Herve This. Photo: Liam Maloney
MONTREAL—On a Tuesday night in early fall at the Montreal Science Centre’s IMAX theatre, Hervé This, a tallish man with wispy, grey hair, paces the short length of a makeshift stage with evangelical fervor. Wearing a pale grey suit and his trademark white, un-collared shirt, he holds an egg at eye level.
“Imagine you have only one egg,” he says. “It is not a question of money to cook a good egg or a bad egg. It is a question of knowledge.”
This, a physical chemist, wants to bring the scientific method to the kitchen. At his laboratory in the Collège de France in Paris, he and his students debunk dictums, test old wives tales, and pare dishes down to their barest elements before rebuilding them into new food blends and innovative cuisine.
Molecular gastronomists—as these chefs-cum-chemists are known—study the science of culinary transformations and the sensory phenomena associated with eating. They are concerned with the chemistry of taste and the physics of texture.
In France, This is famous for the 65° C egg, a slow-cooked oeuf with custard-like white and creamy yolk, and chocolat chantilly, an eggless chocolate mousse. These creations come from meticulous documentation of the temperatures at which different egg proteins, like ovotransferrin and ovalbumin, uncoil and set. The chantilly also requires an understanding that mousse is simply an emulsion—droplets of one liquid dispersed in another.
“That is the function of science,” says This, “to attract interest towards something formerly not noticed.”
From his unconventional mise-en-place, or cooking station, at the science center, This leans over his silver laptop and launches a 90-minute PowerPoint presentation on his pet science. Recipes, chemical structures, microscopic images of mayonnaise, and cooking matrices, which hint at the hundreds of ways a single egg can be cooked, are projected onto the IMAX screen.
He teases the audience and berates long-dead recipe writers:. “Who are they to give orders?” This asks, gesturing to the infinitive forms of the verbs—to peel or to cut—in a recipe for compote de poire (stewed pears) on the screen behind him.
For This, cooking is more than just tinkering in the laboratory. The words “technology”, “art” and “love,” cascade down the IMAX screen. True, he is a scientist, but eating is about pleasure. He worries about food made without love.
“Cooking is one of the rare careers where the objective is to create happiness,” he says before sending the audience out of the theatre for a molecular cocktail hour.
People quickly pour into a long narrow room outside the theater. There are student chefs and their teachers, local gourmands, food critics, and clusters of sommeliers. There are no crackers. No cheese cubes. White-coated waiters-in-training circulate with platters of hors d’oeuvres: spoons filled with mousse, small square pillows, and speckled orange lollipops.
A group of five leans in towards a server. “Beet ravioli stuffed with candied ginger and sprinkled with acidité,” he explains to his rapt audience. It’s a progression of sensations, none displeasing: The sour sugar blasts the tongue as the beet envelope melts, exposing sweet and creamy ginger.
Next is a clear trapezoidal cup containing a layer of porcini dust, a cube of jellied Japanese tea, and a puff of fine white cotton candy. The tea is bitter. The candied nest collapses into a hard mess. “It’s too sticky,” complains one of the sommeliers.
An ultra-light meringue made with tangerine water, and stacked with a bundle of strawberry, mango, and green apple matchsticks tied by a seaweed ribbon is a hit. A tall man with a short, black ponytail is a new convert: “Now I’m starting to appreciate these.” His friends nod in agreement.
There’s more to sample: tiny corn crêpes sweetened with isomalt, folded around avocado and sprinkled with mustard greens (delicate); isomalt and smoked-salmon lollipops drizzled with a white chocolate and smoked paprika mayonnaise (too sweet); and a lobster bisque wrapped in a dark chocolate envelope and sprinkled with tiny squares of seaweed (the combination of umami and sweet chocolate were enjoyable, but the flavor of the bisque was lost—luckily, perhaps).
“It [all] sounds better than it tastes,” a renowned Montreal baker confides in an acquaintance as he tested the corn crêpes.
“The visual presentation is superb,” says the sommelier. “The idea is good, but it’s the technique that suffers.”
Near the end of the evening a plateful of white soupspoons circulates. They are filled with a pale green foam infused with cardamom, lavender, and orange flower. Agar-agar makes it pudding-like and a pressure treatment with N2O keeps it airy. “It reminds me of my childhood,” says a photographer. “Of Christmas. Of the oranges with cloves pushed into them.” — With additional reporting by Catherine MacPherson.
Originally published October 3, 2006