There’s a hum of anticipation that fills the auditorium. Rows of children chatter quietly among themselves, but their gazes are fixed on the white-haired man commanding the stage. It’s just after 9 a.m. at the Lycée Français de New York on the Upper East Side, and celebrated French physical chemist Hervé This is warming up for his second act.
Heralded as the father of molecular gastronomy, This has been at the forefront of inventive cuisine for the past 26 years, and now he’s focused on what could very well be the future of food: note-by-note cooking. The concept is nothing new, at least to This. Based on the idea of creating food from pure molecular compounds, note-by-note cooking was first introduced in a 1994 Scientific American article, co-authored by This and his friend and colleague Nicholas Kurti, titled “Chemistry and Physics in the Kitchen.” Over the years, This has been spreading the word of note-by-note cooking to culinary institutes across the world, and recently released his manifesto/textbook/cookbook Note-By-Note Cooking: The Future of Food. This chose the phrasing “note-by-note” to mirror the concept of creating music: As one would layer notes to create a full song, so can a chef or anyone at home, with the proper know-how, construct full dishes from pure compounds.
In the LFNY’s auditorium, This is giving a demonstration of note-by-note cooking. One gets the feeling he’d be just as enthusiastic lecturing to kids as he’d be in front of Ph.D. students at the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique in Paris where he works. He just finished making a “steak” (which, in This’s hands, is a mix of proteins, glucose, water, and oil), and now, with the help of two students, he’s moved on to dessert: a soufflé-like dish he’s calling a “Gibbs” (a gelifying emulsion named after American physical chemist Josiah Willard Gibbs). The student helpers have whisked together a frothy, white mix of oil, water, and protein in a giant glass bowl.
“But we can add something else!” This says to the crowd in French.
He moves with the feverish energy of someone whose thoughts are two steps ahead of his actions. From a box, he pulls what seems like vials of extracts but are really allyl hexanoates, food-grade flavor ingredients. “Coconut? Camembert? Popcorn?” he asks the crowd. His assistant decides on pineapple and instantly the chef in This comes out as he takes of a whiff of the chemical, “Mmm, j’adore!” A few minutes in the microwave, and out comes a fluffed-up concoction that the whole auditorium of children are clamoring to taste. Unfortunately for the adventurous eaters, This serves the dessert only to his helpers, teasing the other students. “Remember, Antoine-Augustin Parmentier? Parmentier gives to the king only and the people are going to steal the potato later!”
And therein lies This’s strategy for taking note-by-note cooking mainstream. But, much like This when he’s on a roll, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
“There is no innovation in food industry.”
This’s demonstration is over and we’ve moved to the library at the LFNY. “The drug companies spend 10% to 11% of their revenue for research. For food, 0.2%–there is no innovation!”
The kind of innovation This is seeking goes beyond the novelty of, say, Top Chef-style molecular cooking, where ravioli becomes transparent or tomato soup is served as a gel. What he’s hoping to establish is the food of tomorrow that mitigates the problems of today.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, about 1.3 billion tons of food is spoiled or wasted globally per year. Add to that, the world population is estimated to swell to 9.6 billion by 2050, and a bad problem becomes far worse.
So where does note-by-note cooking fit in? As an example, This points out that a good amount of produce farmers ship is liable to spoil during transportation. But by employing note-by-note principles, farmers could sell the extractable parts of fruits and vegetables. Not only that, but note-by-note could also cut down on shipping and energy costs in this respect because the weight of fruits and vegetables is largely water.
“If we could avoid spoilage today, we could feed 11 billion people. When you mow your grass, you have water, cellulose, pectin, sugar. If you extract, you have the sugar and acid which are nutriments, which means in some countries where they starve, they have the plants,” This says. “But now the question is to learn how to extract them and the extraction is not very difficult. The technology is there. Everything is ready, except thought.”
What This is proposing with note-by-note cooking is a radical shift from some of the trends that have saturated American food culture in the past few years–the farm-to-table movement, slow food, and so on. And as with any radical idea that defies the status quo, the knee-jerk reaction is to refuse and even condemn it.
“Nobody wants chemicals in their food,” This says. “People ask me, ‘what about toxicity?’ ‘What about tradition?’ I don’t care!”
For any naysayers, This is quick to mention that note-by-note already exists in some our most popular drinks–namely, Coca-Cola.
“Some months ago there was a Maillard Congress and the organizers wanted me to make the keynote lecture and they wanted to serve some note-by-note. I came one hour before my lecture and these people were not able to do it–it was a mess,” This recalls. “It was a pity because the organizer announced on the program there would be note-by-note so I said, ‘well, at least there should be a drink.’ I asked them to give me water, glucose, tartaric acid, citric acid, put it in a siphon and everybody has a sparkling drink in 15 minutes, for 500 people.”
Sounds just like soda, no?
This is well aware of the obstacles note-by-note cooking is up against. In his book, he outlines issues such as nutritional value, salability, and new governmental regulations, among others. This mentions note-by-note cooking isn’t necessarily the only answer to the world’s food crisis, but it’s an innovative possibility that should be considered.
“Before writing the piece, it was a provocation,” This says, thinking back to the Scientific American article that started it all. “I did not consider, for example, the implications of feeding humankind or saving energy. I knew only it was possible–and [being] possible was a big step.”
To understand how This is trying to turn a “big step” into a logical leap, a brief history lesson of French pharmacist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier is in order.
While serving in the French army during the Seven Years’ War, Parmentier noticed German peasants eating potatoes, a vegetable held in the lowest regard in France as hog feed and, interestingly enough, temporarily banned by the Academy of Medicine under the suspicion that they caused leprosy. All that aside, Parmentier saw the potential and upon returning to France, he set to work proving the potato’s worth, mainly by convincing Louis XVI to wear potato blossoms as boutonnieres. If the king approved of potatoes, they can’t be all bad, right? Right. Before long, potatoes became the “it” crop among the upper class, trickling down to the middle class as well.
“You give it to the king, and the public wants it,” This says. “This is why we should give note-by-note only to the king. We need only to work to prepare for the future. With some innovative chef, they’ll have new recipes and, when the time is ripe, they will be available for the public.” In addition to working with world-renowned chefs like Pierre Gagnaire, who actually prepared the very first note-by-note meal back in 2008, This is also setting his sights on future chefs.
“Last April, I lectured at the Copenhagen school of culinary art. I got an email the next day telling me, ‘We’re going to teach note-by-note cooking regularly to all our students using your book as a textbook as soon as it’s published.’ The next month, I was invited by the French embassy to Portugal–the same story,” This says. “In my lectures in New York, I tell the American people, ‘You are 10 years late’–they hate that! But New York is a very active city. They will learn, they will teach, and my hope is that there will be a note-by-note restaurant in New York.”