Take a chicken. Any chicken. Break it down into parts. No, not your favourite drumstick, wing or breast meat. Deconstruct it into what it really is: water, proteins, lipids, amino acids – many, many kinds from alanine to leucine – and whatever compounds that add up to make a chicken a chicken and not a farm-reared sea bass.
Now, throw that chicken away and take a cherry. It’s got pectin, cellulose and water. Fragrance molecules, colour from beta carotene and anthocyanins, sweetness, acidity, freshness – basically a complex kettle of chemical bits and pieces from one little fruit.
Apply this to everything you can think of. Carrots, eggs, freshly-cut grass, dry-aged beef, milk. Remove their physical forms and you’re left with a veritable library of compounds – in the form of powders, flavour extracts and spongy dried cellulose for texture. In the world of Hervé This, herein lies your new kitchen, with all the building blocks you need to compose an entirely new way of cooking – note by note.
From molecular gastronomy to Note-by-Note cuisine
Then again, Prof This is a chemist, not a mixologist or chef. Officially, he is a top scientist at the French National Institute of Agricultural Research in Paris. But to the rest of the world, he’s revered as the father of molecular gastronomy – the science behind molecular cuisine, which propelled chef Ferran Adria to cult status with his repertoire of cheese air, spherified olives and liquid nitrogen frozen “snow” at his now defunct elBulli restaurant in Catalonia, Spain.
“Molecular gastronomy is science; molecular cuisine is cooking,” the straight-talking professor with the demeanour of a mad scientist is quick to distinguish. “(Molecular gastronomy) is about using modern tools to cook – siphons, liquid nitrogen, evaporators, new gelling agents like carrageenan. Imagine if you make an alginate pearl with liquid inside, that’s molecular cuisine. It’s based on technique, but you still use fruit, vegetables, meat and fish.
“For Note-by-Note cuisine, fruits and meat are forbidden. You start from pure compounds and you make your dish entirely this way. It’s like music. When you play the violin, it’s traditional. If you use a synthesiser, it’s synthetic music. So this is synthetic food in a way.”
But his point is that a synthesiser isn’t as much about replicating a violin as it is about creating a totally new sound, which is what Note-by-Note is all about.
Try translating that in real life, but he was around to coach the At-Sunrice’s cooking team who were tasked to create an Asian-inspired Note-by-Note dinner – the highlight of Prof This’s week-long visit to Singapore at the invitation of the school’s founder, Kwan Lui.
On the menu were dumplings made from different starches, filled with vegetable cellulose flavoured with extracts; “shark’s fin” made of agar agar and an extraction of dried seafood in a chicken and pork knuckle broth; longevity noodles made of gluten-free starch topped with the essence of rice wine and chicken; a “Lioness Head” meatball made of gluten and “leeks” fashioned out of agar agar and colouring. Dessert was an impressive meringue shell made of albumin and agar agar, filled with sorbet and espuma, and a crumble of coconut fibre, salt, oil and sugar.
It wasn’t 100 per cent Note-by-Note, but very close, considering the little time the chefs had to develop the menu without having met the professor before he came. “It would have been easier to do a French-inspired menu since the professor is familiar with it but we wanted to do Chinese as it’s never been done before,” says team head Kelly Lee, an instructor at the academy. “We couldn’t use any fresh produce so the team had to identify the most important notes of Chinese cuisine and work with that.”
So instead of using oysters, cabbage, leek and eggs to make an oyster pancake, “we pan-fried pure starch to achieve a smoky crispness, and combined it with a flavourful gel and evocation (flavour compounds) that capture the taste of the sea”. For chefs whose main vocation is to work with good quality produce, the process was “stressful but fun”.
The biggest takeaway was how clean it was to work with Note-by-Note products. “If I’m cooking a dish the traditional way, I would have a big garbage bin full of waste,” muses team member Tais Berenstein. “With Note-by-Note, there is no waste. Very, very minimal. We were using things like xanthan gum, different starches for texture, gluten, oil and salt. The greatest difficulty is in creating the actual recipe. That will be a long journey.”
Synthetic food to solve world hunger?
Zero wastage is the holy grail of the food industry, grappling with the fact that one-third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year – about 1.3 billion tonnes – is wasted, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.
Fruits, vegetables and tubers form the bulk of it, which makes Prof This’s ideas very attractive when he says farmers should invest in fractionating machines rather than big delivery trucks. “Carrots are mainly water, cellulose, pectins – why waste so much resources transporting water? It’s crazy!” Why not juice the carrots instead, turning it into powder, while dehydrating the remaining fibre into cellulose, which can be used to create texture in your trusty Note-by-Note recipe. By breaking it into compounds – “the farmer doesn’t have to do it himself – there could be a co-op” – you increase the yield and value. “The objective is not to waste resources moving produce from here to there. You’ve already extracted the juice and colour, plus the fibre, so a carrot that can be sold for five cents becomes $1 in value.” That, plus you’ll never end up with a bin of vegetable peels again.
But there’s the niggling feeling that you like a carrot just the way it is, while the thought of a whole poached chicken, fragrant with ginger and pandan, served with fat-enriched rice is way more appetising than a plate of wheat starch and xanthan gum scented with drops of benzyl mercaptan.
We still have that luxury now, but Prof This’s point is that in the not-too-distant future, there will not be enough chickens or cherries to feed a world population bursting at the seams in 2050. “There will be 10 billion in the world then and they will need to be fed. There are six billion now and there are already people starving. You cannot increase space for cultivation. You can reduce food spoilage and that will feed more people but (if nothing is done), there will be two billion people who are starving and there will be a world war.”
He does have a point. In recent years, scientists and food companies have come up with various “solutions” to combat future food shortages that alternate between intriguing and testing your gag reflex. Insect flour. Soylent meal replacement shakes. Plant protein burgers that “bleed”. Lab-grown meat that has never come from an actual animal. Even the current food system has come under fire, with food scandals, over-intensive livestock farming and fake food threatening the way we eat.
To his detractors wondering about his personal agenda, Prof This has something to say. “I will not get more fame. I will not get more money (he does not make or sell any products). Why do you think I am doing this? I hate travelling. I want to be back in my lab. I don’t get money, so what’s the use? The use is that my children will be around in 2050 and they will have to be fed.”
He’s well aware of the resistance to what lay people call “chemicals” in food – he calls them “compounds”. But he fancies himself a modern day version of Antoine-Augustine Parmentier, the man who made potatoes famous in France in the 1700s. At the time, the French were starving and Parmentier, a prisoner in Germany, had been fed only on potatoes so he knew how good they could be. ” He wanted to bring it to France, but nobody wanted it because the Faculty of Medicine said potatoes are dangerous. So he made it for the king who enjoyed it, and the public, who were starving, saw the king eating it and wanted to have it too.”
The strategy worked with molecular cuisine, when Ferran Adria adopted it and literally started a culinary evolution. Now, he wants to do the same with Note-by-Note. “I give it only to the ‘king’ or maybe now it’s Lady Gaga and if she eats it and wants it, other people will want it too.” In the meantime, he lectures regularly around the world and in Singapore, all his speaking engagements were packed, whether he was talking to school kids at the Science Centre, or to some 600 grownups who packed a lecture hall at NUS.
In just five days, he has reached out to almost 2,000 people in Singapore, says At-Sunrice’s Kwan Lui, who was so impressed when she first heard him speak overseas that she jumped at the chance to host him in Singapore, to “create a dialogue with our students, faculty and all of Singapore”.
The guest list at the academy’s Note-by-Note dinner “included two ministers, the chairs of AVA and NEA, a three Michelin-starred chef, some celebrity chefs, five ambassadors (from France, Ukraine, Argentina, Austria and Italy) as well as his fellow scientists”.
She understands the reservations about synthetic food as “chefs are not chemists, and are mostly classically trained. There is a fear that if they adopt something unknown, they might be criticised. In Singapore, we are no different. We don’t have a diverse enough audience to jump into a little known concept without fully exploring it first.” With Prof This’s visit, she’s hoping to include Note-by-Note in At-Sunrice’s curriculum in some form as “I want to position Singapore as a thought leader in pure food research, leading the world conversation.”
Michelin chefs lead the way
Prof This may not have Lady Gaga, but he has inspired Michelin-starred chefs and young chemists who have taken his work and made it theirs. Apart from chefs such as Pierre Gagnaire and Julien Binz, a young Italian chef named Andrea Camastra has been anointed the next Ferran Adria for his Note-by-Note cuisine in the one-starred Senses restaurant in Warsaw, Poland.
As for the very compounds that are so integral to Prof This’s work – they are made commercially by a young 20-something French chemist named Michael Pontif who started the company Iqemusu – “an anagram of ‘musique’ – the French word for music, which takes the idea of combining pure elements (letters) to create new flavours”.
As his company is the only one that makes the flavour compounds – he currently has 50 and counting – Mr Pontif works closely with Prof This and chefs Camastra, Binz and Gagnaire – “about 30 chefs right now” .
Speaking from Paris, Mr Pontif understands the apprehension about synthetic food but “people are already using pure compounds at home (salt, sugar, water) but they don’t know it”. Interest is already starting to pick up “with avant-garde chefs who are the most curious culinary-wise”. It’s already a hit with bartenders, he adds, as “I’m developing edible fragrances and working with them to create edible perfumes to combine the flavour of the cocktails with the smell”.
But for all his passion for Note-by-Note, “it will never replace traditional cooking”, says Mr Pontif. “The same happened with electronic music and classical music. Orchestras and acoustic music are still strong, and people use computers and science to transform the sound of their instruments. I love traditional cooking and Note-by-Note is a new tool to use to improve our food.”
Note-by-Note is also an extension of molecular cuisine because “you need a good knowledge of molecular gastronomy and classical cooking to execute Note-by-Note”, says chef Camastra. The restaurant isn’t 100 per cent Note-by-Note as it still uses real food, “but it goes from 10 per cent to 100 per cent depending on the day, the vision, the season – it’s very much a creative process”.
The skills required make Note-by-Note a lot more difficult to execute than molecular cuisine, which is why the chef even has scientists working for him in his kitchen-laboratory. But he predicts it will become even bigger than molecular, although “it will take a longer time”. But it’s the paying customer who will determine how big Note-by-Note becomes and he does come across those with ‘neophobia’, “so we can’t make a drastic switch from real food to molecules”. But having said that, “people come and they’re a little shocked but I’m already witnessing how it’s working”.
As a solution to world hunger, it will have to wait. “Today, it is an artistic tool for chefs to create. But by 2050, maybe it will be used to change humanity. As I see it, there is no choice, because things are already going terribly wrong generally.”
This article was originally published in The Business Times.