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Hungry Magazine - All Things Tasty
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04.20.07

Honey, There’s a Scientist in the Kitchen

Profiles in Food: Interviews


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Hervé This surrounded by culinary technology

Hervé This, a man who loves questions but hates answers, would’ve made the perfect guest on the old TV game show “What’s My Line?”. This spends a lot of time cooking and reading cookbooks but he’s not a chef (in fact, openly admits that regarding his work he’s not the least bit interested in the flavor of food). And he throws around words like “note by note” and “abstract” but isn’t a musician or artist. This is instead a physical chemist whose main interest is how chemistry and science can contribute to the culinary arts, both from the chefs’ point of view and the diners’.

At the laboratory for the Chemistry of Molecular Interactions at the College de France, This spends much of his time studying how the process of cooking changes the structure of food and has written seven books on the subject. It was This, along with colleague Nicholas Kurti, who in the ‘80s began scientifically testing kitchen old wives’ tales to see if they were true and, in the process, coined the term “molecular gastronomy.”

Michelin three-star French chef Pierre Gagnaire first came to This looking for a way to make his kitchen less noisy and hot. “Pierre asked me, ‘Help us to work easier,’” said This. And that’s exactly what This did. Back in 1982, This proposed to a group of chefs the perfect temperature to cook an egg (around 65°C, the white coagulates, but not the yolk). At first they were skeptical, said This—“They were thinking what is this guy going to tell us, he doesn’t even know how to cook”—but once they tried out his experiment, they came around. This also discovered a way to make a cubic meter of meringue from just one egg and a tool that creates stock in “one second.”

To make sure this scientific information is getting to the people who need it, This has been hosting monthly seminars, the third Thursday of every month, for the last seven years in Paris—“They’re always free, I’m not selling anything,” he said—where scientists, chefs and other culinary-inclined participants decide which cooking theories they want to explore. (Past discussions have included the value of salting steak before or after cooking—makes no difference the group found out—and the idea of using high heat to seal in juices when cooking meat—another fallacy.)

This urged for similar open-forum meetings in Chicago, the new hotbed of molecular gastronomy. The fruition of this effort was a recent free seminar at the Union League Club of Chicago hosted by the Chicago chapter of the American Culinary Foundation and the International Association of Culinary Professionals, where This discussed the role chemistry can—and does—play in the kitchen. This said, “We [chefs and scientists] should be able to work together.”

In France, This and Gagnaire do just that, collaborating on ideas and experiments and posting their findings for all to read (www.pierre-gagnaire.com/francais/cdthis.htm). Their partnership is based on a passion for cooking-This even wondered aloud at the Chicago event if Gagnaire’s obsession with all things culinary is so strong that he thinks about cooking when he “makes love to his wife”.

The duo’s now working on a theory of culinary constructivism which their web site describes as “not a question of deconstruction but construction”. This and Gagnaire pursue a technique of note-by-note cooking, in which a dish is broken into its separate components and then altered slightly to create new dishes. “There are many many things you can play with,” said This.

As an example of this technique, This tweaked a mayonnaise recipe, whisking together an egg white, water and oil at the Chicago seminar. He then put the mixture in the microwave, which sucked out the water and produced a mayo-based cake. This admitted this in itself probably wasn’t useful, but he encouraged the audience to imagine the possibilities of such a process with, for example, cheese, chocolate or even foie gras.

This recognizes that “molecular gastronomy” techniques can be a polarizing force for diners and chefs. He said, “You’re either for molecular gastronomy or against it, but you can’t be indifferent.” And for This, it ain’t all science. While in Chicago he also stressed the need to explore the artistic and love based aspects of cooking. As he sees it, both science and art are vital to a successful end product

One Comment on "Honey, There’s a Scientist in the Kitchen"

Deborah Dowd

I have got to research molecular gastronomy! It sounds so unique and since I work at a nuclear physics lab, I think some of my colleagues would think this is really cool- it might even get some of them to play with food!



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