With his latest culinary innovation, France’s favorite gastronomic mad scientist hopes to do nothing less than eradicate world hunger.
( HERV THIS CARRIES what he believes is the solution to one of the worlds greatest problems in a jumble of vials stuffed into a battered leather valise. From his lab in Paris, where he is considered a national treasure (he co-created molecular gastronomy in 1988 and now heads the prestigious food division of the French Academy of Agriculture), This has taken his bag of magic tricks to top cooking schools in Copenhagen and Lisbon, to formal dinners in Hong Kong and Quebec and to research facilities that he is establishing in Seoul and Buenos Aires.
Thiss big idea is nothing less than the eradication of world hunger, which he plans to accomplish not with any new economic overhaul, but through a culinary innovation that he calls , or NbN. Molecular cuisine — the deconstruction of food into a series of highly alchemized individual textures, flavors and compounds, often in the form of foams, gels and other matter not immediately recognizable as food — is associated with intellectual-culinary concept art of the sort practiced by Heston Blumenthal of the Fat Duck and René Redzepi of Noma. But This’s ambitions for his new cuisine are far from fanciful — indeed, the 60-year-old chemist, an impish and rumpled Dumbledore without the facial hair, often sounds more like a political radical than a food scientist. ‘‘I work for the public,’’ he says. ‘‘I hate rich people. NbN is a new art for chefs, and art is important. But are we going to feed humankind — or just make something for foodies?’’
ACCORDING TO THIS, one of the reasons there isn’t enough food to go around is because when we transport it, what we’re really transporting is water, which makes food spoil. A carrot is mostly water. Same for a tomato, an apple, an eggplant and many other fruits and vegetables. Unless they’re refrigerated, which is expensive and has a nasty impact on the environment, their moist nutrients provide an optimal environment for microorganisms.
This proposes that we stop shipping ‘‘wet’’ foods across countries or continents and instead break them down into their parts: separating their nutrients and flavors into a wide variety of powders and liquids that are theoretically shelf-stable in perpetuity, and can be used as ingredients. Many of the basic components of food have unwieldy names but familiar tastes or smells. Allyl isothiocyanate, a compound obtained from mustard seeds, suggests wasabi; 1-octen-3-ol evokes wild mushrooms. Depending on its concentration, benzyl mercaptan may call to mind garlic, horseradish, mint or coffee; decanal hints at something between an orange and an apricot. ‘‘Nobody knows why the same compound in different strengths may taste like curry or maple syrup,’’ This says. ‘‘The physiology of taste is an exciting field — my colleagues are discovering new things every month.’’
Other compounds provide color, texture, freshness or mouth feel: In gel form, agar-agar is firm and brittle and kappa-carrageenan is elastic. Each of This’s NbN dishes is built compound by compound, using food’s internal building blocks while retaining all its nutrients. Carefully mix and match a few compounds or use them to enhance inexpensive ‘‘real’’ foods, and voilŕ — you have a way to feed large numbers of people satisfying and nutritionally complete meals for very little money. ‘‘I hope this will be food in 20 years,’’ says This, whose parents, an obstetrician and a psychoanalyst, gave him his first chemistry set when he was 6.
Right now, most of the ingredients for the still esoteric NbN pantry can be found online from scientific suppliers — they’re made by dozens of companies around the world — but This envisions grocery stores of the future selling peachy hexyl acetate and cucumberish trans,cis-2,6-nonadien-1-ol; no crazier than the bottle of vanilla extract or oil of oregano found in most homes. ‘‘I have 100 spices in my kitchen,’’ he says. ‘‘Why not the same amount of compounds?’’ (NbN cooking was born when This realized that he could make cheap whiskey taste expensive merely by adding a few drops of vanillin, the main compound that gives a vanilla bean its distinctive flavor.)
‘‘Technically, there’s no difficulty using NbN compounds,’’ This says. ‘‘It’s very simple and very cheap.’’ If the concept seems strange, he suggests that we may already recognize some versions of NbN, like a particular mixture of sucrose, phosphoric acid and caramel color — a.k.a. Coca Cola.
And while note-by-note cooking requires no fancy paraphernalia — none of the centrifuges and rotary evaporators necessary for high-cuisine molecular gastronomy — This knows that he has to win over the public in a similar way, largely by letting showmen take the lead. ‘‘Changing habits is difficult,’’ he concedes. ‘‘There is something called food neophobia — we don’t eat what we don’t recognize. That’s why I’m using chefs as allies. People want whatever is done by celebrities. If Lady Gaga wears a pink shirt, everybody wants it.’’
Executed by friends of This like the master chefs at Le Cordon Bleu, the results sometimes seem like parcels delivered from Mars. A dish made with coagulated fish proteins resembles a rolled blue yoga mat; chicken is approximated by a bowl of red pearls. Pierre Gagnaire, whose namesake Paris restaurant has three Michelin stars, featured a note-by-note creation on his menu: a dessert consisting of apple jellies, lemon granita and caramel wafers, but made with neither apples, lemons or caramel — the flavors came from citric acids and a sugar substitute called 4-O-a-glucopyranosyl-D-sorbitol. ‘‘I give Gagnaire my research,’’ This says, ‘‘and he adds the poetry.’’
AS WITH CONVENTIONAL food, there’s a fabulous, whimsical (some would say precious) high-end restaurant version of NbN, and there is home cooking for mere mortals. Behind a turquoise blue door, in This’s lab at AgroParisTech, where you’ll find a clutter of beakers, a bazaar of powders and inspirational messages tacked to the walls, he often makes an impromptu NbN lunch. Typically it’s a handful of vegetable proteins mixed with whatever flavoring or textural compounds strike his fancy, cooked in a frying-pan on a hot plate. Today’s version looks like a bright pink pancake and tastes like steak; if he added methional, it could taste like potatoes inside the steak. Another combination of compounds might taste like pizza or popcorn. This is not a purist and encourages baby-stepping NbN elements into conventional cooking. A compound called cis-3-hexen-1-ol tastes like olive oil on steroids when you add it to salads or pastas.
Unsurprisingly, This’s plan to save the world has generated skepticism. ‘‘Food is not just a collection of chemicals — it has a role in human society that goes way beyond molecules,’’ says Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University. ‘‘Eating has social, economic and anthropological roles, and the lack of food is a complicated problem, requiring more than a technical solution. This’s idea is fun, it’s interesting, but I’m dubious.’’
This himself seems undaunted. Chefs who will lead the NbN charge are already being trained at cooking schools in Europe. ‘‘We will focus on note-by-note cuisine as a futuristic concept that is sustainable for future food demands,’’ says Jacob Kolstrup Zederkof, the head of education at the Copenhagen Hospitality College, which has just launched an NbN program. Once chefs start demanding the necessary ingredients, This hopes that the compounds will be easily and inexpensively mass-produced — though not by him. ‘‘I’m promoting something that I don’t sell, which is a pity,’’ he says, half in jest. ‘‘My wife is mad at me — I could be rich.