“Mir isch, was mir macht”
Molecular gastronomy is old news — at least according to its originator. Physical chemist Hervé This is widely acknowledged as having invented the concept, the scientific basis of which launched the career of star chef Ferran Adrià. The next big thing is said to be Note by Note cuisine — or synthetic gastronomy. It has the potential to help solve problems which have long beset humanity, such as starvation and radical climate change.
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 scien-tific 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.
Synthetic gastronomy is a scary idea to contemplate.
It’s astonishing how we continue to snap up every new smartphone model, yet the majority of the population remain so conservative in the way that they reject new ways of cooking. People’s neophobia with regard to food is something which I will never understand. Chemistry is demonised without reason. This was the case with margarine and the earliest types of sugar produced from beets. Food and nutrition are pure chemistry. All this back to nature organic trend is nothing more than romantic claptrap. Whenever we get cancer, fall ill, wash our hair or apply cream to our wrinkles, we benefit from chemistry too — and we’re perfectly happy to do so! The court of public opinion follows no logic, so that I must first convince the king — and, in this case, the chefs. In Denmark, for example, I spent a whole day introducing the concept of Note by Note cuisine to the country’s best chefs. They eventually served dishes inspired by the Note by Note concept to the Danish royal family. If the king likes it, then the general public will follow suit. It’s as simple as that.
As an amateur chef, does this prospect start to get you salivating?
Obviously, yes — provided, of course, that it is all well-made. I’m not talking about packet mixes to which hot water is added in order to make soup. That kind of thing already exists, which I personally find quite sad. It’s not even about the Soufflé Geoffroy. That isn’t anything special really. I am a gourmet. On Saturday, I’m hosting some very important guests at my home, so I’ll be spending the entire day on my feet in the kitchen preparing food. There will be dishes that are familiar to us. Old products, in other words. But there will also be new things from the world of Note by Note cuisine. Mozart with a techno remix, if you will. It’s all about providing my guests with an unforgettable experience — and an enjoyable one at that! In the kitchen I’m more of a technician than an artist. I’m not a bad cook, but when my friend, the star chef Pierre Gagnaire, cooks for me, I am truly humbled. I leave the real art to others.
Would you describe Note by Note cuisine as “food design”?
No. It’s simply cooking.
Hervé This presents some photos and videos of Note by Note cuisine creations, made by chefs using the formulae he has devised. One shows a blue cylinder and some sort of white granulate on a spoon. The consistency of the cylinder is reminiscent of turbot, he says; the taste, however, is not. So what does it taste of then? Tricky to describe, says This. Fresh. Like a peeled cucumber. We still don’t have the words for it. And what’s in it? Mainly protein powder, cellulose, glucose, water, citric acid and flavourings. The white granulate can be likened to sorbet, although the taste is more evocative of a hot dish, not something cold. When gourmet chef Jean-Pierre Biffi from the luxury Paris-based catering firm, Potel & Chabot, created a Note by Note cuisine menu for a UNESCO dinner, he used raspberries and basil leaves as decorative touches. Hervé This rails against this practice: That really winds me up — I’m not a fan of this at all. We have to learn to re-educate our taste buds. Old references from the past won’t help; in fact, they’ll only set us on the wrong track. The concept of Note by Note cuisine, says This, allows chefs to create completely fresh sounds that have never been heard before, as if a painter suddenly found himself holding a palette full of new colours. In Note by Note cuisine, the aim is not to synthetically replicate fish or meat; nature has already managed to perfect these food sources. Creating an in-vitro steak is, to me, like trying to repaint the Mona Lisa. We have to think outside the box: this isn’t a carrot, it’s an orange cylinder. Then we’ll have got the hang of it. A new continent, a whole new dimension lies ahead of us, he claims.
Jean-Marie Lehn and Pierre-Gilles de Gennes, Nobel Prize winners in Chemistry and Physics respectively, supported the young inventor, who had begun experimenting with food as early as his primary school years. Hervé This’s parents, both doctors, were gourmets and took him along to meals at Paul Bocuse’s restaurant from a child. His life’s defining motto is not actually displayed on the walls of his laboratory, but is taken from Nicholas Kurti’s 1969 talk 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.
How did you move from chemistry into the world of gastronomy?
Now, that really is some story! Cooking and baking both have a great tradition in my family. As a student I often invited my study group to my tiny Paris room. It was a lab, a kitchen and a bedroom all in one. On 13 March 1980, I planned to make a Roquefort soufflé, and tried to simplify the recipe by adding in two egg yolks simultaneously. The soufflé was not a success. So I researched why this would be the case. In actual fact, it doesn’t really matter whether you add the egg yolks together or one after the other. The key is the temperature at which it happens. This was how I started my observations and formulae with regard to culinary precision, which later went into my book, Kitchen Mysteries: Revealing the Science of Cooking. During the day I went to work in my job as editor-in-chief of the magazine Pour la science. At night, at the weekends and during the holidays I developed 25,000 formulae which defined how cooking actually works. It was only for myself, as a bit of fun; call it the natural curiosity of a researcher if you will. As well as soufflés, mayonnaise is another interesting topic. Nevertheless, my fellow students and professors were aware of my research and asked me to hold my first talks on the subject. And so I eventually ended up creating a whole new chemical discipline as part of my doctorate.
So you researched by cooking?
I initially wanted to disprove widespread culinary myths. And I found them repeated in many books written by famous chefs, who had often spread nonsense in their writings. For example, it was claimed that placing a lid on a pan with broth inside raises the temperature to 130°C. It’s simply not true. When I made consommé in my tiny little student room, I used my lab devices, such as this separating funnel. There are some laborious ways of removing the fat from a consommé. You can skim off the fat in the pan, or pour the broth into the separating funnel and allow it to cool; the upper layer of fat solidifies, and you can let the rest of the consommé run off into a pan and close off the funnel when you hit the layer of fat. I then used a lab filter instead of whisking in egg whites to clari-fy the consommé. Modern tools for a modern kitchen — and already in the realm of molecular gastronomy. We may not travel to work in an ox cart any more, but where cooking is concerned we remain stuck in the Middle Ages. We have to learn to think in new ways. This is inevitable.
Hervé This goes through a PowerPoint presentation on his computer. There are seven billion people in the world today. By 2050 there will be 10.6 billion, and by 2075 more than 15 billion. One billion people are already starving today, and this number will only rise. In rich countries, we throw away around 30% of the food we produce. We need to rethink how we eat if we want to avoid wars, he warns. And finally: what exactly are we eating? A tomato is 95% water; yet we pollute the environment, use up petrol and cause huge traffic jams when they’re transported thousands of kilometres across the world. In Paris, 10,000 lorries drive through the streets each day to deliver vegetables — which, in essence, are just water — here, there and everywhere. So why don’t we break down vegetables into their chemical components on site at the farms, thereby extending their shelf life into decades, and then ship only the extracts — the cellulose, sugar and amino acids, but not the water — to consumers?
Will agriculture even still be needed?
In theory, the majority of the ingredients in our food could be produced purely synthetically. However, in economic terms this makes no sense. Agriculture will remain a core pillar of the economy; but farmers could process their products on site themselves — that is to say, break them down and create added value for themselves. If farmers began to implement production processes like these, then they themselves would become the beneficiaries of a new form of production cycle, instead of the retailers or downstream manufacturing industries.
In this scenario, what would our kitchens at home look like?
More like a pharmacy. We would no longer need a fridge, although we would still have use for a microwave and pots and pans. However, I don’t believe that our future will only be defined by Note by Note cuisine. There will still be fruit and vegetables, but Note by Note cuisine will be a part of a gastronomic culture. Meat-based protein will be a luxury. The more countries become prosperous, the more meat they consume. Meat is a major cause of our climate change and wasted resources today. India and China are becoming ever richer and have an ever greater appetite for meat, while in Europe, meat consumption is falling. I can envisage a situation in the not-so-distant future where Europe only produces meat for export, as a luxury product that we no longer want and which we can no longer afford. Perhaps a similar situation to that of caviar in Iran and around the Caspian Sea, where sturgeons are farmed but the caviar itself is eaten elsewhere.
Have you already found an exceptional chef to popularise the concept of Note by Note cuisine, as Ferran Adrià once did with molecular gastronomy?
Yes, Andrea Camastra in Warsaw. For nearly a year now, his restaurant, Senses, has been serving dishes exclusively in line with my Note by Note concept. He has 18 Gault-Millau points, was voted Polish chef of the year and has already gained a Michelin star. But that’s not all; I discovered Michael Pontif as well, a young French chemist who recently founded Iqemusu, a company which specialises in diluted synthetic flavourings and has now started to produce them for Note by Note dishes. The Thai founder of Le Sanctuaire in Los Angeles, a wholesaler for molecular gastronomy, is now a millionaire. Note by Note cuisine is heating up.
Have the major food corporations already made contact with you?
They are very interested in my work, but I refuse to work for a company. My chef’s jacket will remain pristine white and I would rather be seen as more of a white knight for my work. I could become a millionaire if I so wanted, as my wife teases on occasions. But my aim is to conduct independent research and communicate my ideas freely. Obviously I do also offer independent consultancy services for African delegations who are fighting droughts and starvation back home. Note by Note cuisine would be a blessing for these people. We simply have to start teaching people to cook in a completely different way than has previously been the case. To this end, I develop and present recipes such as my Soufflé Geoffroy. I want to have fun at work. If the fun were to stop, I would immediately retire.