Chef Herve This’ accent is as thick as béarnaise sauce, but I’m pretty sure I’ve heard him right.
“Barbecue, we have to avoid,” he said.
This is a culinary visionary, not a vote-seeking politician, so perhaps it’s silly to imagine him marking his first trip to North Carolina by eating mounds of slow-cooked pork. But his insistence that his host state’s most cherished dish is “dangerous” seems ruthlessly provocative. No wonder this French chemist has riled up the gastronomic establishment.
This, a featured presenter at the upcoming Swannanoa School of Culinary Arts, first emerged on the food scene as the leading proponent of molecular cooking (which, he stresses, isn’t the same as molecular gastronomy, a seemingly semantic discrepancy that’s so meaningful to This that he’s devoted the only English-language page of his lively blog to it). This has defined molecular cooking as “using new tools and new methods,” which — in practice — has given the last decade’s high-end diners endless foams and freeze-dried concoctions.
But even a philosophy that hinges on newness can lose its novelty, so This set about crafting a still-fresher approach to food.
“Since 2000, I’m thinking of a new way which would be fashionable, and I propose two or three ways,” he recalls. “But I can feel when the public is not ready: When even my friends are annoyed, let’s say, I know it is too early.”
This deemed last year the right time to roll out an idea he’d quietly couched in the final paragraph of an article he’d authored with his Hungarian physicist pal Nicholas Kurti back in 1994. This, who handled the writing duties for the pair, suspected Kurti would nix the farsighted sentences calling for cooks to consider chemical compounds the building blocks of their cuisine.
“My whole life, I dream of a time when recipes will include ‘add two drops of so-and-so compound,’” he explains. “I even was considering myself like crazy. Finally, we kept this sentence because it was a good conclusion. It was not a silly idea.
“Probably last November, I called [chef and collaborator] Pierre Gagnaire, and said, ‘You have to do it,’ and Pierre accepted,” This continues. “Pierre accepted, and created the first note-by-note dish in history. It was incredible.”
To understand note-by-note — and the word “understand” is used loosely here, since the thoroughly cerebral concept is still evolving — it’s useful to return to This’ first great kitchen contribution. He began delving into the scientific rules of cooking in 1980 after ruining a soufflé by adding too many egg yolks at once. Chagrined, he decided to put thousands of cookbook directives to the test, weeding out the scientifically sound suggestions from the ones best left to old wives. By investigating why suckling pigs tasted better if their heads were chopped off after roasting, he methodically discovered how food worked.
As any Chemistry 101 student who’s dipped a pH strip in a bottle of vinegar knows, unlocking the science of food isn’t necessarily sophisticated stuff. But This and his partner Kurti, who in 1969 showed fellow physicists how to make meringue in a vacuum chamber, took their studies one step further. For This and Kurti, the magic ultimately lay not in unboiling an egg — an edible parlor trick that encapsulates molecular cooking — but in eliminating the egg altogether. According to the tenets of note-by-note cooking, an egg is merely a culinary construct. Radishes, parmesan cheese and liverwurst are just names eaters have assigned to certain collections of compounds.
“The idea is to forget about meat and fish and everything,” This says. “So it is very difficult because chefs have no idea what compounds taste like. From the point of view of eating, it is very interesting, because we have before us now a new continuum of flavors.”
Ingredients constrain chefs by limiting them to flavors already melded together in nature. By working at the chemical level, This argues, chefs can unleash flavors heretofore unknown.
“It’s like a painter using compound colors,” he explains. “If all you have is purple and brown, you will never find yellow.”
Note-by-note cooking derives its name from a musical analogy: “When you add a carrot, it’s like a chord,” This says. The goal of note-by-note is to isolate each note in the chord, or flavor in the compound. “You can develop the loudness of each note,” he adds.
Note-by-note is so removed from current cooking techniques that This maintains it’s impossible to adequately describe a dish prepared according to its precepts. “There was a crispy part, there was a hot part,” he says of Gagnaire’s dish. “I cannot tell you what it was because it was like nothing.”
Still, This says eaters shouldn’t mistake note-by-note’s sophistication for difficult science. While the word ‘compound’ makes most civilians think of undecipherable strings of numbers and letters, he points out that sugar is a compound. So’s water.
“Salt is a pure compound,” he says. “Some of the pure compounds are very traditional. I’m not a chemist who wants to present people with specialized chemicals.”
This concedes toying with compounds can be a slightly risky pursuit, but argues most new cooking methods — from fire to the microwave — caused serious injuries before people adjusted to using them. Some of the most popular cooking methods, he argues, continue to pose risks (his example is barbecue, which he claims may cause cancer).
“It is dangerous, it is true, but the knife is dangerous too, and it’s in the kitchen,” This says of note-by-note. “We have to eat, and we have to learn.”
Xpress food writer Hanna Rachel Raskin can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.