The Joy of
Molecular gastronomist Herve This is trying to
demystify cooking in a country whose
cuisine is famous worldwide.
* * * * *
PARIS ----Is it true that pears turn red in covered copper pans lined with tin? Do you always have to whip cream in the same direction?
Does the skin of suckling pigs really get inure crackling when the head is cut immediately after roasting? What of the old French wisdom that mayonnaise, a delicate emulsion of oil and water, will fail when prepared by menstruating women?
Such are the questions that occupy the mind of French celebrity scientist Hervé This, who studies the science of cooking. This (pronounced “Teess”), who has dual appointments at the National Institute for Agronotnic Research (IN RA) and the Collège de France, wants to know whether common rules of most cooking arc science-based or just bogus. (The answers to the above questions, (in the bold print) in case you really wondering, are no, no, yes, and no, respectively.)
This is the most prominent spokesperson of’ a small but growing research field known as “molecular gastronomy,” or, as famed food science writer Harold McGee from Palo Alto , California puts it ‘‘the science of making delicious things.” He studies what happens in pots, pans, and ovens to create that divine flavor and texture. And in the process, he’s trying to give cooking a more solid scientific basis, which means getting rid of somc age-old wisdoms.
That may seem like a hard sell in a country where tradition reigns, especially in matters relating to food. Yet! This has been remarkably successful A series of books, columns, and TV appearances, as well as his close ties to some famous chefs, hav e made him a household name in France: his efforts to introduce science into culinary schools and to acquaint children with science through cooking have met with enthusiasm. Even those who criticize his scientific out-put concede that This has been a remarkably cffectivc spokesperson for both science and culinary innovation.
Although trained as a physical chemist, This, 51, started his career in 1981 as an editor at Pour la Science, a popular science magazine. But he was crazy about cooking, had his own lab at home, and very often wrote about food. Then, in 1995, chemist and Nobel laureate Jean-Marie Lehn asked This to join his chemistry lab at the Collège de Franee, a job This initially combined with his work at the magazine. But when he was offered a job at INRA as well in 2000, he quit his editing job to become a full-time researcher.
Although the science of cooking has existed for centuries, the field matured, and unmistakably picked up cachet, thanks to a series of now-legendary annual gatherings between 1992 and 2003 at a resort in Erice, Sicily. This organized the meetings with physicist Nicholas Kurti, a pioneer in cooking research at Oxford University who died in 1992. Participants would discuss the science behind food preparation, occasionally cook, and invariably eat and drink well for about 4 days. “It was a place where Nobel scientists and three-star chefs came together. indulging in a hobby, if you will,” says Anthony Blake, a retired flavor expert who attended several times.
Kurti and This coined the term molecular gastronomy as they prepared the first meeting. in part because it sounded modern and very sexy. . Since then, the name has stuck as a way to distinguish the small group of researchers who study restaurant and home cooking from the larger, older, and less glamorous field of industria l food chemistry. But McGee—another frequent guest at Erice— considers it a misnomer, because scientists in this field don’t study the interaction of individual molecules like molecular biologists do; it’s just food chemistry, he says. (This disagrees.)
To add to the confusion, the term molecular gastronomy is also widely used to describe the cuisine at some creative top restaurants that have their own labs, such as elBulli, 2 hours from Barcelona, which was named the world’s best restaurant by Restaurant magazine this year, (2006) Actually, elBulli chef Ferran Adria has invented most of his revolutionary techniques—such as the use of hydrocolloids and agar-agar to create new textures -without the help of scientists, says McGee And Adria resents the fact that so many press stories link him to the scientific field; scientific curiosity is just one of the many elements of his cooking, his says.
On a recent afternoon at his College de Prance lab, one of This’s co-workers was making a carrot stock . Stocks may be commonplace in the kitchen, This explains, but they are still something of a scientific mystery. This has studied exactly which compounds come out of the carrot to give the liquid its flavor— sugars and amino acids, mostly ----but he also wants to know how this happens. Are they released as cells in the carrot burst open? Or do they simply diffuse out of the channels in the carrot? And does it make a difference whether you simmer for 2 or 20 hours?
One of This’s obsessions is that chefs, despite knowing so little about science, have developed such elaborate laws. Over the years, he has meticulously collected more than 25,000 instructions, called prcisions in French, from cookbooks, many of which are useless, he says “ So where do they come from? “ “Our parents love us. Why are they teaching us all these rules that make no sense?” His hypothesis: Cooks, using trial and error, remembered the circumstances in which they created a successful dish, even if they were irrelevant, and made them part of the recipe.
If that’s true, he says, then dishes prone to fail—such as mayonnaise should have accumulated more précisions than the easy ones; in other words, there should be an inverse relation between what This calls the recipe’s “robustness” and the number of precisions. Testing the theory for a number of different dishes, This did indeed find the predicted relation although there was one outlier, meat stock, which is hard to blow yet surrounded with precisions. (This chalks it up to stocks’ extraordinary importance in French culinary culture.)
This’s ambition is to do away with all unnecessary instructions and the wasted time they entail. If each of France’s 500 culinary schools tested four précisions a year, an idea he is now promoting, the job could be done in just over 10 years, he says. Not everybody is equally fascinated . “I’m not sure I’d spend so much time studying misunderstandings of the past,” says McGee. But food scientist Erik van der Linden of Wageningen University in the Netherlands says investigating these old wisdoms is “hugely important” because it can lead to new scientific questions.
Resistance from the culinary world can be strong, however: For instance, several chefs balked when This told them that it’s useless to throw cooked haricots verts into ice water to preserve the fresh green color. “They thought that the cold fixated the chlorophyll, says This. “Chemically, that doesn’t mean anything.”
In another attempt to bring rigor to the messy process of cooking, This has now developed a system fo r the “classification of disperscd systems,” which describes each dish as a formula, based on the state of its ingredients (gas, liquid, or solid) and the preparation process. (In this system, puff-pastry becomes ((S1/S2 o5 ((W/O)/S3)05)0729) The formulas—a bit like those Lavoisier developed to describe chemical reactions—can be used not only to~classify dishes, This says, but to’invent new ones as well. “He’s the first one ever to try that, and it’s something to be proud of,” says Van der Linden.
Although he says he’s more interested in research than in cooking, This does have close ties with a three-star chef, Pierre Gagnaire of the eponymous restaurant in Paris . Every month This sends him an idea from the lab—--for instance, an egg cooked at 65’C, which is far less rubbery than those cooked at 100”--—which Gagnaire then turns into a recipe . (The entire collection is available on Gagtiaire’s Web site.)
Meanwhile, This is tirelessly campaigning to promote his field. His CV lists 600 interviews and press conferences—until he stopped keeping track. His lectures are enormously popular--—”l’ve always thought of him more as a showman than a scientist,” Blake says —and his columns are published in 11 journals and magazines in France and abroad. At the request of former culture minister Jack Lang, This developed a science and cooking class for school-children in 2001, which is still running. (“A great way to make them love chemistry,” he says.) He has just started a Foundation for Food Science and Culture at the prestigious Academic des Sciences.
“He is really effective and wonderful as a popularizer, and that’s very important,” says McGee. And if more chefs follow This’s lead and become a tad less loath to forgo tradition, he adds, France might have less trouble fending off newcomers such as Spain and the United Kingdom that are threatening its position as the world’s best country for eating.
24 November 2006. Vol. 314. (Pgs. 1235-6)
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