Staff Writer Phoebe Lu drooled over gorgeous food in an event featuring Dr. Hervé This.
“If you are a chemist, you don’t see a carrot,” announced Dr. Hervé This, “you see water first, amino acids, sugars, and so on…” To Dr. This, every bite of food is an intricate science.
This past Friday, Dr. This served as the final guest for Columbia Science Review’s Science Week celebration in an event titled “Sugar, Spice, and Everything Nice: the Intricacies of Culinary Science.” He is a renowned French physical chemist who is credited to have invented molecular gastronomy, the practice of studying the physics and chemistry of food, along with Nicholas Kurti. Dr. This also created the Chocolate Chantilly—a simple no-egg dessert that only requires chocolate and water in its recipe. Currently, he conducts research on molecular gastronomy at AgroParisTech in Paris, France.
“Trout stuffed with bananas,” Dr. This said in disbelief at a slide in his presentation. On the screen, he showed a grotesque image of silvery fish bloated with strange yellow stuffing. Though his presentation focused on food made with great care and technique, Dr. This started off by introducing his audience to some food history, where dishes weren’t quite as thought out. This dish of trout stuffed with bananas was actually a Michelin three-star dish in 1953. “Can you imagine? Today, nobody would get one star. Because they’re ugly,” he expressed.
To Dr. This, molecular gastronomy is a “real art,” where food is “beautiful to eat.” Attendees later learned what he meant by “art” when he showed us an image of a dish, shaped in the form of a lipstick and eyeshadow palette, and another dish with translucent green vegetables decorating a meatball called a “Lioness Head.”
The key to evolving from stuffed trout to the “Lioness Head” is scientific discovery. The goal of scientific discovery, according to Dr. This, is to “look for the mechanism of phenomena.” He illustrates two “legs” critical in scientific discovery: experiment and calculation. “If you miss one of these two legs, you don’t stand up in science,” he explained.
Dr. This detailed his own process of scientific discovery as he shared his endeavors to study how marinade enters meat. To resolve this phenomenon, Dr. This boiled meat for two hours in a fluorescence solution. What came out was a lump of brown, dyed neon green at the edges. Studying the composition of this lump, Dr. This realized that there was no fluorescence inside the meat after the process. “Apparently nothing is in, which is very interesting,” he pondered.
Throughout his presentation, Dr. This also stressed that culinary science is separate from cooking. His experiments of neon green meat fall in the field of science, whereas modern applications of molecular gastronomy, such as dishes like “Lioness Head” are the technical applications of that science. One of these applications is called Note-by-note cooking, pioneered by Dr. This. In Note-by-note cooking, instead of relying on animals or plants, chefs use pure chemical compounds to make food. He spoke excitedly of the venture: “Innovation is very simple… You take compounds of food and you use them to make what you want…shape, color, consistency, taste, odor…You can design food entirely.”
Dr. This believes that the note-by-note technique can address future issues of food shortage. “The question is spoilage,” Dr. This explained, “if we can fight spoilage, there’s a possibility for humankind.” He gives the example of a tomato, which happens to be 95% water. The moisture from water makes tomatoes spoil easily. Offering a potential solution, Dr. This introduced the idea of fractionation, where food is broken down into its chemical constituents, thus removing water and significantly lowering risk of spoilage.
Later in the Q&A, a member of the audience asked how accessible does Dr. This believe these practices of note-by-note cooking are, and if he anticipates these techniques to be widespread. Responding to this question, Dr. This recalled a dinner he had in Alsace, France, where the chef had served 60 people an incredible menu of note-by-note cooking. In particular, Dr. This reminisced about a small green macaron the chef had made. “I still have the taste in my mouth,” Dr. This recalled. After the dinner, the chef told Dr. This that he had mastered note-by-note cooking in just two months and he had completed the menu through only two phone calls with Dr. This.
Thus, the issue is not one of accessibility (though he did mention that the chef was a Michelin chef, and perhaps takes much longer to learn for someone less experienced). Rather, he believes it’s an issue of public acceptance, as the concept defies traditional concepts of cooking. Still, he remains optimistic about the popularization of such techniques. He cited the example of synthetic music. 50 years ago, it had been a foreign concept. Now, synthetic music is everywhere on the radio. Dr. This believes that synthetic approaches to food will also grow to be widespread. However, he’s not quite concerned over the question of popularity. “I don’t have anything to sell, so I don’t care!”
Dr. This ended his presentation by inviting his audience to participate in an upcoming international molecular gastronomy contest, where the topic is “suspension.” If you want to participate and want more information, you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. But even if your cooking skills are more confined in the ramen-noodles sphere, you can still heed Dr. This’s wisdom on cooking. “ If you cook for someone, it means I love you,” he said, “It’s not only a question of technique.”
molecular gastronomy via Piqsels