Nia Cason: Hello Hervé, could you introduce yourself in a few words?
Hervé This: I’m a physical chemist paid by the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (INRA), which is the French institution for agronomical research, and my lab is at AgroParisTech. My lab is also the core of the International Centre for Molecular Gastronomy, which is a network of labs in the world studying molecular gastronomy.
NC: What was your inspiration for creating the field of molecular gastronomy?
HT: I created molecular gastronomy with friend Nicholas Kurti. To me, the inspiration came exactly between the 16th and 24th of March 1980. On the 16th, I was cooking a cheese soufflé, following a recipe from Elle magazine. They had written ‘add the egg yolks two by two’, but I thought it was nonsense and put all the eggs in together. The soufflé was a failure. The next Sunday, I had friends for dinner, so I decided to make the soufflé again, but this time I put the yolks in one by one, and it worked. So on the 24th I decided not to go to work. I opened a notebook, and decided to begin the collection of old wives’ tales and techniques – I call that “culinary precisions”. Every day, I put a new culinary precision on the INRA blog. My idea is that there are two kinds: good precisions that give you wings, and bad precisions like an iron ball that holds you back. We should get rid of those to improve culinary art.
NC: What is molecular gastronomy and note-by-note cooking?
HT: Molecular gastronomy is the science that looks for the mechanisms of phenomena that occur during cooking. When you use alginate or siphons or liquid nitrogen, what you’re doing is not molecular gastronomy but rather molecular ‘cooking’; no chefs are doing molecular gastronomy. Note-by-note cooking is cooking, so not science, and the idea is to make dishes using pure chemicals instead of using vegetables, fruits, meats or fishes.
NC: How is molecular gastronomy relevant to today’s society?
HT: I’m currently producing a handbook of molecular gastronomy with three parts: science, application to teaching, and application to culinary art. For teaching, if you invite children to experiment with food, then you can reach a new level of understanding. This is the basis for Les Ateliers expérimentaux du goût that I created for all French primary schools in 2001. Then there’s education for professionals – for the last 18 years, every month I have a seminar and we test a culinary idea, like the question of the soufflé. Many of the ideas are wrong, which means that a lot of what’s taught in the kitchen is wrong. For example, chefs put a cork in the water as they cook octopus and say it makes it more tender, but this isn’t true – we tested this. And again this is online.
NC: How do you see the future of cooking and gastronomy research?
HT: For cooking, I am sure that the future is note-by-note cooking because in 2050 there will be 10 billion people on earth and we cannot produce enough food. The only possibility is to produce without waste, and to do this we will have to extract the water at the farm and transport dried products, and this means note-by-note cooking. Now, for molecular gastronomy there are more and more labs around the world, either for education, science, or application.
NC: How about lab-grown meat – is this a reality for the future?
HT: Growing cells is very important for surgery and so on, but I’m not sure about cooking because it is so simple to make artificial meat from plants proteins. On the other hand, there is a growing tension in the international market on proteins, which is why 2016 was the international year of pulses. Because pulses produce proteins, the aim is to cultivate them in order to extract the proteins and then you have the plant residues – you give that to insects and they transform the plant residues to proteins, and you then extract the proteins from insects. The aim is to make food from that, and this is where note-by-note cooking comes in.
NC: Does the kitchen compare to a scientific laboratory?
HT: The kitchen has nothing to do with the scientific laboratory. Cooking will never be scientific. Cooking means producing food. Science means producing knowledge. In my lab, we have NMR spectroscopy, UV spectroscopy, GC-MS – all completely useless for cooking!
NC: What does note-by-note cooking taste like?
HT: Note-by-note cooking is wonderful because you can make new flavours that you’ve never had before! You can make any colour, shape, consistency, odour, and flavour. I remember for example in Alsace, by Julien Binz, eating a small, green macaron. The recipe was very simple but I can still recall the flavour today. It was wonderful. Also, the New York Times came to interview me and we had lunch with Pierre Gagnaire. It was based on pure compounds and was perhaps one of the best by Pierre – I eat there regularly but this one was very interesting.
NC: I guess that creates a whole new vocabulary for cooking?
HT: This question is very important, very difficult, and very interesting. What do you call these new flavours? For Julien Binz’s macaron, there was no relationship to anything that I’d had before. Odour is an important part of flavour. For example, if you smell benzaldehyde, some people will say it’s like almond, some say it’s like pistachio, and for others it’s like cherry – but it’s not any of these, it’s just benzaldehyde. A new start-up from a 25-year-old guy called this smell ‘amarise’, like almond [‘amande’] plus cherry [‘cerise’].
NC: And what about nutrients? Can note-by-note cooking also provide these?
HT: Traditional food ingredients are made of water, proteins, fats, and sugars, plus small quantities of other compounds. In note-by-note cooking as well you use water, protein, fats, sugars, vitamins, organic acids, etc., and it’s very simple to change the composition. If you want more fat, you add more fat. More protein, and you add more protein.
NC: How is note-by-note cooking received by chefs?
HT: There’s now a full time note-by note restaurant in Poland from Andrea Camastra. I gave 14 lectures in Singapore last July, and there was then a dinner with four ministers and the directors of food and health agencies. Immediately afterward, they decided it was important to create a scientific and technology program on “sustainable food without waste”. Last month I was invited to Kiev in Ukraine – after the lecture I spent 1 hour and 45 minutes for selfies by young chefs: I don't care for myself, but this shows how happy they were. “Molecular chefs are old now – when you’re 25 or 30 you don’t want the clothes of your grandfather, you want new clothes. And note-by-note cooking is the only new proposal. So they will take it.
NC: And how is note-by-note cooking received by the general public?
HT: I’m spending a lot of time on the popularisation of science because I think there’s a big gap between science and the public. Food has never been so good as today, but the public is upset with food because they don’t know any chemistry. If you teach them that when they cook they do chemical processes, they cannot accuse these of being ‘bad’. We have only 31 years to design some good food that will be good for your body. I have to organise my work and efficiency in view of that because it’s important for my children – not for me, I’ll probably be dead in 2050!
NC: How does note-by-note cooking fit into the enjoyment of food?
HT: Our brain is designed to recognise contrasts. This is very clear in vision and odour, for example, and for flavour, it is the same. You can first taste acidity, but after some time you perceive the acidity less, you have saltiness, sweetness, and so on. There are many physiological constraints, and then, within this framework, there’s art – this part is very exciting. I published a book saying that cooking is love, art, and technique’. The technical aspect is very simple. The art aspect is more interesting, because art escapes all rules – this is almost the definition of art. And then there’s the question of love. If I make a beautiful culinary artwork and I throw it in your face and say ‘eat!’, it’s not good. Now, if I say are you well seated, are you comfortable, I made this for you – then it’s good. And we shouldn’t confuse the three things. This question also reminds me of an interview on a France 2 TV show, and she asked me ‘don't you fear that science will kill the poetry of food?’, and my answer is always the same. Imagine that you are in the moonshine with your lover – if you know why the moon is shining, it does not prevent you from being in love.