One by one
Herve This was in Istanbul to give a conference organized by Özyeğin University department of gastronomy and culinary arts to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the school’s foundation.
Back in 2016, I had the chance to listen to him in person. Hervé This, the legendary “mad” scientist, was the keynote speaker at the World Association of Chefs Societies (WACS) Conference held in Thessaloniki, Greece. He was full of energy; he stepped on to the stage like a rock star. All the chefs were mesmerized by his performance. He was like a god revealing them the secrets of the future. How a scientist is so influential on world chefs seems a mystery, but the story goes back to at least three decades.
This is not a chef, but he might be the most inspiring “chef” ever to revolutionize cooking. Together with the late Nicholas Kurti, he coined the term “molecular and physical gastronomy” for the first time in 1988. Kurti was a Hungarian-born scientist, based in Oxford, who had a passion in cooking, or rather more accurate to say, experimenting on cooking techniques. As early as 1969, Kurti was playing with the newly developed microwave, creating previously unimaginable dishes like reverse Baked Alaska, hot inside, cold outside. When Kurti and This met in 1988, it was an instant chemical reaction. They started inventing new cooking techniques and scrutinizing the idea of molecular and physical aspects of gastronomy, leading eventually to the phenomenon we know today as molecular gastronomy. From 1994 on, chefs were utilizing new techniques, tools and ingredients like syphons, centrifuge, liquid nitrogen, dehydrators, syringes, maltodextrin, lecithin, and talking about spherification and creating foams. Many great chefs like Heston Blumenthal, Gran Achaz, Ferran Adrià and José Andrés began redefining fine-dining.
After listening to This, I remember feeling rather uneasy as I was going to do a presentation the same afternoon about a traditional Turkish food: Tarhana. Even the thought of presenting to a crowd of chefs after such a miraculous performance was totally nerve-racking. In despair, I had a brilliant idea, enlightened by his words, I started my talk referring to his ideas. When he was explaining his new concept of note-by-note cooking, he kept saying that carrying food, carrots, tomatoes and onions, whatever, were crazy, and not sustainable at all, as 90 percent of all food was water, and he simply asked: Can we stop transporting water? That simple question was the key to my own talk. After all, tarhana was probably the first instant soup in the planet, a creation dating back to ancient times, a totally desiccated product made by drying a fermented mix of several food items. Basing my talk on his ideas, explaining a millennia-old Anatolian tradition in the context of an idea for the future proved to be a sensible idea, and practically saved my day!
Of course This is not a scientist locking himself to his lab all the time. He was friendly with most chefs, and he collaborated with them to see how his ideas are applied to haute cuisine. Starting in 1994, he created and sent an idea to Pierre Gagnaire, one of France’s leading chefs, and the chef would come up with a dish applying his formula, also posting the recipe to his own website. Needless to say, many many recipes were born.
In his Istanbul conference, he passionately explained his concept, Note by Note Cuisine — worthy of another article — totally new and hard to digest for a great majority of the audience. But as I learn from him, after the Thessaloniki conference, there have been some recent developments. A French entrepreneur started to sell note by note compounds; in May 2017, chef Andrea Camastra, in Warsaw, Poland, switching his entire menu to Note by Note, in his restaurant Senses; in February 2018, a 100 percent Note by Note Dinner was served by the Alsatian chef Julien Binz (Michelin Star), in Ammerschwihr, Alsace (France); in April 2018, a Note by Note Dinner at the Culinary School Le Monde, Athens, Greece, in July 2018, two Note by Note Dinners served by chefs of the At-Sunrice Global Chef Academy, in Singapore.
These are very exciting steps, though slow steps. The idea is being applied one by one, each note-by-note meal served. Perhaps some creations will live forever, some will be left in the shades of history. Who knows, but his inspiration is obvious and will remain forever!