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Physics + MathPhysics & Math

Synthetic Food: Better Cooking Through Chemistry

BySteven AshleyNOVA NextNOVA Next
Hervé This
Hervé This, co-creator of molecular gastronomy, holds up one of his creations for inspection. This is now on to a new, more challenging way of cooking.

Just as in art, music, dance, and literature, trends in cooking go in and out of vogue. The latest movement to sweep the world’s kitchens is molecular gastronomy, essentially the application of the scientific method to food preparation. The basic idea behind molecular gastronomy is to determine what happens when food cooks, how its physical and chemical properties change, how different methods modify its taste, smell, and texture, and then use this new understanding to create novel dishes. Dozens of high-end restaurants worldwide now serve innovative delicacies such as snail porridge, bacon-and-egg ice cream, and a wide range of edible foams, gels, and “spherificated” foods.

But when I ask Hervé This (pronounced “Tees”), one of co-developers of molecular gastronomy, about cooking’s current cutting-edge via Skype, he responds: “ En bref, gastronomie molecular est passé, ” with a shake of his unruly shock of ashen hair. Instead, This wants to go one step further, not just to prepare meals inspired by chemical and physical insights, but “to make food directly from the basic constituent chemicals themselves—the individual flavor notes that comprise dishes,” he says. “This next trend in cooking is what we call note-by-note cuisine.”

This, a French physical chemist, Nicholas Kurti, the late Hungarian-born physicist, and others began detailed research into molecular gastronomy in the mid-1990s. The application in the kitchen of new techniques—many developed by the food-processing industry—proved useful and provocative, particularly since it led to the rise of an international culinary movement that has identified and exploited high-tech cooking methods.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the term “molecular gastronomy” grew to refer to a distinctive set of fairly exotic processes that often rely on costly machines used in “modernist” restaurants and kitchens to create innovative dishes. Chefs in those kitchens don’t just chop and stir, they use tools such as siphons, water baths, liquid nitrogen, and rotary evaporators. Their ingredient lists sound like something out of a biochemistry textbook: sodium alginate, agar-agar and other plant gums, and enzymes such as transglutaminase.

Molecular gastronomy is now widespread enough to be considered established, making it something to be studied and taught in academia, as This does at AgroParisTech. It’s no longer a movement operating on the sidelines. “That time was all wonderful,” This declares, gesturing at me in our video chat from his home office in Paris, “but that was the past.”

It seems the alchemist has lost interest in the Philosopher’s Stone.

Vive Note à Note

But This has a new muse. He leans forward, moving on to what currently drives him: “note-by-note” cuisine, the ultimate in cooking from scratch. Rather than pulling ingredients from the cupboard or refrigerator, This now wants chefs to grab them from the chemical cabinet. If successful, note-by-note could reshape the culinary landscape, and, if This’s long-term vision pans out, do away with food distribution as we know it.

note a note champagne
A note-by-note champagne

This’s concept, which he discusses in his new book, La cuisine note à note , (an English translation of which is to be published by Columbia University Press), is to identify and study the fundamental chemical constituents of dishes—the myriad molecules in the meals we eat—and then reconstruct the essence of those recipes using a selection of the compounds that create a dish’s sensory experience. Beyond recreating something like (but unlike) the foods we know, he envisions the eventual possibility of engineering never-eaten-before creations.

This says that a note-by-note chef would design dishes by composing odors and tastes, colors, shapes, and consistencies—even nutritional values—entirely from the mixing of “raw” compounds. Ingredients can include water, ethanol, sucrose, amino acids, lipids, and so forth. “Using chemical compounds opens up billions of new possibilities,” he says. “It’s like a painter using a palette of primary colors or a musician composing note by note.”

Promoting New Notes

So far, many note-by-note recipes seem to be relatively simple, liquid—or at least mostly smooth-textured—and often alcoholic. A faux orange cocktail, for example, might include ethanol, citric acid, fructose, glucose, and beta-carotene, and a note-by-note wine might be mixed up from water, anthocyanins (for color), sugars, ethanol, and amino acids (for flavor) as well as glycerol, phenols, quinones, and organic acids.

note a note oeuf Cordon bleu
This egg dish was one of many note-by-note recipes recently cooked and served the cooking school Le Cordon Bleu Paris.

Note-by-note recipes tend to look more at home in a lab notebook than a kitchen binder. Consider this early attempt to make a fully synthetic note-by-note sauce, basically a wine-less wine sauce for a butter-poached lobster fricassee, annotated here:

Melt 100 g of glucose and 20 g of tartaric acid (one of the main acids in wine) in 200 ml of water. Add 2 g of polyphenol, which has been extracted from grape juice using reverse osmosis filtering. Boil and add sodium chloride (table salt) and piperine—the pungent agent of black pepper. Bind the sauce with amylose, a polysaccaride, one of the two components of starch. Remove the preparation from off the heat and stir in 50 g of triacylglycerol (a triglyceride or fat and oil component). Serve as a sauce.

This first proposed note-by-note cuisine after he was experimenting with adding flavors to food and drink to improve the taste. “As I mentioned in the introductory 1994 Scientific American paper on note-by-note,” This recalls, “you might want to add the aromatic molecule, vanillin, to a cheaper whiskey before serving it to guests because vanilla is found in some more expensive whiskeys.” Before long, he says, “I was thinking about making dishes directly from the compounds alone.”

“I’m still waiting for a chef to open a restaurant that clearly serves note-by-note dishes.”

This vividly remembers the excitement of his early lectures on the note-by-note concept, but admits that promoting such a radical philosophy turned out to be tougher than he thought. He mentions that he gets no direct remuneration from championing the cause, and that it comes with its own costs. “I once got a couple of death threats from opponents of agro-businesses…”

Following his initial efforts, This cut back on proselytizing for a while. But a few years ago, he began to step up his advocacy. “By then I felt more comfortable with the procedures,” he says. “I teamed up with my friend, chef Pierre Gagnaire, and we worked for about six months to a year to develop dishes before presenting the first ‘note à note’ meal in Hong Kong in 2008.” (Gagnaire is a three-star Michelin chef with an eponymous restaurant in Paris.) The first-ever note-by-note dish featured jelly pearls that tasted like apple, iced granite—a slightly crunchy sorbet—with a lemon-like taste, and a wafer-thin “glucose caramel” strip. No apple, lemon, or caramel were used to flavor the dish.

note a note chick corea
A chef plates "Chick Corea," a note-by-note creation by Pierre Gagnaire, who named the dish after the jazz-fusion pianist.

Every year, This, together with chefs and students at Le Cordon Bleu Paris, prepare a gala note-by-note dinner, and he hosts other tasting events in Hong Kong and Montreal to promulgate the practice. He and two AgroParisTech colleagues recently held the inaugural note-by-note cooking contest.

Beyond the Kitchen

Like many culinary movements, such as organic cooking and local sourcing, This’s motivations for developing note-by-note cuisine aren’t entirely gastronomic. “We face an energy crisis, and as energy costs rise, transportation costs rise. But by extracting the water near the food source, you can avoid the costs of transporting the water in food,” he says. “Say you pulp some carrots, remove the cellulose, and then separate the remaining liquid using reverse osmosis into water and a ‘not-water’ fraction. People are just thinking about uses for cellulose, and the non-water, non-cellulose remnants would be something new in the kitchen that would be easy to use. You could divide it further if you desire.”

Fractionations and water extraction would also avoid spoilage losses, This adds, which accounts for 20-40% of global food supplies. The approach could “feed a lot more people with the same food supply” and would help farmers remain profitable, he says.

“This’s articles give a quite good analysis of his arguments,” notes Jens Risbo, a food scientist at the University of Copenhagen, “though I don’t share his conclusions. I would, for example, expect that the energy used to purify the extracts would exceed what you could gain by avoiding shipping water, but I understand his intentions.”

“There’s no doubt that from an artistic point of view, note-by-note definitely moves boundaries, freeing up some long-held limitations in making food creations, and enabling practitioners to explore a new part of the cooking space,” Risbo says. “I guess I just don’t think it’s going to be something that people will do much of. It will always be limited. Developing the right chemical compounds to recreate something like food is not that easy to do,” he continues. “It’s a significant challenge that will require new understanding. And nature does a marvelous job of that already.”

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Mixed Results

In the culinary world, This’s concept gets a mixed reception. “This’s vision is provocative and potentially instructive, which is no surprise as he’s something of a visionary in opening up food science to fine cooking,” says Nathan Myhrvold, technologist and principal author of the six-volume, 2,400-page Modernist Cuisine . “I would venture that a series of simple dishes conceived using a sparse pallet of flavors could be highly enlightening,” he says. “You might, for instance, be able to get a better idea of how the dominant and lesser flavors interact as they play on your tongue because you’re dealing with fewer of them.” It’s similar to how scientists test their hypotheses—by limiting the number of variables to study the desired effect.

“What realistic impacts of note-by-note might have in the long-term is hard to gauge,” Myhrvold says. “But perhaps you might end up buying a beef broth in the supermarket that has no meat, but is believable enough because it contains all the fundamental essences that constitute beef broth.”

Not everyone is as optimistic. Several less-than-positive press reviews have discussed dishes, say an orange cocktail or a fish custard, that at best vaguely remind tasters of the real thing. It seems as if the proponents of note-by-note are still working out the top-notes of particular dishes—the dominant, important flavors, odors, and textures that are absolutely essential to recognizing and savoring them. Results may improve when chefs begin adding more subtle, trace flavor compounds to note-by-note dishes to fill out the sensory arrays. For his part, This admits, with some reservations, that his approach is still in its infancy.

Fortunately, others report much more positive results. Peter Barham, a polymer physicist at the University of Bristol and visiting professor of molecular gastronomy at the Copenhagen’s Royal Veterinary University, writes in a recent e-mail that he sometimes prepares “a special ‘organic’ raspberry sorbet when I have foodies for dinner. It tastes just fine.”

After Barham’s guests have eaten and commented on it, he then reveals that the only thing about the recipe that’s “organic,” save the water, is the organic chemist who made the ingredients. “The point is,” he writes, “to illustrate the fact that nobody can simply from the flavor tell whether a food is organic or not, nor even how it was made—it is all in the story we weave when we serve food!”

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Establishing la Technique

In an effort to build up the bona fides of the note-by-note approach, This and his co-workers aren’t just using the technique to invent new dishes, they are also dissecting old recipes. The team has reportedly analyzed more than 450 traditional French sauces, from béchamel to velouté, and found that they follow just 23 general formulas. He reportedly tries to sell chefs on the utility of his method by generating formulas entirely at random just to show that they will work.

Of course, some recipes are less successful than others. “In November 2010,” This says, “I met with a group of French chefs to give private lessons on the principles of note-by-note. I bought various products that produce color, consistency, mouth feel, etc., and demonstrated some of the basic combinations and procedures. Then I let them play for a few hours. Nobody was happy with most of the results, but what do you expect? This is the first time they had used ingredients like beta carotene or chlorophyll A.”

This note-by-note main course is notable for its "meat spray."

“It was the same at the beginning of molecular cuisine,” he says. “It took a while before many chefs grew comfortable with using alginate and calcium to make hydrocolloid gels.”

This admits that “it’ll take a minimum of 10 years” for his ideas to catch on. “I’m really still waiting for a chef to open a restaurant that clearly serves note-by-note dishes.” He predicts that the pioneer will probably be “an old, established chef, one who’s still a rebel.” That chef, he guesses, will probably not be in France, Europe, or the U.S., but perhaps Asia or Australia.

For its part, the food industry is intrigued, but hasn’t embraced This’s latest innovation. He says that he has discussed flavoring with managers at Yoplait and other corporations, and adds that many industry personnel attend his courses. “But the food industry is very conservative,” This warns. “They don’t move toward possible business uses unless they know that the consumer is onboard.”

In the meantime, This is emphasizing a more accessible adaptation of note-by-note. It’s a more realistic method that he calls “practical note-by-note,” one that employs more chemically complex extractions and essences rather than basic compounds. That should make it a lot easier to master. The simplified, beginner’s version is like “playing a kid’s synthesizer keyboard,” he says. “It doesn’t offer all the possible notes, but it’s easy to use so at least you can make some music.”

Photo credits: © Alexandra Boulat/VII/Corbis, Hervé This.