If this is the future, it still looks very familiar; in fact, almost exactly how Hollywood would have designed the laboratory of a nutty professor. Everything seems a little shabby and dusty. The blinds droop like worn out accordions in front of the windows, while a desk groans under the weight of papers, artefacts and objects it has housed over many years. I live in my laboratory, says Hervé This, tugging open a crooked drawer. It’s like my apartment. Take a look around; I have some deodorant, pickles for a snack, shaving kit, pretty much everything. I’m virtually exiled here in Paris while my family live in Alsace. The Nobel Prize winner Jean-Marie Lehn is always saying that I should join him in Strasbourg. I’d like to, of course, but my work keeps me here. Hervé This has managed to come to terms with Paris. He spends most of his time on the move anyway, travelling all over the world from Argentina to Japan; his next stop is Singapore, and then on to Athens.
Hervé This’s laboratory is a hodgepodge of scientific devices including separating funnels, microscopes, test tubes and bags of coloured powder that could have come from an old-fashioned artists’ pigment store. Screw-cap plastic jars jostle with icing sugar, salt shakers, plastic bottles filled with cheap rapeseed oil and an old analytical balance dating back to 1880, hemmed in by clusters of curios. I can also make out a piece of rose quartz from Hervé’s home of Alsace, a slice of white bread which will keep for decades due to a process of extreme dehydration, and a fossilised potato. Next to this are eggs in a preserving jar, bobbing in an unappetising years-old vinegar solution. Finally, my eyes are drawn to the huge A4 sheets trumpeting various motivational quotes which deck the walls of Hervé This’s laboratory: Der Fortschritt des Geistes (The Improvement of the Mind), S’il-vous-plaît, n’oubliez pas que je souris. Quand je parle, il faut interpréter (Please do not forget that I smile. Speech needs an interpreter) as well as a local Alsatian saying, Mir isch, was mir macht (We are what we do).
Hervé This (62) is engaged in some pretty bold research. Back to the future? No; his sci-fi visions delve even deeper: he is rethinking the food we eat from the ground up. He takes the fossilised peeled potato from the shelf. I actually ask myself fairly simply questions. For example, why do all the professional chefs in the world tend to peel potatoes into a hexagonal shape? The inventor heads over to the table and quickly jots down a sketch. I’ve empirically proved that it’s the most economical way of peeling a potato in order to create the least waste. Generations of chefs have done this intuitively and passed on their expertise. In scientific terms, too, it makes sense.
In the 1980s, Hervé This came up with the scientific formulae for molecular gastronomy, a term which was popularised by the exceptionally talented Spanish chef Ferran Adrià around the turn of the millennium. Half the world famous chefs and foodies alike made their way to elBulli, his restaurant tucked away in provincial Catalonia near the coastal town of Roses to the north of Barcelona. This was eating, but not as we knew it: melon caviar, inhalable chocolate, hot ice, olive oil sweets and parmesan foam. At elBulli the act of eating was transformed into a genuine event, a school of perception; a kind of gastronomy functioning in accordance with the methods which define modern art, transmuting ideas into quasi-consumable form. Adrià is today regarded as one of the most influential chefs of all time.
He was the artist and I the researcher, recalls This, wearing a white lab coat. A list of the offices and scientific honours he holds would fill an A4 page. Hervé This is the full-time director of the research department for molecular gastronomy at the historic National Institute of Agricultural Research in Paris, France, today part of the grande école of AgroParisTech. His creativity in this setting has long contributed to the latest revolution of Note by Note cuisine. It is a trend which seems to have been inspired by the 1973 post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller, Soylent Green, a sort of eco-dystopia in which an overpopulated world, where order has collapsed following natural disasters and excessive waste of resources, can only feed itself on synthetically manufactured wafers. However, these are not made from plankton, as the fictitious global market leader Soylent claims, but actually from flesh harvested from human corpses. Hervé This is working towards avoiding scenarios such as this in future. His intention is for us to move to manufacturing our food in laboratories: protein powders, waters, fats, flavourings and colourings. Cheap, long-lasting, ecologically sustainable and, most importantly of all, tasty!
An old leather doctor’s bag, This’s constant companion wherever he goes, rests on a wooden stool. Inside is everything he needs to present the concept of Note by Note cuisine to an interested audience of experts. Are you ready for a Soufflé Geoffroy? he asks. It will only take five minutes! This always names his dishes after famous chemists from history. He takes a bowl, a whisk and some protein powder, adds water to the bowl and begins to beat the liquid into a foam. He trickles in a thin stream of oil the cheapest available on supermarket shelves, essentially tasteless and odourless. What colours would you like? Neon orange? An excellent choice. Citric acid is then added to the bowl, along with glucose, icing sugar, cornflour and salt. He also drips in the contents of some small vials from a cardboard box. Then he pours the foam into a glass beaker and blasts it in the microwave for seven seconds, causing the foam to solidify and rise. Voila! The Soufflé Geoffroy is ready. Have a taste, he says, dipping his finger into the soufflé. Not bad, huh? A very strange experience, slightly fruity and tart. And even then, this might only be because our sense of taste associates the colour orange with the fruit of the same name.
Do you find your soufflé just as delicious as a crème brûlée?
That question is as pointless as asking whether I’d prefer to listen to Mozart, Bach, the Beatles or the Danish jazz bassist, NHØP. I like them all. A century ago, we began to analyse sounds. Then, 50 years ago, we started to create music using synthesizers. At that time, this still required a roomful of computers. Today, a small synthesizer costs around €22. Note by Note cuisine is like electronic music. It creates synthetic food.
Have you succeeded in winning people over to the taste of your laboratory food?
To take potatoes as an example again, Antoine Parmentier first introduced the potato to France in the 18th century. In 1769, there was a huge famine caused by the Little Ice Age. There was no grain to make bread. Parmentier discovered that the potato was a wonderful substitute for bread. However, his discovery was initially greeted with vast scepticism. It was claimed at the time that potatoes were poisonous; indeed, the medical faculty in Paris even claimed that they spread leprosy. Parmentier understood that what the potato needed in order to change prevailing public opinion was good PR. So he served potatoes to the king, and as a result the vegetable became an accepted part of the dinner-table throughout France. This is exactly what I did with molecular gastronomy and Ferran Adrià, and it’s also exactly what I’m trying to achieve with Note by Note cuisine. I’m reaching out to the world’s best chefs in the hope that they can popularise Note by Note cuisine.