My mayonnaise always comes out good. I never knew mayonnaise was
supposed to be difficult.
Henceforth I will be calling my kitchen "the lab."
Alison Chaiken "From:" address above is valid.
(650) 236-2231 [daytime] http://www.wsrcc.com/alison/
The course of true love never runs smooth; it is filled with
turbulence and bifurcations. -- Jennifer Ouellette
HERVÉ THIS PROFILE:
The Joy of Evidence-Based Cooking
Molecular gastronomist Hervé 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 more 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 Agronomic Research (INRA) and the Collège de France,
wants to know whether common rules of cooking are science-based or
just bogus. (The answers to the above questions, in case you are
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 some 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, have 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 output concede
that This has been a remarkably effective 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. In 1995, chemist and Nobel laureate
Jean-Marie Lehn asked This to join his chemistry lab at the Collège de
France, 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
1998. 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 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 f ield of industrial 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. Actually, elBulli chef Ferran Adrìa 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 Adrìa resa 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 Collège de France 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
précisions 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
précisions. 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
précisions. (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 developed a system for "classification of dispersed 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)0.5BETA
((W/O)/S3)0.5)BETA729.) 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 Gagnaire'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--"I'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 schoolchildren 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 Académie 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
Hmmm... Nature has had three good articles on red wine and the French
Paradox within the past two months, so I think you've got to keep it in
the running, too. The latest issue (Nov. 28) tells us that tannic red
wines convey health benefits to the heart -- now that's science that I
can relate to! :-)
> My mayonnaise always comes out good. I never knew mayonnaise was
> supposed to be difficult.
Me neither. Compared to a cheese souffle, it's pretty easy. Now on to
> Henceforth I will be calling my kitchen "the lab."
That works for me. It's been about 5 years since I last did an
experiment in my own labs, so I might as well think of the kitchen as my
new lab space.