The future of food: Step-by-step

The future of food: Step-by-step

Aylin Öney Tan -
The future of food: Step-by-step He steps to the stage like a rock star. All the young chefs are on foot applauding. All the young chefs are on foot applauding. He is a hero. Hervé This is a hero for all chefs worldwide and he is not even a chef himself. As the keynote speaker at the World Association of Chefs Societies (WACS) Conference held in Thessaloniki, Greece, he takes over not only the stage, but also the hearts of chefs with his challenging speech. He will be repeating this sentence over and over again: I’m not a chef! Though he stresses this fact, I believe he is a true chef. If being a chef is about creating a dish, about creating an idea about food, thinking about the future of food and about how the planet will feed itself in the future, he is the ultimate chef!

This is physical chemist who works for the Institut National de la Recherce Agronomique at AgroParisTech, in Paris, France, a public institute dedicated to research of agricultural science. Apparently even the institute is not directly related to the culinary arts, but rather agricultural science. So how did he ever get to be the hero of chefs? Well, he coined the term “molecular and physical gastronomy” in 1988 with the late Nicholas Kurti, a Hungarian-born physicist whose hobby was cooking. Kurti was very enthusiastic about applying science to cooking and solving culinary problems with the aid of science. He also liked to play with the newly developed microwave. Back in 1969 at his talk in the Royal Society in London, he amazed the audience with his experimental reverse baked Alaska named frozen Florida, hot inside and cold outside, made in a microwave of course. Over the years he organized several workshops in Italy playing with the idea of molecular and physical aspects of gastronomy. After Kurti’s death in 1998, This shortened the term to “molecular gastronomy” and pursued working on the idea. He created the Foundation of Food Science & Culture and eventually the Institute for Advanced Studies of Taste. That is how a physicist becomes a hero of chefs.

Maybe he was meant to be chef. Listening to him, I cannot help thinking that he also belongs on the stage, a natural-born presenter. He likes shocking people and attracting one’s attention with unexpected comments. He bluntly said, “Molecular cuisine is old fashioned, it was 20 years ago,” amazing all young chefs that still think of molecular gastronomy as futuristic cooking. He likes to create unconventional expressions; he describes mayonnaise as “nanoscopic organization.” However, he trusts the experience of chefs, but prefers to explain what happens in the kitchen in scientific terms, such as: “Raspberry goes blue in a tin pan, it is a molecular organization. Chefs know this, not through their chemistry knowledge, but through experience.” According to him, what we eat are simply gels, liquid trapped in a cell. Whether artificial or natural, food is a simple or complex gel, he said. The audience seems to be a bit mesmerized about thinking of their meat or spaghetti as “a complex gel with dimension,” as he described. But he makes it all very clear and logical. His talk is like a crash course in “science for dummies.” As one of the dummies, I’m convinced that chocolate is also a gel. 

As he continued his talk, he started to mix some powders in a bowl naming each powder as protein, casein, capsaicin, sucrose, sodium and so on. Of course all are scientific names of components that make up our food. Added to these components, he says there are 10,000 odor choices that make our food palatable. He makes the president of WACS sniff a flacon to show his choice of flavor: Olive oil. He pours some over his mix of dubious powders, makes a young chef whip the mix a bit, and tucks the whole thing in the microwave for a minute. The president remains reluctant as he tries to make him taste the awkward coagulated thing. 
Here is the challenge. A chef can choose the shape, the consistency, the texture, the color, the odor, smell or flavor in his or her mind and create a food making use of compounds instead of using actual food like meat, fish, vegetables or fruit. As the ground keeps silent, he gave a mind-opening example from music. A synthesizer can create any sound in the world without using an actual musical instrument. Analyzing sounds made that possible. It was futuristic science once, now kids play with it. Cooking is like making music. Taste-by-taste, you create a dish, just like a composer creates music note-by-note. He introduced the idea of note-by-note cooking, taking molecules or compounds as raw ingredients, just as notes of sound in composing music: “If you use pure compounds, you open up billions and billions of new possibilities. It’s like a painter using primary colors or a musician composing note by note.” As he said with note-by-note cooking, the possibilities are infinite. 

The idea behind the note-by-note cuisine is not to make food like music out of compounds of course. It is the concern about the future of the planet. The planet is facing an energy crisis, water is more precious than we think and it is simply crazy to keep transporting water in the form of food. He said the water content in food is incredible; tomato 95 percent, apple 85 percent, carrot 80 percent and so on and simply asked: Can we avoid transporting water? That is the challenge for cooks to answer. More so, thinking that a lot of this transported food is also being wasted, either on the way, at restaurants, at the supermarkets, or at homes. It is simply crazy!

He gave reasons and he gave hope. By using already extant techniques and knowledge of science, we can improve sustainability. At the 2011 International Year of Chemistry opening banquet they served real meat versus lab-grown meat. But he is not pure science. He acknowledges the emotion; he regards cooking as a unique combination of love, art and technique. He leaves it to the chefs to create the future of food by making use of science in the most responsible way made possible with the aid of science. 

I must admit that I was intimidated by tasting the odd protein-casein mix whipped up by This and cooked in a minute in a microwave. It looked rather grim and unappetizing; as the color was not adjusted it was an uninspiring beige. But it smelled good, of pure olive oil, as he had splashed some oil to the mix at the last minute. Then I thought, “What the heck! When can I have the opportunity to taste a unique ‘Hervé This experiment’ ever again?” Putting my prejudice aside, I tasted a tiny bit. It was like an olive oil scrambled egg, actually better than the one I had at the breakfast buffet.

Thank you Hervé This. It will take time to digest this idea. But I’m sure as we enjoy music from our Spotify app, we will come to terms with enjoying a lab-constructed food based on compounds, not on animal or plant tissues; only bite-by-bite, and enjoy its taste note-by-note… It will just be step-by-step to adjust our minds to this new world of cuisine, and of course our cooking techniques and kitchens. Step-by-step, but it will inevitably happen!

Bite of the Week

Team of the Week:
Turkey is represented in WACS by Yalçın Manav, president of TAŞFED, the Cooks and Chefs Federation of Turkey. Apart from this representation, sorry for self-promotion, invited keynote speakers include myself and Chef Cem Erol from MSA, the Culinary Arts School in Istanbul. More on our experience presenting tarhana and salep will be next week!