when he was asked to explain his invention of electrical induction to the king and the king asked him, ‘What is the use of this?’ And Faraday answered, ‘Don’t worry sir, the day will come when there will be a tax on it!’”
The notion that This tossed into the 1994 article at the last minute grew into a much larger idea. What if you could make dishes only using pure chemical compounds? What if you used only the building blocks of proteins and triglycerides and amino acids and starches and polysaccharides and odorant compounds instead of meat and vegetables? Having been present at the birth of molecular gastronomy, This now wants to supersede it with it a bold concept he calls “Note by Note Cooking.” Creating textures, arranging flavours, building a meal molecule by molecule, note by note, like a symphony.
He demonstrated this for me. He took a small bowl, poured in some water and stirred in some powdered egg white protein. Then he began to make a mayonnaise by whisking in oil to form an emulsion. He pointed to a machine on the lab bench and said, “But of course I could use this. It’s an ultrasonic probe.” An ultrasonic probe vibrates at very high frequency (so high you have to wear protective ear guards when operating it) emitting a lot of energy and dispersing the oil into the water super fast. “You just put all the ingredients in the bowl together and turn it on and you have mayonnaise in one second.” Then he took his mayonnaise and added sucrose and beta carotene powder for colour. Next he put it in the microwave until it puffed up into a cooked sort of mousse. Or rather until the proteins in the egg had coagulated, making a gel that trapped the air and the water. “You see, now it is a dessert.”
“Is this cooking?” he asked me, or perhaps himself. “What does it mean?” In 2012, This published La cuisine note à note in France; an English edition will be published in the US this autumn. He has formed a close collaboration with Pierre Gagnaire, a French chef with three Michelin stars and an early attendee of the conferences in Sicily. In 2008 Gagnaire conceived an entire experimental Note by Note dinner.
This is especially proud of a sauce he devised for Gagnaire which he named the “Wöhler” after the 19th-century German chemist Freidrich Wöhler, the first scientist to (accidentally) synthesise urea. “I took glucose, which is not as sweet as sucrose but recognisably sweet to our senses as a sugar. Then polyphenols for colour and tartaric acid, which is a very elegant and delicate acid, not as harsh as acetic acid, which is vinegar, salt, piperine [and] which is the pungency element found in pepper, gelatin and oil, and I boiled this until I had an emulsion. It is fast! It takes less than a minute to make.”
It was time for lunch. This took me to a restaurant nearby, a comfortable neighbourhood bistro called Léna et Mamile. The chef, Christèle Gendre, came across one of This’s books in the library at culinary school, almost 15 years ago. This was before the world had been wowed by Ferran Adrià’s wonders at his restaurant elBulli, such as the spherification of melon juice to look, trompe l’oeil, like salmon roe. “Hervé This explained why [we cook in certain ways],” Gendre told me. “Whenever we asked why of our professors they would answer only ‘Because this is how it is done.’”
On her menu, dishes made according to This’s principles were marked with an asterisk. We ate the 68-degree egg yolk, a rectangle of glossy, soft, unctuous, fudgy egg yolk balanced on soldiers of toast and dunked into a creamy mushroom velouté. We ate chicken in a sauce made from polyphenols of syrah grapes that was indistinguishable from any good wine sauce. We finished with sablé biscuits made with toasted (rather than baked) flour, and a chocolate Chantilly, an eggless chocolate mousse, a favourite invention of This’s, where chocolate is whisked into warm water to make an emulsion and then whisked thick over ice. Amazingly, weirdly, this works—I made it in five minutes it came out velvety, the consistency of a ganache truffle.
It was all delicious; it was hard to maintain professional scepticism. I found myself alternately squeamish at the idea that science would ruin eating with its synthetic excitements and filled with a timorous amazement at being shown a whole new world of culinary possibility. “If you have beef and carrots you can eat beef and carrots,” This said. “But if you have the 400 compounds in beef and the 400 compounds in carrots you can make 160,000 combinations. It is like the infinite possibility of making colour from the three primary colours.” Flavour is the result of many perceptions together. It is the sensation of sweet or salt or bitter picked up by the papilla sensors on the tongue; it is smell diffused by odorant molecules; it is colour and the shape of expectation according to what something looks like; it is the stimulation of the trigeminal nerve that recognises pungency and freshness. And then there are more complicated things that happen when you begin to eat. “Ten years ago,” This told me, “it was discovered that some of the longer unsaturated fatty acids are perceived separately by the human body, to the extent that they modify its behaviour. For example, a drop of lipids on the palate triggers an increase of the quantity of digestive liquids in the intestine.” Researchers in molecular gastronomy departments at several universities around the world are investigating how people become satiated or “happy” when they experience certain compounds.
“This is all new and wonderful and very exciting,” said This. “It made me conclude that there are many other sensations that we don’t even know exist yet.”
He was at pains to maintain a church-and-state demarcation between the laboratory and the kitchen, but the practical inevitably consumes the theoretical. “Jean-Marie Lehn, the Nobel Prize winner, told me once, ‘Hervé, you should not be ashamed of the application of science.’ He is right, but for a long time I had the feeling that I had to fight this confusion between science and technology and I had to separate the two.” But the cerebral and corporeal merge—the brain thinks, but it also tastes. “It took me decades to understand that chemistry is not cooking,” said This and then immediately gave an example which mixed them together. “I played with glucose and fat for my Wöhler sauce and then I added ethanol at the end because I noticed that many good chefs put raw alcohol at the end of a sauce.”
This often used the similes of art and music to describe his idea of Note by Note cooking. “It is as if I am inventing new colours and now Rembrandt has to figure out how to use them.” He dismissed critics who would say that a successful chicken dish was the one that tasted most like chicken. “After all, an artist can cook this chicken in many different ways and then it will taste of many different things! Rules in art should be excluded.”
As much as This has spent his career chiselling deductions down to the molecular bone of physical chemistry, he is still entranced by the art involved in making something delicious. He talked volumes, veering between the intricacies of the chemistry of emulsions and the delights of a meal prepared with care and served with love. One moment he was frustrated at French chefs who were slow to embrace his Note By Note ideas—“In France people have to move! It is a pity I introduced molecular gastronomy and it was done in Spain; the French chefs said, we don’t need these gesticulations”—at another he described a dish by a chef friend in Paris, “a very simple dish of endive, chestnuts, rosemary and butter and it was perfect.”
With Note by Note cuisine This is attempting to jump (and to get chefs and the rest of us to jump) from the figurative to the abstract, from Rembrandt to Kandinsky. It shouldn’t matter if a flavour is unrecognisable, This argues, you only have to like it or dislike it. This told me that most people cannot differentiate more than seven chemical compounds in a mouthful. Taste is perceived as a chord. After 30 compounds, the mouthful becomes “a white taste, almost like a white noise. In fact, if you have a wine sauce, like my Wöhler sauce, it can be more pure, it is like a single flute or an orchestra. One is pure, the other is richer and harmonic. In my point of view both are beautiful.” His new continent is vast and relatively unexplored. For some time, technicians in flavour companies that create new syntheses of fruit and citrus compounds for shampoo or soft drinks have been working on “white space” flavours, flavours that did not exist before they were manufactured. This pointed out that Coca-Cola and Schweppes tonic water were probably perfect examples of Note by Note that are happily consumed by millions every day. But the food industry is conservative and their confections tend to be marketed as facsimiles of the familiar—lemon-lime, kiwi-strawberry. This believes he must convince chefs—the ultimate arbiters of taste—before the public can widely embrace Note by Note.
He showed me a photograph of an artificial orange that Pierre Gagnaire had made from spherified orange juice encased in a jelly rind made from bitter citrus compounds of limonene and citral. In fact, since the orange jelly pearls had been made from orange juice, the dish was a hybrid of the application of molecular gastronomy and the use of pure compounds. This doesn’t believe people can tell the difference between the real and the synthetic, but it remains to be seen whether simpler flavours, fewer notes, are perceived as inferior to or only different from the complexities of the organic originals. Gagnaire is intrigued, but for him and many others, pure compounds are still one tool among many in the chef’s collection. When I talked to him he put his head in his hands and said the idea of thousands of compounds represented a whole new language that he had neither the time nor energy to learn.
In any case, I asked This, why imitate an orange? Why remake a carrot out of its component compounds, water and sucrose and glucose and fructose and amino acids, when you can just have a carrot? “I have no interest in making an artificial carrot,” This insists. “It already exists, there is no point.” But there was also little distinction, he maintained, between ideas of the natural and the unnatural. “A carrot is not natural, it is a domesticated variety of carrot, not a wild carrot.” Almost all human food has been modified or processed in some way. None of this is strictly “natural.” I continued to press him. What is the point of making a wine sauce with phenols rather than just using wine? This kindly laboured to explain to me again why, although it was plainly a self-evident and obvious axiom to him. Wine costs money to make. When you transport wine you are paying fuel and money to transport what is mostly water. When you pour wine into the saucepan you are boiling off the alcohol and the water. Why not just extract the phenols from the grape juice at the farm by membrane and sell the powder. “It’s more rational!”
This began to tip into Malthusian nightmares. “Yesterday we had polyphenol sauce on our chicken, but tomorrow there will be no chicken.” He talked about having to feed an exploding global population, he talked about the huge amount of produce that is spoiled during processing and transportation—imagine if that could be avoided. He said it would be more efficient for a farmer to extract compounds on the farm and ship them in concentrated powders and liquids. So food, as we would eat it, would be reconstituted? “Not reconstituted,” he corrected me with a messianic edge, “but built! Note by Note!” I hung my head, almost despairing at this apocalyptic future. This insisted, “People do not want it, but they will have it anyway!” The mantra of the visionary. After I met This I decided to take myself to lunch at Pierre Gagnaire’s eponymous temple to haute French cuisine near the Champs Elysées. I was disappointed that there was nothing truly Note by Note on the menu. Gagnaire said he didn’t think his clients were ready for it. I ate a dish of hake that was the most perfect piece of fish I had ever put in my mouth: soft and tender translucent flakes, crisp skin, a pool of ochre purée beneath; on top, a spoonful of something spicy and red. I ate each mouthful very carefully. I was not sure what the purée was: carrot or butternut squash or some mixture? The waiter told me it was corn. I could not identify the red sauce. Gagnaire told me afterwards it was inspired by a trip to his restaurant in Las Vegas and included peppers and tomatoes, sesame, sesame oil, chives, parsley, many other things and amaretto to finish. I realised that I had perfectly happily—in fact ecstatically, joyfully, amazed at the zing and harmony and levels of flavour—enjoyed a dish of which I had little idea what was in it. If this was not exactly Note by Note cooking, it was perhaps Note by Note eating.
There is no doubt that a technical revolution in cooking is underway. It is in the liquorice gel that surrounds the poached salmon at Heston Blumenthal’s restaurant The Fat Duck in Bray, in the widespread employment of the “sous vide” technique, cooking at a precise temperature under vacuum, in alginates and agar-agar available in supermarkets, in the use of “meat glue” enzymes and liquid nitrogen to make ice cream and a hundred other new techniques that have gone from wacky to commonplace in less than a decade. There are now more than 20 departments of molecular gastronomy in universities worldwide.
There are many culinary mysteries still to probe—no one knows, for example, at what temperature sugar “melts.” No doubt pure compounds will find their way out of the industrial food factories and into our kitchens. A couple of years ago the American chef Todd English collaborated with Givaudan, the world’s largest flavour company, to molecularly recreate five of his most famous dishes in powdered form. This was Note by Note cooking, but it was marketed as “gourmet seasonings.” But how far we are willing to head towards This’s bold new frontier of a future of cooking without meat and veg is not clear. I asked Gagnaire if his friend was totally crazy. He laughed and concurred.
“Yes, Hervé is totally crazy. But he is also a genius. He is not normal. He is on another planet.”