Hervé This and I are sitting in an unpretentious Chinese restaurant just round the corner from the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris and the National Institute for Agricultural Research where This, a chemical physicist, has worked for the past eight years. This, 52, is best known as one of the founders of “molecular gastronomy”: his culinary ideas and writings have influenced some the world most famous chefs, Ferran Adrià, Heston Blumenthal and Pierre Gagnaire among them.
We might have eaten at the experimental restaurant Chez Léna et Mimile up the road but This hadn’t booked a table there so we’ve settled instead for this unpretentious Asian, a stroll away from the laboratories where he works with a team of 14 researching cooking. “Pot au feu, cassoulet, daube, choucroute – it’s infinite,” he says, “particularly since I’ve come up with a simple formula for inventing an infinite number of new dishes.”
“You’re on TV a lot,” the restaurant’s owner says, unsmilingly, putting down a Chinese beer. And it is true, This – jovial, grey-haired, passionate about the science of cooking – is one of the public faces of food in France. He not only teaches, researches, appears on television, lectures round the world and writes bestselling books, of which two so far have been translated into English – Molecular Gastronomy (2005) and Kitchen Mysteries: Revealing the Science of Cooking (2007) – he has also advised the French ministry of education on how to teach primary school children about food. Hervé This is a born communicator and performer. Only a few weeks before meeting in Paris, I had seen him at a cookery class in Brussels, demonstrating to an admiring group just how to beat a single egg white into a square cube of froth. Today, as he drinks his beer, This says there’s nothing wrong with traditional cooking that isn’t knowingly grounded in science.
His family comes from Alsace-Lorraine in eastern France and there is something German about his build but his rattle-bang rapid delivery is Parisian and as quick as his inquiring mind. As we talk, he cites the Bible (apparently Noah got drunk on too much beer), quotes Borges, refuses to accept that some people have sharper taste buds than others, or are more intelligent, and waxes lyrical about the French language. At his feet is a briefcase containing the battered A4 notebooks in which he scribbles down his thoughts and theories.
This is the son of two psychoanalysts – his father Bernard This introduced sophrology, a relaxation technique, to France and, though 80, still receives patients from 7am until well into the night, his son explains admiringly; his mother, Claude, still works too. The whole family, adds This, is mad about food. He is also, he wants me to know, related to Brigitte Bardot and Ségolène Royal (although not on the same side), as well as to photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson.
In the late 1970s, he studied to become a chemical physicist at Paris’s prestigious Ecole Supérieure de Physique et de Chimie while also reading modern French literature. On graduation, he wrote for and subsequently became editor of Pour la Science, the French equivalent of Scientific American.
It was while working at Pour la Science, that This first met the late Nicholas Kurti, Hungarian-born physicist and president of the Royal Society. They hit it off immediately and, as they talked, the two men discovered that both were carrying out experiments in their kitchens in the evenings after work. They started exchanging their findings, calling each other up several times a day. Together they came up with the term “molecular gastronomy” to describe a discipline concerned with the scientific phenomena – the chemical reactions – that occur during culinary transformations: why soufflés expand, why the wine in coq au vin changes colour, the perfect temperature at which to bake an egg. The point was to use this knowledge to enhance the quality of cuisine. “When you give something a name, a field develops around it,” says This. In 1992 Kurti and This organised the first International Workshop on Molecular Gastronomy, which was held in Erice, Sicily, in 1992 with the American doyen of food science Harold McGee as keynote speaker.
The idea was to apply science to the art of cooking in the same way as a geo-physician applies his mind to mountains or a botanist to plants, and This drew up a programme for the discipline. It involved:
1 Testing culinary sayings, such as whether adding lemon to pears helps them keep their colour.
2 Understanding exactly what constitutes a recipe (stewed pears is simply pears, sugar and water, then heat).
3 Inventing new recipes, which is technology, not science, This says, “because technology is invention and science is discovery”.
4 Introducing new ingredients, utensils and methods, such as using an electrical field to smoke salmon
5 “Demonstrating that science is a beautiful, wonderful discipline,” and thus inspiring vocations.
Over the past 20 years or so, This has been collecting and testing culinary adages, old wives’ lore and sayings. He now has 25,000 of them, many gleaned from 19th-century French cookbooks, and is planning to have them put on INRA’s website. One of the things that most struck him is how sayings that sound wrong are often right and vice versa. Such as? “Well,” he answers, “you really do have to cut the head off a suckling pig as soon as it comes out of the oven if you want the skin to stay crisp.”
This tested the truth of this particular adage with an experiment carried out during a feast celebrating his 10th wedding anniversary, for which he cooked four suckling pigs, cutting off the head of two of them immediately. An example of the reverse? “It’s not true – at least it’s not generally true – that salt draws water out of meat, which is why you are told not to salt steak until after it’s cooked. It is also untrue that eggs and oil must be at the same temperature when you make mayonnaise. I’ve demonstrated this on television with hot eggs and cold oil and the other way around and the results were exactly the same.”
You’d think from the range of his activities and the number of his public appearances that he was raking in the money but, This says, his extra earnings go straight into his laboratory work. Taking me round his laboratories before lunch, he opens a cupboard packed with “extremely expensive” kitchen equipment. He says he can’t really afford the restaurants his work inspires and he doesn’t like cadging free meals.
When I ask if France can still claim to be the world’s culinary centre, he simply shrugs. So, I persist, you don’t agree? “It’s not that I don’t agree,” he replies, “it’s just not true.”
As an official of the state, he says, he is paid to transmit his discoveries back to the taxpayer. “And in order to produce knowledge, I need to distribute it efficiently. I’m very proud when I have something published in a prestigious scientific magazine but I get nothing like the readership I get when I write for Elle, which sells 1m copies.” Indeed, it was Elle that first aroused his interest in recipes, when he tried to work out why eggs had to be added two at a time to a soufflé preparation. Since then, to his great pride, they’ve published his recipe for chocolat chantilly (whipped chocolate prepared, remarkably, like crème chantilly).
A generation of young chefs nowadays applies the results of This’s observations and deductions about cooking. When he sees his discoveries put to exciting use, he says he feels as proud as if he were the maker of Rembrandt’s paintbrushes. Heston Blumenthal of the Fat Duck used to come to Paris to learn from This about alginate pearls, liquid nitrogen and foams, emulsions and gels, and Adrià of El Bulli culled his knowledge from This’s books. He says the chefs at La Table d’Anvers in Paris were the first to put the new techniques into practice but they wouldn’t admit it for fear of scaring off customers. “Ferran was the first to have the guts to admit he was doing molecular cooking.”
Today, though, molecular gastronomy itself could almost be considered passé. Adrià himself has repudiated the term and now describes himself as an artist.
This, however, has a new theory of taste: he says that if he were a young chef today, he would shun molecular cuisine. “If I was 20 today and I was a truly creative person, I wouldn’t do molecular cuisine. Everybody is doing it.” He would, he says, go for “note by note” cuisine, which he compares to music. “A carrot is made up of molecules, like notes in a musical chord. Traditionally, if you cook carrots and turnips together, you have two chords,” he says. “Nothing prevents you from creating a dish one molecule at a time.” Up the road, Chez Léna et Mimile does just that; chef Christèle Gendre flavours sauces in this pick-and-choose manner, which This has called “Wöhler,” after the chemist who first synthesized molecules.
Although he occasionally prepares meals for his wife and two sons, 17 and 20, This is, he says, a hit-or-miss cook. He insists that great cooking is an art and that what he contributes is science: he can give tips on how to make lavish mousses, tender meat and stable emulsions but he can’t convey the genius that makes an outstanding cook. He also leaves space for poetry in the kitchen, claiming that “love” is an important component. “The fact is that cooking is about giving people pleasure. Why did our grandmothers give us good food to eat? Technically, they were simply yokels. I had two grandmothers. One made delicious food, she spilled over with love. We weren’t eating protein, lipids and glucides, we were eating my grandmother’s love. The other was thin, unloving, she couldn’t give other people pleasure and she was an awful cook. Eating is also about relationships.”
To illustrate this, he tells me about a meal he once had at his three-star friend Pierre Gagnaire’s restaurant in Paris, which he was eating in the company of men he thoroughly disliked. He was not enjoying the food but then Gagnaire sent him a note from the kitchen on a folded napkin, which read, “You look miserable.” The whole experience was transformed; the meal suddenly became good. Every month, This provides Gagnaire with an idea that Gagnaire publishes on his website along with a recipe inspired by it. A recent one concerned the 19th-century German chemist Justus Liebig, and elaborates an idea about combining gelatine and oil into a gelified emulsion. “Wonderful, simple idea,” writes Gagnaire, and comes up with a recipe for grape juice with flat parsley and a “Venice bouillon”.
As we finish our coffee, I bring up a question that has been nagging at the back of my mind. Why does microwaved porridge taste so much better? The answer is that porridge is made up of granules of starch that either bloat homogeneously (in the microwave) or keep a tough core (on the stove). “I am ready to take a microscope – no, I encourage you to take a microscope – and examine your grain of porridge.”
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