The Test-Tube Chef
The Atlantic|September 2015
The Test-Tube Chef
Herv This, the father of molecular gastronomy, thinks the meals of the future should be constructed from chemical compounds.
Bianca Bosker

 

It was dinnertime, and Hervé This was building us a steak. Explaining that a nice sirloin is 40 percent water and 60 percent protein, the French chemistry professor dumped four tablespoons of water into six tablespoons of powdered egg. (As it happens, he was wrong: the proportions are closer to 70 percent water, 20 percent protein, and 10 percent fat.) In went a pinch of allyl isothiocyanate, for a mustardy kick.

“What about having the potato in the steak, instead of french fries on the side?,” This (pronounced Tees) asked the standing-room-only crowd of pastry chefs, professors, and fermenters who had packed an NYU lecture hall last October to hear him speak. He used a microwave propped on a table as a lectern, and moved aside his other ingredients the dehydrated egg, along with vegetable oil, salt, and sugar to rummage through a case of clear glass vials stoppered with black lids. He unscrewed a small bottle of methional oil, which has a cheesy-potato flavor, and the room’s fresh-carpet smell gave way to baked potato mixed with high-school gym. “So here is some potato,” he said, pouring the methional into his dough. “How many potatoes do you need?”

At a time when much of the culinary world believes in farming like pioneer settlers and looking its meat in the eyes, This wants us to abandon peas and carrots (“Middle Ages!”) for their constituent parts glucose, sucrose, cellulose, amino acids, and more. He showed his audience a picture of wooden shelves stocked with rows of identical white containers and a scale. “This is the kitchen of the future,” he declared. “Beautiful boxes some contain liquids, some contain powder.”

A celebrity academic who advises Michelin-star chefs and government officials, This is a kitchen revolutionary who seems to dash of cooking manifestos at the rate at which other people tweet and who issues the unqualified declarations of a prophet. He is regarded as the founding father of molecular gastronomy, having spent his career pushing science into the kitchen—first to explain traditional cooking, then to dismantle it. He has sent sliced onions through an MRI machine and invented an equation for aioli. He has mummified eggs, unboiled eggs, cooked eggs without heat, and turned hard-boiled eggs transparent.

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September 2015