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Note-By-Note Cuisine

French chemist and chef proposes making meals from molecular scratch

by Sarah Everts
November 12, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 46

Credit: Shutterstock
Photo of an orange cocktail.
Credit: Shutterstock

Attention folks: Molecular gastronomy is passé. Note-by-note cuisine is where it’s at.

Or so says Hervé This, the French chemist and chef who, with the late physicist Nicholas Kurti, pioneered molecular gastronomy’s marriage of high-tech science and cooking back in 1992. Now dozens of chefs around the world use rotary evaporators, liquid nitrogen, and hydrocolloid gels to devise culinary delights.

But This has moved on, inventing a new area of culinary chemistry called note-by-note cuisine. It takes the phrase “cooking from scratch” and pushes it to the molecular extreme. Purveyors of note-by-note cuisine would analyze the component chemicals of a finished dish, say a savory reduction sauce, which typically includes thousands of molecules from wine, broth, and other ingredients. Then they would re-create the sauce using a subset of those molecules—namely the ones primarily responsible for our sensory experience of the sauce.

In addition to reengineering familiar foods, note-by-note cuisine could also point to entirely new edible creations, argues This in his new book, “La cuisine note à note.”

I tried two of This’s note-by-note creations—an orange cocktail and a fish custard—at a recent food-science conference in Nancy, France. This told me the cocktail was made of water, ethanol, citric acid, glucose, and fructose—as well as a few other chemicals, including β-carotene for the orange color.

The orange cocktail’s taste was reminiscent of orange. Similarly the custard of fish was like a faint memory of fish. Neither one, however, was a full embodiment of either item. It was like sampling a food’s shadow or ghost, with about as much satisfaction as you’d expect from eating something slightly spooky. In short, I didn’t actually like either dish—although I’d still be curious to try others. When I asked This if he likes the flavor of his own creations, he conceded there is room for improvement.

But flavor aside, I think the bigger challenge This faces is society’s aversion to any suggestion that food is made of chemicals—a fear that is further compounded by the idea of making food solely from individual chemicals.

A case in point: While waiting for my dinner companion at my favorite French bistro in my hometown of Berlin, I sat reading This’s new book. The restaurant owner, catching sight of its cover and author, asked me about the book. When I explained the premise, he recoiled in horror saying, “Non, non!” and eyed the book with disdain for the rest of the evening.

This knows what he’s up against. He spends part of the book’s introductory chapter pointing out that food is already a mélange of molecules and that many ingredients commonly used right now—including salt, table sugar, and gelatin—are in fact industrially produced or refined chemicals.

He also has a series of interesting—if not provocative—arguments in favor of note-by-note cuisine.

“Humankind is facing an energy crisis,” This says on his blog. As energy costs continue to rise, it may become “too expensive to ship tomatoes from Spain to France,” he tells C&EN. But because tomatoes are primarily water, it could be more economical to ship just the chemical essence of tomatoes instead of the whole fruit, he suggests. Or consider that perfect reduction sauce: The energy used to slowly evaporate water may one day be considered an incredible luxury. “The continued augmentation of energy costs will be perhaps the key-to-success for note-by-note cuisine,” This writes in his book.

He also suggests note-by-note cuisine could have potential health benefits: For example, roasting food produces many delightful flavor compounds but also potentially problematic ones, such as acrylamide, which has been shown to be carcinogenic in animals. In a note-by-note meal, only desired flavors could be added, while the potentially harmful compounds are left out of the recipe.

In fact, the idea of note-by-note cuisine began in the mid-1990s when This was playing around with adding chemical flavors to improve the taste of food and drink. For example, in a 1994 Scientific American article, This wrote that a dinner party host may want to improve the taste of cheap whiskey by adding the aromatic molecule vanillin, because the molecule is found in more expensive spirits as a result of the oak casks aging process. “The initial proposal was to improve food. But the next idea was obvious,” he writes. It was “to make dishes entirely from compounds.”

Over the past couple of years, This has been hosting note-by-note tasting events in Paris, Hong Kong, and Montreal. On his blog and in his book, he rightly acknowledges that note-by-note cuisine triggers many unanswered questions, such as the long-term nutritional value of a note-by-note diet. For these reasons, and of course my purely hedonistic appreciation of traditional cooking, I’m not ready to switch to a note-by-note diet anytime soon. But I am open to sampling its evolving menu.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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