MARCH 5, 2015
He was a bold man that first eat an oyster.
— Jonathan Swift
A FEW YEARS AGO, I had the good luck to stand in the kitchen of Wylie Dufresne, chef of the (now sadly closed) restaurant WD-50 in New York and one of the leading figures of molecular gastronomy in the United States. They were in the middle of dinner service, and I thought I’d just eaten the best piece of fish I’d had. I gushed my compliment at Dufresne, who nodded tolerantly and said, “You should eat better.” The fish in question was trout, served in a sauce of white chocolate and green olive; however, as far as molecular gastronomy goes, it was a cautious dish, not quite representing the bleeding edge of the genre’s inventiveness. Chefs fond of the molecular gastronomy “sandbox” — a term Dufresne once used on the television show Top Chef — delight in play and surprise, in alchemical transformations of the familiar into the strange, and in the sophisticated tools that blur the line between kitchen and laboratory. That evening, I had also consumed what I can only call a “meat cloud,” a puff of aerated foie gras, followed by Dufresne’s signature eggs Benedict — two cubes of deep-fried Hollandaise served alongside blended yolks slowly poached and shaped into columns, a chip of bacon thin enough to shave with, and a scattering of crumbs from toasted English muffins. (You can read Frank Bruni’s 2008 review of the Dufresne eggs Benedict here.) Such dishes appeal through their topsy-turviness, playing invention against tradition.
But deep-fried Hollandaise isn’t half as extreme as what the chemist Hervé This proposes in his recently translated Note-by-Note Cooking: The Future of Food, which seeks not only to remix and reinvent existing dishes using sophisticated tools and techniques (beyond the reach of most household chefs) but also to “modernize” cooking at its root. The cooks of the future, This suggests, will construct their dishes from pure compounds, each of which becomes a “note” on composition-like plates of food.
The “note-by-note” approach began to take shape in 1994, This explains, six years after he and physicist Nicholas Kurti announced the advent of “molecular gastronomy,” itself incredibly innovative in its use of “rotary evaporators, ultrasound probes, liquid hydrogen, separating funnels, filter pumps, and so on.” With a scholar’s love of precise definitions (he dislikes misleading phrases such as “scientific chefs” or “scientific cooking”), This insists that molecular gastronomy is the pursuit of the mechanisms that take place when we cook or eat, whereas molecular cuisine is the result of cooking by attending, in a more or less scientific spirit, to those mechanisms and then exploiting them. The popular use of the term “molecular gastronomy,” such as I am using it to encompass the work of chefs like Dufresne, must strike This as a semantic mess. But, molecular cuisine, as This calls it, still works with conventional ingredients.
By contrast, “note-by-note” cooking means using compounds in lieu of familiar pieces of plant and animal tissue. Readers will be familiar with a few compounds already in widespread use, such as sodium chloride, sucrose, and gelatin; others include amino acids, glycerides and saccharides, and proteins. The food industry already extracts many of these compounds from grain and other recognizable starting ingredients via a process called fractionization. To call for “compounds” in a recipe may seem strange, but we already use them, although usually in less pure forms than the ones This suggests; similarly, it may seem strange for a recipe to ask us to produce a gel, but as This insists, “meats, fish, vegetables, and fruits are gels. Gels, by definition, are solid systems that contain a dispersed liquid.” This asks his readers to reorient their culinary worldview, a Copernican turn from attending to “whole” ingredients (meats, fish, vegetables, fruits, spices) to thinking of their chemical properties first.
It sounds like theory, but examples of note-by-note dishes that have been created and served include a brilliantly blue “bouchée ultra” made with coagulated fish proteins, triglycerides, amylose and amylopectin, blue pigment, glucose, salt, piperine; the almost-familiar-looking “Amylopectin Tarts,” by Chef Lucille Bouche, of roasted amylopectin, ovalbumin, and triglycerides; and the “bubble cocktail” made of ethanol, citric acid, glucose, sucrose, tartaric acid, and blueberry flavor. Dubious readers should be reassured: the pictures make them look tasty, especially if you appreciate delicate items from the pastry case (or savories that look like pastries). Each dish This describes is dated, as if he were writing the curatorial wall text for a museum exhibit. At this early stage of the note-by-note game, dishes tend to be painstakingly created by elite chefs who can tap the time and resources necessary to do research-and-design cooking. They are not workaday dishes, at least not yet, although This is at pains to stress that note-by-note cooking is cooking, even if to many of us it looks like magic, a chem-lab trick that produces marvels rather than meals. He compares note-by-note cooking to the “modernization” of another art form: early European electronic music by composers such as Edgard Varèse, Pierre Schaeffer, and Karlheinz Stockhausen. (Another apt comparison might be to the early-to-mid-20th-century American composer Harry Partch, who not only created a new system of music but also built his own instruments, in one case using castoff carboys from University of California radiation labs.) Just as these composers have been accused of creating “challenging” rather than “enjoyable” music, one New York Times reviewer claimed that WD-50 displayed “contempt for the pleasure principle.” The reviewer was, perhaps, guilty of defining pleasure too narrowly, aligning it only with familiar styles of dining and thus failing to take pleasure in creativity and play.
In Note-by-Note Cooking, This is hardly austere, insisting again and again that his aim is pleasure, that he judges the success of his dishes by whether or not they make guests happy, not by the rigor or inventiveness of the process. But even if we take for granted that the note-by-note approach would gratify the pleasure principle (I have not yet consumed a true note-by-note dish myself, nor, it seems safe to assume, will have most of This’s readers), we must still consider the discomforting effects of redefining food at the level of base ingredients. “Tell me what you eat,” claimed the gastronome Brillat-Savarin, author of the indispensible Physiologie du Goût (The Physiology of Taste, 1825), “and I’ll tell you what you are.” Today I might answer, “I ate a hard-boiled egg for breakfast, with a little pepper,” but if I were This, himself an enthusiastic purveyor of Brillat-Savarin quotations, I might answer, “I ate a solidified combination of ovalbumin (the globular protein in the white), water, lipids, and other proteins (in the yolk), flavored with piperine as well as various terpenes for odor.” If Brillat-Savarin was right about an intimate link between our food and our identities, what is each of us, the one with the egg and the other with the ovalbumin? Are we the same kind of eater? Many contemporary food subcultures are driven by this same logic of identity, and many eaters love to know about the origins of ingredients, to hear that the jook or the hotteok or the pig cheek tacos they’re consuming are “authentic,” as if they’ll too become more authentic by eating them. Molecular gastronomy and note-by-note cooking take a different tack. They abandon the identity principle and its symbolism of rootedness, head toward culinary frontiers at warp speed, seek the new and the strange, and delight in overturning conventional expectations for flavor and presentation. Nothing composed in such a way can claim great “authenticity,” and none of the recipes described in This’s book resemble anything my grandparents ate.
This understands that future critics might denounce note-by-note dishes as unnatural in the same way that today’s critics of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) fear their potential effects on our health or the environment. He has no patience for those who wax nostalgic about a putative golden age of pure ingredients and intimate relationships with a beneficent nature. He calls them childish. But his response to the celebrants of “traditional” farming — neo-agrarians like Alice Waters, Michael Pollan, or Dan Barber — is interesting both for its vigor and for the way it misunderstands what is really at stake in our conflicts over “traditional” foods and those obviously produced with a helping hand from modern science. All foods are artificial, according to This, including carrots at the farmers’ market, which are the product of generations of breeding. This calls on us to judge foods not according to the categories of natural or artificial, then, but instead according to metrics of taste and health. The degree of abstraction here is a bit misleading, just as it is a bit too easy to wave away the distinction between GMO crops and the slow process of breeding plant varietals. While arguments on behalf of “natural” foods may be invalid where they are based on flawed assumptions about the higher quality or smaller environmental footprint of organic, local, or non-GMO foods, these arguments aren’t just about the material qualities of the food items produced. Arguments for a particular style of food production are usually also about the social, aesthetic, economic, and moral attributes of chains of food production and consumption; such chains are complex systems, and our attachments to them (for example, the attachment of some consumers to locally sourced foods) are likewise complex. Notably, This has no trouble with one idea often prized and promoted by neo-agrarians, namely terroir — the flavor of the soil, air, and water of a region as expressed through its local foods (the wine of Burgundy, the handmade cheeses of Marin County) — which he claims can survive in fractionized compounds and, potentially, in note-by-note dishes.
The post-colonic question of This’s title can’t be taken too literally; predictions about the future of food are almost always wrong. Instead, the English edition of This’s book would look right at home on the Jetsons’ coffee table. Its cover photo — a bird’s-eye view of a chalk tabletop on which rest Erlenmeyer flasks, measuring cups and spoons, eyedroppers, and pill bottles — evokes a line in Ben Lerner’s recent novel 10:04, “Nothing in the world […] is as old as what was futuristic in the past.” Certainly, some of This’s hopes for note-by-note cooking seem anachronistic, nearly identical to the hopes of thinkers like the late 19th-century chemist Marcellin Berthelot, who hoped that nature could be taken out of the cycle of food production altogether. Flirting with Jetsons-esque utopianism, This suggests that we could avoid the waste and pollution of shipping fruits and vegetables if we simply “made” them (i.e., emulated their chemical properties) at the site of their intended consumption.
Historian Warren Belasco, in his wonderful and under-read Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food, calls such ideas of producing food from nothing “modernist”: “If the classical future eyes the visible riches of untapped frontiers,” Belasco writes, “the modernist looks for wealth in the invisible — nitrogen from air, protein from microbes, energy from atoms.” Modernist food has other traits, too: it values “nutrients over taste, fortification over wholeness, digestion over dining, health over habit, eating-to-live over living-to-eat. Seeking standardization, it defies season, geography, and time.” Early in Note-by-Note Cooking, This speaks of the pleasure of being able to enjoy mushroom flavor out of season, a thought so perfectly contrary to the current foodie vogue that I found myself nodding in agreement, out of my own contrariness. In a previous generation, it was a sign of foodie cred to be able to find strawberries in Boston in winter; now it’s an emblem of foodieness to know that we never do that. But why not enjoy “real” strawberry flavor, if there were a way to do so that didn’t involve flying fruit thousands of miles from its source? In other words, we should not dismiss note-by-note cooking as a form of “paleofuturism” — a resurrected vision of the future dragged out of the past, notable largely because it failed to come to pass — because this would also mean dismissing a world of possibilities. For the time being, however, the most valuable thing it offers us is a set of questions about food itself. The most pressing of them is, what can food be? And, to return to Brillat-Savarin, what do we need our food choices to say about us, anyway?