mardi 23 septembre 2014

Some facts on molecular gastronomy

Today, I got an email from a Spanish journalist, and he asked me this information :

Hervé This

Many things are said about Molecular Gastronomy and molecular cooking as well, and also about science, technology, technique, engineering… but I see much confusion.
I also see many mistakes, on which some wrong ideas are based. Honest people don't understand anything, in particular because so many people have a money or power interest to go on with confusion.
For example, on Internet, I see MG, and even my biography or pictures of me in the middle of advertising for various products (that i don't sell, because remember that I don't sell anything, having no shares in company). I don't say that the products are bad, but I say that MG and myself have nothing to do in such places. In particular, I want to say, and say again, that MG is not the same as molecular cooking, and that no chef is doing MG !
I am lacking time for fighting all the wrong theories and ideas, and I cannot fight all the wrong behaviours in this world. But sometimes I am upset : for example, I was able to see that some people organizing a conference said that I cancelled… whereas I was never invited ! For example, I could hear to myself at the tv, answering to a journalist that I had never met ! And I was said to be part of a political party to which I don't belong (a brain is not needed to belong to a party ; a spine is enough, said Einstein).
For all these reasons, and because some facts should be given, here are some facts.

For me, all began the 16 March 1980, evening, when I was preparing a cheese soufflé for friends who were invited for dinner. At that time, I was still a student at the Ecole de physique et chimie industrielle de Paris, (today l'ESPCI ParisTech), and we were used, with four friends, to work on our exams in my flat, while I was cooking for the group.
This particular day, I wanted to make a roquefort cheese soufflé, and I was using a Elle recipe. It was advised to cook first butter, roquefort, flour, and to make a roux, adding milk. Then the recipe was advising to add the egg yolks two by two.
For a rational mind, this sentence was strange : why adding the yolks two by two ? Why not all the yolks together ? Because I could not see the reason, I put all the yolks together, and the soufflé was a failure (I know today that this failure had nothing to do with this question of egg yolks). Indeed the failure was not complete, but anyway the soufflé was not as it should have been.
I did not focus on that, but I was not very proud of the result.
The next Sunday, the 23 March 1980, having again friends for dinner, I decided to make the same soufflé, and to improve. At that time, I needed a recipe, so that I used again the Elle recipe… and I could see, again, this sentence, « add the yolks two by two ». Because the last soufflé was not successful, I decided to test the idea, but I thought that if adding the yolks two by two was better than altogether, one by one should be better, and this is what I did… and the result was better. The next day, I decided to stay at home, and to make another experiment. This particular day I took a new notebook, and I decided to collect the « culinary old wive tales » (that I call today the « culinary precisions »).
For this work, with experimental tests, I had the lab that I am having at home since the age of 6 yeas old : since that time, my pocket money had been divided into half for this lab, and half for books. This lab was no longer in use, because in my Grand Ecole, we had better equipment, but suddenly, it was useful again, and I was so happy about that.
And this is how I began collecting culinary precisions from all culinary books taht I could get. I wanted to focus on all these strange ideas, because I realized taht it was strange that sometimes mistakes were transmitted. I wanted to make clearer and more reliable knowledge. For my tests, generally the main tools were thermocouple, microscope, balance, pH-meter.
At the same time, I got a job in the Belin Scientific Publishing Company first, then at Pour la Science (the French edition of Scientific American), and I was happy to be the editor of articles in food science and technology, but also in maths, chemistry, physics, physical chemistry, meeing the best scientists of France, and getting more and more scientific knowledge. I was living a double life, with scientific publishing on daytime, and my lab work on nighttime, week ends, etc. Very fast, this was known, and this is why probably I was invited to give seminars on my scientific research, first at the École normale supérieure de Paris, then at ESPCI, and this at that time also that I began collecting material for my book « Kitchen mysteries » (published in 1992 only).

In 1986, I met Nicholas Kurti. The ad officer of our magazine was coming from Europhysics Letters, where Nicholas was the editor. At that time, he was 78 years old. He was not any longer at the Clarendon Laboratory, of which he was a former director, but 400 meter away from there (a rule, in Oxford), in the Department of Engineering Science. There he was studying the application of tools and concepts of physics to cooking. Let's observe that this was a technological activity, even if Nicholas was interested in science. When our ad officer learned that I was doing the same kind of activity than Nicholas, she told me about his, and as soon as she gave me his phone number (the same day), I called him (I remember that I had the desk on the left of the redaction, at that time, ground level, near the garden ; I called him at about 6 PM)… and we became instantly friends. Nicholas told me that he would come to Paris the next week to see me… and he did. We met rue Racine, in a restaurant which was called Chez Maitre Paul.
We had a « poule au vin jaune et aux morilles », and we shared a wonderful bottle of vin jaune. I don't remember how our friendship developped, but we immediately collaborated : when one of us was doing an experiment, he called the other, and the other was repeating the experiment. My friend Philippe Boulanger, then the editor in chief of the journal, was annoyed that I spent so much time on the phone with Nicholas, but he did not say much (because I was doing my job anyway).
Also we shared most things. When I was invited to do something, I told Nicholas to be part of it, and Nicholas was doing the same. For example, we shared beging the « godfather » of a class in ENSBANA (now AgroSup Dijon), and he offered me to participate to the notes of a book at BBC Books. Here, I should say more, but later.

1988 : very fast, our discussions led us to analyze our activities. One day, in March, when I proposed him to make an International Society for something (this particular day, I was in my new larger office, first floor), he answered that it was too early, but we agreed that we could make the various people interested to meet. Nicholas had already (apparently, because I did not know it and I have no proof of it) discussed such a meeting with other people, such as Elizabeth Thomas, but it is in my office that we discussed really the idea. A name was needed, and I proposed « molecular gastronomy », because I wanted to make the same as « molecular biology », but Nicholas, physicien told the that he would prefer « molecular and physical gastronomy », and I was respectful of his demand, because I knew that he was a real physicist, and myself more a physical chemist. Later on, I think that I understand the real reason of why Nicholas wanted to add « and physical », and this was because apparently Elizabeth Thomas had proposed « molecular gastronomy » for another meaning, Liz being a cook rather than a scientist.
Whatever the reason, I thought, and I still think that « Molecular Gastronomy » was the right name to choose, because in « molecular biology », there is the fact that chemical and physical methods as well are used. And « molecular » is not restricted to chemistry, but it includes physical chemistry and chemical physics as well. Or « physical gastronomy » could have been a good choice, because physics means « science of nature ».
Anyway, we agreed on the name « molecular and physical gastronomy », and on the idea of making conferences. Nicholas told me that we could do that in Erice (I did not know it), and he called immediately Antonino Zichichi, the director of the Ettore Majorana Center for Sicentific Culture in Erice, Sicile. Zichichi asked us to show him the interest of the thing, and I proposed to invite the Nobel prize winners Jean-Marie Lehn and Pierre Gilles de Gennes, that I knwo thanks to Pour la Science, and also because Pierre-Gilles de Gennes was appointed the director of ESPCI when I was accepted as a student there. Pierre Gilles accepted, so that Zichichi accepted also. It was almost done !
Then, we had everything to invent. We knew that we wanted to make science, but we also wanted to study real culinary processes, and not only what amateurs can do. This is why we decided to invite chefs. Also, we wanted to promote new culinary techniques, based on physics and chemistry. And as we wanted to have friends from all over the world, we asked Harold McGee to be an invited directof of the first workshop. Harold accepted. Most often, all this was done by letter, phone or fax as email did not exist. I have still many documents, but the fax paper faded with time, because it was thermosensitive.
Also, we looked for sponsors, and we got champagne from LVMH.The lecture was a big success, with many new friends. 
Molecular and Physical Gastronomy was on its way... but he had made many mistakes. 
In particular, inviting chefs created a confusion because molecular gastronomy and "molecular cooking" (= cooking with new tools). Even today, I am fighting the confusion, because people often ignore that gastronomy does not mean "haute cuisine", but "knowledge about food". 
Anyway, it's not so serious, because now, with "note by note cooking", people will see a bigger difference between molecular gastronomy and note by note cooking. 
By the way, do you know what note by note cooking is ? 
Please look at that on the Internet, and remember that, if I introduced it, my lab is fully engaged in Molecular Gastronomy, and nothing else, because my real passion is science !

1 commentaire:

  1. Thank you so much for this article. It really explains the difference, that I must admit, I wasn't fully aware of even though I knew they were different.
    Also, it was very nice to know the story behind it as it puts everything in perspective.