By Hannah Walters (Boston).Hannah discusses Molecular Gastronomy and what Herve This, a French chemist and pioneer of the discipline, have to offer the future of food. Will our kitchens become more like laboratories as we respond to growing populations and environmental disaster?
Have you ever heard of Molecular Gastronomy?
I hadn’t until I attended Herve This’ presentation at Boston University last week. This (pronounced “Tiss”) is a French chemist who has pioneered the discipline of Molecular Gastronomy and emphatically builds new foods from fundamental compounds—proteins, startches, fats etc to which someone could add flavors ranging from black pepper to pineapple. This began his work over 30 years ago, and works as a scientist at Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique in Paris.
While taking my seat in the audience, I looked around at the crowd. I was sure that many of my cohorts for the evening were scientists, food professionals or, at the very least, ardent foodies. This confirmed my suspicion as he called on self-identified chefs, chemists and food scientists for questions. As the talk progressed, I began to notice distinct lines in the sand between food disciplines. Chefs are not food scientists. Molecular gastronomy is not cooking. Language, it seemed, was important and I sensed a Pandora’s box of potentially contentious definitions and technicalities separating food professionals.
I have more of an agricultural knowledge base in food—nutrient run off, soil erosion, irrigation, ecosystem services, pollination—but not so much about cutting edge trends and debates in food science and cooking. I was curious, while unfolding and refolding the program handout I nested in my lap: What is the history of molecular gastronomy (or what is molecular gastronomy. period. for that matter)? How is this discipline different than traditional food science?
What do molecular gastronomists like This offer for the future?
Cooks, scientists, pioneers, nomads—humanity, in general, really—have been playing with food for centuries. One Scientific American article outlines major benchmarks in human’s experimentation with food, which includes bread, beer and sushi. In her book Moveable Feasts, journalist Sarah Murray describes how Mongolians mastered the biochemistry of every kind of dairy fermentation process imaginable. Today, Mongolian nomads have developed so many varieties of yogurt, cheeses and kefir that they rarely need fruits or vegetables—they already receive all the nutrients they need. Food historian Robyn Metcalfe writes about the forgotten science of home economics. One long-lost home economics book she describes is from 1919 and is titled, A Laboratory Course in Physics of the Household. Each chapter contains an experiment relating to physical topics such as Mechanics, Heat, Electricity and Magnetism, Light, and Sound.
As long as people have been curious and hungry, it would seem, is how long they have been tinkering in the kitchen and around the fire, and perhaps Molecular gastronomy, which began in the 1980s, is the edgiest form of culinary experimentation today.
Back in BU’s demonstration kitchen, This made a “steak” in five minutes. He combined a powdered protein compound (albumin, I believe) with oil along with a medley of flavors—such as pepper—from glass vials he kept in a little box on the counter. He poured his fluid mixture onto a skillet, waited a moment and gave it a flip. This enthusiastically asked a chef in the audience to sample his “steak,” which looked like a golden brown pancake. Despite the concoctions very un-steak like appearance, however, the chef confirmed that This’ concoction did indeed taste like steak. This later explained that he could have run a plastic hair comb across the top of the uncooked steak fluid to create “fibers” or texture in his food.
When This creates a molecular gastronomic meal, he take a few elements into consideration: the basic compounds (protein, carbohydrate etc), the color, the texture, the flavor and the odor. This calls his practice of molecular gastronomy “note-by-note cooking,” and he creates his foods in just that manner. This combines the basic compounds and molecules of glucose, protein, sucrose and fats to make food that transcends the conventional limits of plant and animal tissue. His box of glass vials contains all kinds of flavors and aromas that may be either found in nature or produced synthetically. Limonene, for example, is a flavorless, odorless hydrocarbon that gives the taste of citrus. While the off-the-cuff example of “steak” This showed us at BU was not particularly pretty, he also shared images of his more deliberate meals—they were bright, colorful and composed of interesting shapes and textures. Many of the meals looked like miniature glass sculptures.Here is an example of his demonstrations recorded by BBC. Here are some additional photos of molecular gastronomy meals.
Outside of these demonstrations, This is credited with uncooking an egg, discovering the science of why soufflés rise and creating up to 1,000 liters of mayonnaise with only one egg yolk. As This explained, molecular gastronomy is not “cooking” but a science—physical chemistry to be exact.Although for explanatory purposes This had called his concoction a “steak” and he tried to use the flavors often found in steak, This carefully explained that he does not make “fake” food. His meals might taste or resemble steak or carrots or flan, yet they are not imitations, but instead “something the world has never seen before.” Accordingly, This always gives his dishes a new name—usually the surname of a famous chemist.
The dishes Herve creates are colorful, sleek and even flamboyant to look at; yet, with the sentiment, tradition and social ritual that surround cooking, why would people adopt note-by-note cooking, as This hopes they will? Well, as the description of This’ new book boldly reads:
“Cooking with molecular compounds will be far more energy efficient and environmentally sustainable than traditional techniques of cooking.”
Why, This asks, are we still cooking with pots, pans and flames—which are the same tools humans have used since the Medieval era—yet we no longer write with feather pens, but type on keyboards? This also pointed out that we listen to styles of music that have evolved in sound from Bach to The Beatles to Lady Gaga.
Why, then, don’t we embrace a paradigm shift in cooking as we do in technology and art? We could create foods with ingredients that don’t perish and are easy to transport. How would food supplies for refugees in war zones change if all people needed were a few powders consisting of targeted nutrients? How much less fuel would the world consume if we didn’t have to sustain secure refrigeration across entire continents or have to move dense ingredients thousands of miles overseas? Molecular gastronomy, This and proponents argue, liberates people from the physical constraints of plant and animal tissues while increasing energy efficiency and reducing food waste.
Objections of some kind or another might come up when you try to wrap your mind around this rather shocking vision: of kitchens becoming more like labs and humans becoming less dependent—or even completely independent—of the animal and plant ingredients we have always eaten. While it’s yet to be seen if note-by-note could actually inspire a revolution in food or truly be the answer to food shortages and waste, what is certain is that This is offering scientific ideas of an almost outlandish magnitude. That outlandishness could be objectionable; but, won’t we need to get a little outlandish to feed the world as energy becomes more scarce and our population bigger?
I am very sensitive to the urgency of the problems This presents—we do have an impending energy crisis to consider and we do have too many people starving in this world. Yet, I have heard of other examples of futuristic food technology before. At the 2014 SxSW tech conference, I remember listening to a presentation about synthetic meat—meat made from extracted cow stem cells or synthetic compounds produced in the lab. Logically, technology like this could solve a lot of problems. If we didn’t have to raise, feed and kill an animal for meat, methane and carbon emissions would decline. Vegans and vegetarians who refrain from eating meat for moral reasons could have more options. I—myself a vegetarian—could have bacon again (bacon, people!). Despite all that synthetic meat could offer me personally, however, the idea of producing pork or beef in a lab…offended me. I can’t explain why, it was just an immediate, gut aversion. I left that presentation in Austin early.
I didn’t have this reaction to This’ presentation. In fact, if the compounds he uses do require less energy to manufacture and produce than the energy required to produce plant and animal tissue and assimilate food waste, I think note-by-note could be a promising solution to some problems in the food supply chain.
But, others could easily feel the same deep-down aversion to molecular gastronomy that I felt at SxSW almost a year ago. Therein, I believe, lies the primary challenge facing note-by-note as well as other unconventional solutions to looming food crises. Comparing a paradigm shift in how we eat to prior paradigm shifts in music and art trends doesn’t quite convey the level of emotion and ritual that surrounds food. It seems that most debates that land on food—whether about nutrition or sustainability—are more often than not fraught with subjective sentiments and dogmatic conviction. I find it difficult to think of another area of life that is as hotly debated and close to the heart as food is today.
It will be interesting to see if note-by-note is more or less common in 10 or 15 years. Already, elementary schools in France have started using note-by-note. I wonder also whether other unusual food ideas, like lab cultivated meat or cricket farming, might become more widely adopted food sources as we face increasing environmental challenges on our warming planet. Although humans have always experimented with food, it seems that we may face a point where technology and food will have a battle with culture, unlike any other in our past.