An Evening with Herve This and Note-By-Note Cooking

Herve This and Adam Gopnik discuss

Hervé This is in town this week, so for those who couldn’t make it to his various events, here’s an account of his recent appearance at the Columbia Maison Française to discuss Note-by-Note Cooking: The Future of Food. And you can still catch him later today at the Institute of Culinary Education

“Molecular cooking is over—it’s for grandfathers!” Hervé This exclaimed on Monday night at the Maison Française on the Columbia University campus. This is in town this week to promote his new book, Note-by-Note Cooking: The Future of Food, published by Columbia University Press. The event was moderated by Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker, who started out the night by declaring that even the Cronut™ isn’t revolutionary in the face of note-by-note cooking.

Hervé This introduced his novel concept by describing a carrot as a sum of its constituent parts—water, cellulose, aminos, minerals—and asked that the audience begin to think of these components as similar to the notes of a song. He claims we can cook food just as a musician writes a melody on a synthesizer (the end result could fall anywhere between Jingle Bells and Rachmaninoff, a candy bar or a truffle sauce). Note-by-note cooking, therefore, is about building, not deconstructing food. This implored the audience to “forget about the word natural” as no cooked food is natural (think of a French fry in relation to a wild potato). Instead we must value the artificial for its inherent “art” and recognize that there will be both good art and bad art.

The audience was clearly entranced by the idea, but everyone wondered how to do it? Hervé answered by describing a typical weeknight dinner he cooks for his family: a tough cut of meat braised for many hours in a low oven with a few drops of truffle compound for a sauce. (He sometimes adds a drop or two of syrah compound to make a red wine reduction.) Even though the compounds have been highly processed, the terroir of the mushrooms and the grapes still comes through and “makes his family smile.” He described the note-by-note kitchen of the future as one full of beautiful lacquered boxes with maybe 10 aminos, 20 pungencies, 30 colors…in addition to bags of flour and jars of paprika.

He proceeded to pass along a sampling of “notes” for the audience to experience. While the audience sniffed clear vials of “basmati,” “smoke,” and “herbaceous,” Hervé told stories of mushroom hunting and fishing early in the morning. Using his techniques, the feeling of the dew on the grass is an experience that can now be translated by a talented chef with a particular combination of these compounds. He made the audience salivate during a demonstration of the multi-faceted role of flavor and taste by asking everyone to close their eyes and imagine biting into a cut lemon.

Then Michael Laiskonis, the Creative Director at the Institute of Culinary Education, joined the panel, and they discussed making Hervé’s famous chocolate mousse with orange juice instead of water. They even suggested a whipped cream with carrot juice and pistachio oil—a combination that is possible but perhaps not advisable.

Michael Laiskonis

The audience moved upstairs to the kitchen at the Maison Française, where Laiskonis cooked dishes based on the principles in outlined in Hervé’s book—including a dessert of coconut foam that looked like cake topped with pistachio cake that looked like foam. When Laiskonis described butter as an emulsion, Hervé corrected him, explaining that butter is a gel (the combination of water dispersed into a solid). He finished bringing everyone together in laughter, proclaiming that “we are all gels, even humans.”

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