‘Father of molecular gastronomy’ explores solution to world hunger
Herve This (pronounced “Aer-vay Tees”) is a striking presence as he sits down for breakfast at The Met Back Bay. The French physical chemist wears his trademark white Mandarin-collared shirt under an Austrian-style jacket. He glances at the menu and quickly sets it aside. He wants eggs, sunny-side up, with a side of bacon. He asks the waiter to cook the eggs to exactly 65 degrees Celsius (149 Fahrenheit) and chuckles when the server looks bemused. The chemist is only half joking. He is famous for his 65-degree eggs, a temperature that guarantees perfectly set whites with a delicate, custardy consistency.
Eggs have played an important role in This’s research. He makes eggs that only look like real eggs; in fact, they’re fashioned from powdered whites and glucose. Bacon is made from surimi paste. The author of “Note-by-Note Cooking: The Future of Food,” This is studying molecules from eggs and other foods. In his view, food molecules may be the solution to world hunger. As for the definition of molecules, here is how scientist Robert Wolke, author of “What Einstein Told His Cook,” explains it: “All you need to know is that a molecule is, in the words of a first-grader of my acquaintance, ‘one of those eentsy-weentsy things that stuff is made of.’ ”
Food and chemistry are commingling in many ways right now, as scientists and chefs rethink how we conceptualize cooking. In Cambridge’s Kendall Square, the new restaurant Cafe ArtScience, where science fuses with cuisine, is generating considerable interest. Cafe founder David Edwards is creating WikiFoods, including WikiPearl, ice cream in its own edible skins, so no packaging is required. Natick’s Army labs are testing 3-D printers to produce high-tech meat for the military.
Michael Brenner, a Harvard professor and director of the university’s successful Science and Cooking Lecture Series, says the public’s current fascination is exciting. “Food has always intersected with science — since antiquity,” he writes in an e-mail. “Scientific advances in the modern day, such as the development and understanding of gelling agents and other [natural] food additives have enabled chefs to create entirely new foods.”
At a Boston University seminar during This’s visit from his residence outside Versailles, he whisked powdered egg whites with water, sugar, bacon flavor (not real pork), and other flavorings, and a healthy dose of vegetable oil. He poured the batter on a paper plate, ran an ordinary (clean) hair comb across it for texture and put it in a microwave. The result, a thick, firm white product (in his own lab, This would have added red coloring), might one day replace steak. It was all part of a demonstration on how to cook using pure compounds, which are molecules like sucrose (sugar), proteins, lipids (oils and fats), acetic acid (the compound that gives us vinegar), colors, and flavorings (vanillin in vanilla and piperine in pepper).
Some will understand this from a basic chemistry class they once took, others will think they need a doctorate.
This’s book has just been translated into English. The “note-by-note” of the title likens the techniques he uses to those in synthesized music, where elementary sound waves are combined to create new sounds. His food is what he describes as “cooking from molecular scratch.” By that he means that instead of using traditional ingredients like meat, fish, fruits, and vegetables, food will be made only with pure molecular compounds, or mixtures of compounds.
Herve This, 59, is the man many call the “father of molecular gastronomy,” though he insists he is one of two. The other is his friend, the late Hungarian-born physicist Nicholas Kurti. Molecular gastronomy, the study of culinary phenomena — or the reasons souffles rise in the oven and Hollandaise curdles with too much heat — is now nearly 30 years old. “Molecular gastronomy is science, not cooking,” says This, who works at the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique at AgroParisTech.
Molecular gastronomy has been connected to some of the world’s most revered chefs, including British restaurateur Heston Blumenthal, Spanish-born Ferran Adria (who has taught at Harvard), and Pierre Gagnaire of Paris, with whom This regularly collaborates. Together they started the revolution that gave us spherified olive oil bursting out of gelled skins, foamy, flavor-infused airs dispensed artistically from siphons, and ice cream made tableside in seconds with liquid nitrogen.
It turns out, that was just the opening act.
Now This has set his sights on changing food as we know it, and there is more on the table than futuristic meals. Leaning forward at breakfast over his eggs, he says of note-by-note cooking, “Politically, it’s important.” He has in mind feeding the growing world population with ingredients that are not perishable. This also believes that cooking with pure compounds will reduce environmental damage and energy costs tied to traditional cooking.
Farmers are included in his long-range plan. They will benefit by selling the compounds extracted from their produce.
Scientific ideas for solving world hunger have a long history, says Sophia Roosth, an assistant professor in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University. “It seems like a technical solution to a problem that isn’t technical,” says Roosth, who spent four months as a graduate student in This’s Paris lab. “The problem of world hunger is really a social and economic problem.” Instead of scientific approaches, Roosth talks about stabilizing food prices in developing countries.
Having finished the real eggs on his plate, along with the real bacon, This is musing on public perceptions. People don’t want chemicals in their food, he says. To prove his point, he leans over to the next table and asks a couple, “Would you be ready to eat chemicals in your food?”
One of the bewildered strangers responds, “Don’t we already?”
She’s right. A cursory look at the list of ingredients on a bag of Cheetos offers the unpronounceable additives present in many processed foods. Cheetos, like all foods, are composed of molecular compounds. And compounds are present in trusted standbys, like flour and milk.
More than chemicals, what note-by-note cooking is up against is the death of old-fashioned meals. Slow Food advocates point out that food has considerable cultural meaning. Some see science as a threat to family tradition and know-how passed down as one generation teaches another.
In his own home, This cooks his science. He speaks fondly of his family’s version of the Wohler sauce (named for the 19th-century German chemist). The sauce is made from a number of his favorite compounds, including polyphenols from wine grapes (This prefers the ones extracted from Syrah). “It probably lacks complexity,” he admits, “but I am not an artist, I should not give you a recipe.” He serves the sauce with the protein-dense combed cake he made at BU.
His close friend, Gagnaire, a three-star Michelin chef, created Note-by-Note
No. 1, pearls filled with an apple-flavored liquid, “lemon” granita, and discs of caramelized sugar.
There are many unanswered questions about the chemist’s latest passion. He speculates it will be another decade before diners are ready for his scientific cooking. He doesn’t mind the wait.
“The questions are exciting,” he says. “Not the answers — the questions.”