Nancy Hinton, Ste-Adèle, 2004 (edited 2006)
This term (molecular gastronomy) makes me laugh. Of course, gastronomy and cookery are molecular, that’s nothing new. What’s new is that we’re beginning to understand what’s going on in the stockpot on a molecular level, we now have the tools. Cooking is now deemed legitimate subject matter for scientists to study, there are a bunch of curious cooks, and so the field is booming.
Its only natural that we get excited. Finally, technology has caught up with us and our cooking. After more than a hundred years of the cooking profession as we know it, we are finally learning exactly how egg yolks emulsify to make mayonnaise. So, now we find out that we don’t actually need 3 yolks per cup of oil, we could even use one, or even none at all, if we coax enough of the protein from the white, or help it out with some gelatin. So, old myths are being broken, golden rules are being scrutinized, reinforced or qualified. New techniques and approaches are being developed across the board.
Being from a scientific background, I was naturally immediately drawn to the science of cooking. For me, it first of all provided a sound transition into what I perceived to be a flaky world. In my first week of culinary school, my teacher gave me the Harold McGee book (On Food and Cooking) and I was enchanted. You mean, there is THIS much to cooking, WOW! I could have my science and eat it too. More importantly, the scents and feel of the kitchen subsequently took over, the beauty of the classics seduced me, and I never looked back.
Once I had learned the traditional basics, the science provided another level of interest and meaning. I soon realized that although not of primary importance, any scientific understanding gave me more power as a cook. I could make bridges, deduce things without having to repeat them 100 times, and I could break the rules if I knew what was going on, what each step in a recipe stood for.
What’s a Chantilly? Fat and liquid whipped with air, with some natural stabilizers, protein. So, take any fat, any liquid, find the right proportion and whip air into it. Help it out with some protein if there isn’t any naturally present. You can make chocolate chantilly without cream, use chocolate as the fat, orange juice as the liquid, and voilà.
What’s mayo? An emulsion of liquid and oil, held into place with protein. So take garlic and oil (the original aioli), there is water and protein in the garlic, and then you have the oil, voilà. Ok, so you may have to whip harder if a good emusifier like egg yolk isn’t present, but still.
What’s mousse? Basically, a cooked mayo-like emulsion. Water, protein, oil, and heat. So take duck stock as the liquid, foie gras fat as the oil, gelatin as the protein, and cook it. Voilà, a duck mousse without cream or eggs. Is it better? That’s not the point now.
Why are we taught that there are four tastes (salt, sweet, sour, bitter), or five, if you’re from Japan (+umami), and what about that tongue map (sweet in front, sour on the sides, bitter in the back etc.) when this is scientifically proven to be inaccurate? Like now we know there are fifty odd planets, but we still teach our kids that there are 8 or 9. Its easier to oversimplify, but its hard to rationalize. We do want to know these things, especially if its our profession.
So, even if I don’t want to cook an egg for 100 hours, its essential that I know that its all about temperature and not time, that as long as I keep the temperature below 64 degrees, my egg will be soft no matter how long I cook it. I know that there are several proteins that coagulate at different temperatures, and as they do when I raise the temperature, the egg gets firmer. Out the window go all rules about cooking eggs, I understand what’s going on. I can do what I want with it.
What’s meat? In superficial terms, it is water in a network of fibers. So, now we can make new objects that are very meat-like with any liquid and suspended protein fibres. Things we know as liquids can be transformed into solids, and vice versa. This opens many doors for a crazy cook if you want to go down that road.
Without going out to invent new things, what science brings most to the kitchen is a basic understanding of the movements we’ve been doing for years, and the equipment we use. I appreciate knowing that my stovetop element loses 80% heat, which makes it very inefficient as a heat source, but funny enough, hundreds of years later, we’re still using the same kind of set-up. There is obviously room for much progress in terms of our heating implements. Not many other industries lag so far behind in modern times. I’m all of a sudden open to new heating devices. But I don’t as badly need a bicycle pump for my meringue, not that I’m against it either.
You see, all this information is intoxicating. The more I got into into it when I was doing that, the further I delved, the more cocky I got, and the less convinced I became that it was helping my cooking. It was making me too cerebral, separating me from my senses and from tradition.
When I was forced to closely examine my new, very technical concoction that only .1% of the dining public would appreciate on a purely sensory level, it was all clear to me. “Ya, that sure is clever, Nancy, but is it yummy? Is it better than the classic?” Anne would always ask me. I couldn’t help but accept that, no, perhaps, it wasn’t. And without explaining how it was revolutionary technique-wise, it had no merit. I had stretched my brain, it was a great exercise for me, but ultimately, the customer didn’t need this.
I value learning and progress, but I have learnt that novelty for the sake of novelty is cheap. Ferran Adria is truly a genius, but not the people who copy him to be trendy. I admire him, but in my heart and soul, I just don’t want to do that kind of cooking anyway. The scientist in me has been stomped out by the artist and the hedonist, but nonetheless, it has left me changed.
What I learnt has served me. It has reinforced my skills, my instincts, my eye. It has taught me that although there is a reason behind most rules that can be emperically explained, like in the outside world, there is very little black and white once you introduce humans. So theory does not always translate into reality in the kitchen, unlike in a lab. No matter, we need to stay curious, to be able to question, to think outside the box inorder to keep evolving. And we also need to always respect history, because very little is REALLY new, you know.
Three years later.....
I just got back from a conference on Molecular Gastronomy by Hervé This at the Science center. He is a true character, a brilliant spokesperson, clearly a scientist who loves food. Tonight, he spent more time defining molecular gastronomy than explaining it, and spoke more about love than science. I think people were generally disappointed.
Many came expecting formulas, the reader’s digest version of food and science, the molecular secret to a perfect sauce, something material to grasp on to. But he waxed philosophical, he was in big picture mode. It was more about the who, why, where, than the what and how. And I understand. He has been excitedly doing the science for years, detail, detail, detail. Now, he has taken a step back, is refocusing; he is more concerned with context, using all this science in a way that stays true to the soul of cooking.
At first, he just wanted cooks, and people in general, to get excited about the science behind what they were doing. Now that people are, and that they are equipped with the tools he brought to light, he wants to restrain, guide people. To make them understand the big picture, to think about how they are using it. Technology always seems to precede art and ethics, and then we play catch up.
When all this molecular gastronomy was all new to me, and I was young and in experimental mode, I didn’t care about the big picture too much. I wanted to learn it all, push the limits, act out all these cool new things. Once you’ve done that journey, you look back and want to qualify it, but move on. You take the best, the most useful of what you have learnt, and it will inform your experiences ever after, but you move to a new plane. That might lead you back to the basics, the essence, or even to the abstract, but always searching for truth, facts yes, but that connect to the soul, that make sense in your world.
I think that’s why Hervé kept insisting that science wasn’t cooking, that it was a tool, and that cooking is the technician’s realm, one step from the technologist, two steps from the scientist. The scientist’s goal is truth. The application is a different thing altogether. And then the sociological variables come into play, which is the cook’s business, not the scientist’s. An actual meal is a few more degrees of separation away, when you bring in the people cooking, the people eating, the ambiance, whether they are eating the same thing, or all different courses or not. In the real world of food and people, a whole bunch of physical and sociological variables come into play to complicate any scientific certainties that have been deduced.
The science of food and cooking has been Hervé This’ life for decades now, he is way ahead of us; he no longer wants to talk about the sucrose profile of carrot soup or egg white emulsions or creamless mousses; he wants to talk about stopping to smell the flowers, and the feeling that goes into a preparation. I think he was playing down all this molecular gastronomy thing because he sees that he has created a monster. I believe he does love food and people, and that he doesn’t want to denature cooking too much. He wants us to ask questions and use science, but to stay connected to the pure delight of making something delicious. It’s very “Like Water for Chocolate” in a way. A science dude turned spiritual. But any true scientist is indeed spiritual in a sense, because he is in tune with nature; he can’t help but acknowledge the effect of things that aren’t easily quantified, like anything “magical” or “god-like”, depending on who you are. In the world of cooking these things are “tour de main”, “ambiance”, or the love and integrity, the personal touch, that goes into a dish. Any honest observer knows that this is a big part of cooking, and of life.I thank him for tonight’s conference because to me, it was real; it reinforced what I feel and think about molecular gastronomy as far as I know it. And coming from the king, it was refreshing, because like they say in French, he just wasn’t selling his salad. It was a thinking, very human, scientist’s take on the field, where it’s at, and where it should go.