I remember the first time I saw the Alinea restaurant website, I was astonished. It was my first glimpse of food that had been prepared and presented in a range of ways which I had never seen before and could barely comprehend. It was all so simple and understated yet even as a novice cook at the time I could tell that the complexity of preparing such dishes must be immense. But how was it all done and more importantly how could I do it?
This triggered a desire to learn more about this new, exotic form of cuisine and my research into a field I came to know as “molecular gastronomy”. This journey for knowledge opened up my culinary eyes and introduced me to a whole host of new names and faces I would otherwise have been ignorant of.
Of course top of the list were all the big celebrity chefs and their restaurants, including the Ferran Adria and his legendary (and soon to be closed) El Bulli restaurant in Spain, Heston Blumenthal – The Fat Duck here in England and Grant Achatz – Alinea in Chicago, just to name a few. But I was struck by the fact that in very few cases did the chefs who produced such culinary wonders have a background in chemistry, physics or any of the sciences for that matter, so who were they getting this in-depth scientific knowledge from? Who was doing the scientific research and discovering the new and innovative techniques that form the basis of the dishes these chefs produced?
Herve This is a French physical chemist who works at the”institute National de La Recherche Agronomique” in Paris. His main area of interest is molecular gastronomy, that is the science of culinary phenomena (more precisely, looking for the mechanisms of phenomena occurring during culinary transformations). With the Late Nicholas Kurti, he developed the scientific term “Molecular and Physical Gastronomy” in 1988. He has worked with a long list of culinary professionals most notably legendary chef Pierre Gagnaire on developing the practical culinary applications of his research and discoveries.
In short, this man is the Godfather of Molecular Gastronomy!
I bought his only book translated into English at the time “Molecular Gastronomy – Exploring the Science of Flavour” and having read it, I decided to get in touch with Mr This. We have since been in touch over the years and as part of my series of articles for bazaar I asked him for an interview. He may not be a chef, but this man has contributed more than many chefs will ever dream of!
Usually one would ask “why did you enter the profession you are in?”, however in your case I believe a more suitable question would be: As a physical chemist why did you develop a particular interest in the field you have coined ‘molecular gastronomy’?
Well I have been cooking since I was a child, so I have always had an interest in food. But I have always loved chemistry, physics and mathematics since the age of 6. When I was a child, I was doing chemistry and physics during a large part of my free time, visiting the Palais de la Découverte (science museum in Paris) once a week. By the age of 12 I was even invited to lecture on liquid nitrogen.
Of course, this passion for chemistry led me to enter the best “Grande Ecole” (top university) for chemistry in France (Ecole supérieure de physique et de chimie de Paris), and I should probably be an organic chemist today, but on the 16th of March 1980, because of a failed cheese soufflé, I realized that there was something interesting to do, using my personal lab at home (I have indeed a wonderful lab in my house, with UV spectrometry, microscopy, etc.), i.e. collecting and testing what I am calling today “culinary precisions”. This work transformed into Molecular Gastronomy when I met Nicholas Kurti and when we both realized in 1988 that a particular science was needed.
As the term ‘molecular gastronomy’ has become better known over the years do you feel that people’s understanding of what molecular gastronomy is (as a field of study and development) has improved? And do you find that it is often confused with molecular cooking?
It depends on which countries and people you are talking about, but generally, yes there is a lot of confusion between Molecular Gastronomy, Molecular Cooking or cookery, and such chimeras as “culinary science” or “scientific cooking”. Generally, the confusion is based on the fact that people don’t know what gastronomy is, what science is, and even in scientific circles, there is a confusion between science and technology, or engineering.
But I have time in life to fight all these confusions! And anyway, molecular cooking will be soon replaced by “note by note cooking”, a name for which the possibility of confusion with molecular gastronomy is reduced.
How would you define molecular gastronomy versus molecular cooking?
Very simple: just hear the words! Cooking is cooking, molecular or not. And cooking means producing food. Gastronomy is knowledge. And knowledge is not food, it’s knowledge! Allow me to break it down into logical definitions:
Science: most practitioners of science would be happy to accept the idea that science is the activity of looking for the mechanisms of phenomena, or trying to picture how things work, using a particular method called the “experimental method”, or “hypothetico-deductive method”, or simply the scientific method. Science will never be “in the kitchen”, as science produces knowledge (mechanisms of phenomena), and not dishes! Hence the question: what can science and cooking have in common?
Cooking: was always, is, and will remain the activity of preparing dishes ; it can be a craft or an art, but dishes will be produced for human consumption.
Chemistry: the meaning of the word « chemistry » changed in time, as for all the previous words that we considered, but here, we probably still need to go on with changes. First, is chemistry a science or technology? Considering the history of sciences, it appears that all sciences were at various degrees linked with technology in ancient times, but that slowly the separation appeared. Hence, it would be a progress that chemistry would be considered as science only, and more precisely as the science that studies the mechanisms of atom rearrangements, in molecules or in other structures made with atoms.
Gastronomy: here again, there is much confusion, as many people think that gastronomy is cooking for rich, or with costly ingredients. Indeed, the word “gastronomy” was introduced in French in 1801 by the poet Joseph Berchoux8, but it was popularized by Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, a lawyer who made a wonderful masterpiece in literature, defining « gastronomy » as the reasoned knowledge concerning all aspects of food. For example, Brillat-Savarin explained that the history of cooking, for example, is gastronomy, and more precisely gastronomic history; studying the geographic distribution of culinary skills would be gastronomy, also; and literature, economy… or science can be within the frame of gastronomy. Let us finish this short discussion by saying again that gastronomy is knowledge, and that for the sake of proper thinking, we should avoid using expressions such as “gastronomic restaurant”.
Art: here again, the meaning of “art” changed extensively with time, and I am not able to summarize in a few words what needed a whole book (Cooking, a quintessential art, California University Press). However, today, art is more or less an activity of creating emotions, with relationship with “beauty”. In cooking, “beautiful” means “good to eat”… but this is really too short a description for such a complicated matter. Let us only say that the aim of art is not of looking for the mechanisms of phenomena using the scientific method. The aims of science and art are different, as well as the methods… and the productions.
Molecular gastronomy: it should be said vigorously that molecular gastronomy is a scientific discipline (see “science”), and that chefs do not practice (generally) molecular gastronomy!
Molecular cookery: yes, molecular cookery, also called molecular cuisine, or science-based cooking, is cooking, and not science. The “definition” would be “cooking with new tools, ingredients, methods”, but “new” should be defined as “not present in classic books such as the Guide culinaire or even in La cuisine du marché by Paul Bocuse.
Of course, also, it would be silly to consider that molecular cooking (or cookery) is a question of using molecules for cooking, as all food is made of molecules… but some journalists and chefs did not take time to consider that “molecular cooking” is a composed expression, proposed only to make the distinction with molecular gastronomy. And as molecular cooking is cooking, it means producing dishes.
For me as a chef, over the past few years I have seen a fast pace of technological and scientific development in many kitchens. What’s most important is the awareness by chefs towards enhancing food using these developments. What do you feel has been your most significant contribution towards the development of cooking methods used in restaurant kitchens today?
I don’t care about my past contributions, and I am considering only the next ones. Note by note cooking will be soon there!
You have spent time working alongside chefs, most notably Monsieur Gagnaire, to develop the concepts you study and translate their potential application in restaurant dishes. As a physical chemist looking at a restaurant kitchen, where do you see the main developments will be in the future? For example; in the equipment used? In the way chefs work? In the recipes developed?
Note by note cooking!
Do you believe that the discoveries made in the field of molecular gastronomy, if applied into restaurant kitchens can improve not only the food produced but also the consistency and quality of the work in the kitchen?
Yes, and this is one of the reasons why I am working so hard. I don’t want money, but only the pleasure to have been able to transform the culinary practice. But it’s done, indeed! Please be aware that in all French schools, children 6 years old make one cubic meter of whipped egg white from only one egg, using the educational tool that I introduced in 2002 under the name “Ateliers expérimentaux du goût” (also in Switzlerland, Finland, Denmark, Germany, UK…)