Daniel Cressey talks to Hervé This, one of the inventors of the science of culinary transformations.
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the scientific field of 'molecular gastronomy', the study of culinary transformations, as first laid out in Paris by French chemist Hervé This and Hungarian physicist Nicholas Kurti in 1988. Since then, the field has studied the science of meat-browning, soufflé-swelling, egg-hardening and whipping foods other than cream.
How did you first come to put your interest in food and science together?
On the 16 March 1980. It was a Sunday evening and I had friends around for dinner. I wanted to make an Elle recipe for Roquefort soufflé. There was a sentence saying you should add the yolks two-by-two; I decided to put all the yolks together. The soufflé was not a big success.
The next Sunday I also had friends to dinner, and I decided to make the Roquefort soufflé again. I thought if the two-by-two method is better than the all-together method, perhaps one-by-one would be better. I added one-by-one, and the soufflé was better.
The next day I did not go to my office. I took a day’s holiday. I took a lab notebook, and the first sentence was: “Now I have to collect all these old wives' tales and test them.” This was the beginning of my story.
When you set up this field of science with physicist Kurti, what did you hope to achieve?
We agreed cooking is a chemical art, like making soap, like metallurgy. We agreed this was the last chemical art that had not been rationalized.
There were five aims in the beginning. Number one: investigate old wives' tales. Number two: understand recipes. Number three: invent new dishes. Number four: introduce new tools, methods and ingredients. Number five: show that sciences are wonderful.
What other wives' tales have you come across?
In Brazil, these people have particular old wives' tales. For example, when you make a caipirinha — a cocktail — you cut the lime and you should leave out the inner, fibrous part. They say it is because this part is bitter. I tested this inner part – it was not bitter. Of course we should not teach [these old wives' tales], but we have to keep them and to put them into a museum.
What kinds of new discoveries have you made?
I invented chocolate Chantilly — how to make a chocolate mousse without eggs, just foaming the chocolate. I was very proud, I got prizes for that. Later I discovered you can make the same with butter, foie gras, or even olive oil, so the invention is nothing [big in itself].
I invented shallot aioli [a mayonnaise-like emulsion usually made with garlic]. Later, I realised that if you grind any plant or animal sample with oil you can make an emulsion. So the number of types of aioli is infinite.
Do you hope your inventions will wind up in famous kitchens, or in the home?
Chefs are a tool, a strategy for me to make rational ideas enter the home. You know the strategy: you give it to the king so the public wants to eat what the king eats.
In France we introduced education sessions you do in schools. The first is you teach children how to make a cubic metre of whipped egg white with one egg [by adding a little cold water]. This was introduced in schools in Brazil's favelas last month. This is my biggest success.
Where do you hope molecular gastronomy will be in 20 years' time?
In CNRS [the National Centre for Scientific Research, in France], you have a lot of labs for metallurgy. Now, if the rationalization of metallurgy led to many labs in the CNRS, my prediction is if we work well, 20 years from now we can have many labs for molecular gastronomy.
Having highlighted the science behind cooking, do you think cooking itself should be seen as a science?
Cooking will never be scientific, because cooking is an art, or a technique.
After looking at food all day, what do you like to eat when you go home in the evening?
I’m so fond of chemistry, of physical chemistry more precisely, that I could spend days without eating. When I’m cooking it’s because I need to see phenomena.
My family frequently argues with me, saying, "Well you found a wonderful recipe, why don’t you make it again." I say, "Because it’s not very interesting [to do the same thing over again]." I’m not interested in cooking. I’m interested in molecular gastronomy.