Art and technique


Food Service News: What has motivated you to become a Molecular Gastronomy researcher?

Hervé This: Indeed, since I was 6 years old, I wanted to be a chemist. With passion, I was doing chemistry and physics in my home, having slowly created there a wonderful lab that I still have. At that time, I also cooked, and it is not surprising that the two activities mixed, even if I would like today to contribute also to some research on the chemistry of natural products, as I feel that this field is very important both scientifically and technologically.

The 16th of March 1980, I became involved in what would be called later (in 1988) Molecular Gastronomy because of a cheese soufflé : the recipes advised to add the yolks two by two… and the tests showed that it had no influence. But the 23rd of March 1980, I decided to collect the French “culinary precisions” (i.e. culinary old wive tales, proverbs, tips, methods, proverbs…). I now have more than 25 000, only for French Cuisine!

FSN: How has the gastronomy molecular study contributed to the future?

HT: Since the formal creation of Molecular Gastronomy, in 1988, we set up a frame for future research, and identified a special field that was regularly forgotten, i.e. the physical and chemical investigation of the mechanisms of phenomena occuring during cooking. As a branch of science, Molecular Gastronomy will have no end, because the scientific process goes in more and more details. But Molecular Gastronomy is also important both from a technological point of view, and from an educational point of view. Technologically, it was very important that we proposed the use in the kitchen of new hardware, new tools, new ingredients and new methods : this is Molecular Cooking (also sometimes called Molecular Cooking, or Molecular Cookery, now also Technoemotional cuisine). This is a first step. Now, I am trying to introduce “culinary constructivism”, and Note by Note cooking. Educationnally, we introduced new reasoned activities in school, colleges and universities. Molecular Gastronomy courses are important because they are appealing for students of all ages. They understand the usefulness of science, and better perceived the relationship between science, technology, technique, art.

FSN: The scientific studies on the procedures used in the kitchen demystify cooking itself, putting down the concept which consists in the belief that some people have the ability to cook and others don´t?

HT: Yes, this is an important act of faith to recognize that one can make better technical work understanding what one do ! In the 80’s, when we began our work, there was secrecy in culinary circles… but indeed there is no such thing for science. We investigate what is hidden, and distribute the information as much as possible. Indeed, among culinary precisions, many are strange, and this leads to a new study of why our ancestors transmitted wrong information. This needs sociology, history, anthropology… but this study is very exciting. This was the topic of the Course on Molecular Gastronomy 2010, in January 2010 (a book is published next week from the Course). And also, when you recognize that cooking is (1) creating a social link (between the cook and the guests, but also between the guests), (2) involving art (“good” means “beautiful to eat”, as explained extensively in my book Cooking, a quintessenciaal art), (3) technique, you understand that you need to learn the three components to be successful in the kitchen. I hate the aphorism by Brillat-Savarin saying that you can become a cook, but you need to be born as a “rotisseur” (roaster) : my idea is that everybody can learn… as long as she or he learns and work hard!

FSN: In Molecular Cooking, does the kitchen´s main character continue to be the chef or, now, is the chemical-physician (who commands the process), or the success will depend on their team work? How does this partnership between chefs and scientists work?

HT: Indeed, the introduction of Molecular Cooking creating a new position, of “culinary technologists”, or “culinary engineers”, i.e. people that can understand the fresh results of science in order to make technology transfers, so that they can help chefs (artists) to put this knowledge in action in their kitchen. In this regard, there is no relationship between science and art, between molecular gastronomy and chefs. One needs an intermediate. Even in my “play” with my intimate friend Pierre Gagnaire, when I am proposing a new idea (there is one invention per month for now ten years), I am not working as a scientist, but rather as a technologists. Of course, being a scientist, I should not do that, but I feel that it is important, at this point of time, how important the results of science can be. And also, I do it for Pierre!

FSN: How you define the joint between gastronomy and science?

HT: Contrary to a wrong idea, gastronomy is not cooking! And in particular, it is not high cuisine. Gastronomy is defined as the reasoned knowledge of man’s nourishment. It is a knowledge! In this regard, expressions such as “gastronomic restaurants” are mistakes.

Within the area of gastronomy (knowledge), you find history (historical gastronomy), sociology (sociological gastronomy), litterature (gastronomical litterature)… and science : Molecular Gastronomy.

FSN: What are the best chefs and restaurants in molecular cooking segment?

HT: I hate the idea of “best”. Take a comparison with music. Even if some days I am preferring Bach to Mozart, some other days I prefer Mozart, or Debussy. Indeed, preferences are not transitive : you have the right to prefer raspberries to strawberries, strawberries to blackcurrants, but blackcurrant to raspberries: finally, you cannot say which one you prefer. Then, what would be the criteria of “best” ? Indeed I say very firmly that the ranking done by the English magazine Restaurants is an awful thing, from all point of views. And this year ranking is worst than other years. I prefer telling you that there are some very interesting people in the world, doing (not molecular gastronomy) molecular cooking, such as my friend Pierre Gagnaire, but also many others : you know their names, Ferran Adria, Heston Blumenthal, Denis Martin, René Redzepi, Alex Atala, Sang-Hoon Degeimbre…

On my internet site, I wrote :

“As I hate ranking, because it is unfair and intellectually silly, I make here a proposal, with invitation for you to contribute.

1. ranking is silly as art is concerned, as one can only say “I love”, or “I don’t like”.

2. ranking is silly, as 2+2=4 is not a question of democracy

3. ranking is silly as choices can be “intransitive” : you can prefer raspberries to strawberries, strawberries to blackcurrant, and blackcurrant to raspberries

4. and so many other reasons that can be very surprised to see that smart people do it!

This is why, as restaurants are concerned, I propose to make a simple list (with names of people voting for it, so that it’s clear). Note that I was in more places than that, but that I give only the name of good places

I begin :

Pierre Gagnaire : he is my friend, first, so that you cannot trust me, but you can trust me when I say that he a real great artist.

Pascal Barbot : wonderful, modest, many ideas, always using a condiment, but not restricted to it

Michel Bras : I like this guy, and this artistic precision; I was not there recently, alas

Paul Bocuse : I was there many years ago, so that I cannot say anything

François Pasteau, l’Epi Dupin : always very interesting, so cheap… that it is always full. Make your reservation well in advance.

Alex Atala : a wonderful guy, with a lot of sensibility

Grant Achatz : a lot to say, very interesting… and this pushes me to go in another direction for describing meals, ie. giving more details, as this list above is clearly useless

More to come.

And will you contribute? Please leave your comments.”

FSN: In your work, you bring the molecular gastronomy to the real world, making the reader feel comfortable and capable to understand it. Why do you treat the subject that way, while some of the chefs treat it like if it were something inaccessible, depriving others of this knowledge?

HT: I am sorry to be still at the Century of Enlightment. I feel that the work of philosophers like Voltaire, Diderot, and others is not finished, and I want (yes, this is naively utopic) a better world for my children. Science, in particular, and Knowledge in general, are wonderful because they are our better chance against intolerance. Sharing knowledge is a way to promote friendship, collaboration, advancement, ideas, pleasure, peace… When people work together, they don’t fight. When people love their wonderful job, they are happy. And, moreover, we have in view some Great Men and Women of the past, whose trail has to be followed. Think of wonderful individuals such as Lavoisier, father of modern chemistry, Louis Pasteur, Michael Faraday, Denis Diderot, and so many others ! In the end, about clarity, I made to myself a “law” to follow the idea from the physicist François Arago : “La clarté est la politesse de ceux qui s”expriment en public” (Clarity is the politeness of all those who speak in front of an audience). I don’t care that my audience is considering me as smart, or knowledgeable; I want to give them the results of scientific studies.

FSN: Do you think the Universities should include the molecular gastronomy (and, therefore, the kitchen´s chemical-physical principles) in the chef´s academic?

Yes, thousand time yes! And this is currently under development in many countries of the world. In France and in Canada, the culinary curriculum changed some years ago. But this move is not only for chefs, but also for students of science!

FSN: Does the introduction to the chemical-physical studies, at the Universities, mean an evolution to the gastronomy studies?

HT: I don’t know. Wait (actively) and see. But I am pushing in this direction very strongly.

FSN: How is a chef recognized when he/she knows the molecular gastronomy principles? HT: Can these principles be applied according to the regional characteristics of each gastronomy or should it be reserved to the vanguard gastronomy? This question is difficult. Some chefs, as Pierre Gagnaire, are very modern, at the cutting edge of Molecular Gastronomy knowledge, but they don’t “show” molecular cuisine skills. Pierre, in particular, is an artist, and he is doing Pierre’s cuisine. The results of science and technology are only tools for him. There will never be any smokes, or explosions, etc. in his restaurants; rather he wants the guest to share an idea of Beauty (this is my own interpretation, of course). For others, the appearance of modernity is more important. There are many different cases. But remember that Molecular Cooking means using modern techniques only. Then you can make a molecular cassoulet, for example, without the guests seeing any difference ! Indeed, some inventions of mine that I like are those that anybody can do very cheaply at home, such as the Chocolat Chantilly, the Kientzheim Sauce, or the Egg at 67°C, the Wind Crystals, etc. Even children can make them, and they don’t ask for any particular hardware or ingredient.

FSN: What do you have to say to the news chefs that are starting their studies in molecular gastronomy?

HT: Never hesitate to ask questions. Try, work, have fun, and don’t forget that the main point of cooking is giving pleasure to your guests ! Yes, cooking, it’s love, art and technique.


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