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Molecular Gastronomy Seminar (page 2 of 2)

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I attended a unique seminar in Paris with Hervé This, French chemist, author, founder of Molecular Gastronomy and spiritual father of Molecular Cuisine.
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Lunch was served at 1 PM by the students of the Ferrandi school. Nothing memorable there, but I got myself a good table. Clockwise from the bottom left: a 23-year-old pastry chef at a 2 Michelin star traditional French restaurant, a diet consultant, Susi Gott Séguret, a charming lady (behind the bottle) who runs the Swannanoa School of Culinary Arts in Asheville (USA) and speaks fluent French and the French historian and her daughter. Not on the pictures but also at my tables were the two comedians from La Marmite à Malices. Lovely people all of them, and our shared serious passion for food cemented the lunch. I picked up lots of tips from the pastry chef and learned about truffle-for-tobacco crop substitution policies in North Carolina. The historian lady was still in conference mode so we could get some more details on these fascinating subjects. A lunch is about the company you keep, and that was a nice lunch!

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Tools & Toys for Space-Age Foodies
A lady from www.cuisine-innovation.fr, a French consultancy for chefs who want to start using molecular cuisine tools and ingredients, demonstrates a glass settling bulb (ampoule de décantation) they want to adapt for use in kitchens to help cooks remove the fat from their sauces using differences in density. This is a very common tool in chemical labs but can't be used in kitchen. "Chefs tell us that they could never use a glass instrument in the kitchen. Whenever somebody breaks it, which is bound to happen, they would have to throw out the whole batch by fear of contamination by glass fragments. We are trying to make a very large, automated, plastic settling tank that can automate the fat skimming process in a kitchen."

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Each of us was kindly offered a panacotta beaker (picture above) in a pineapple juice sauce thickened with Locust bean gum, one of these fancy thickening agents used in molecular cuisine. Food for thought indeed!

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Anne Cazor then demonstrated a very precise cooker that can maintain the same temperature in the whole pot up to one tenth of a Celcius degree. This helps you get consistently eggs with a very novel consistency - that of a 3 minute egg or a 300 minute egg. The ladies above were inspecting three eggs cooked respectively at precisely 62°, 65° and 68° Celsius for one hour each.

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The gentleman at the center of the picture works for Kalys, a French chemical wholesaler who supplies top gastronomic restaurants with molecular cuisine chemicals. As these products come as white powders in plastic jars bearing fancy latin names, so you think of them as chemicals whereas in fact most are extracted from plants.

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They also sell kits to make your own alginate pearls and spaghettis and much more. One box was labelled 'Spherification Salt' - straight out of Lovecraft and Harry Potter. Everybody raced down the auditorium to samples the toys. Great fun! If you order from them, use the code 'ANNIVERSAIRE' and you'll get 10% off until April 20th 2008.

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Looking up at the mirror above the auditorium kitchen during a break.


Professional Cooking Classes in France before and after Molecular Gastronomy
This cooking professor from the Lycée de la Rochelle hotelry school came with one of his pupils to show us how he used to teach cookery before molecular gastronomy and how he teaches now. They made a little theater sketch to show us how they teach the art of mayonnaise making before and after.

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Before: 'The way you add the salt is more important than the quantity you use. And you never put the salt on the egg yolk or the salt would cook it'. Everybody laughs at this reenactment of a popular kitchen legend slayed by Mr This' many experiments with mayonnaise. He was sitting next to me, beaming with that feeling of fulfillment. After 20 years Mr This had really changed the way cookery is taught in France.

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After: 'We could have used egg yolk to emulsify the oil but today we'll do it with another emulsifier to illustrate what molecular gastronomy has taught us about the role egg yolks play in mayonnaise.' They do it, then taste. 'But chef, I kind of preferred the regular version'. The moustached chef replies: 'Boy, even science has its limits.'.

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'Now we'll make gougères' - 'But chef, gougère is such a has-been dish, today what people want are pizzas!'. 'So we'll make a gougère pizza, or choux pizza. We'll call them chouzzas'.Gougère is one of the most fascinating chapters in Hervé This' seminal book 'Culinary Revelations'. As an homage to him, they prepared the gougères, carefully adding one egg after the other, while explaining all the scientific knowledge now included in cookery classes thanks to Mr This. 'I was so depressed to see my students make nicer gougères than me in my classes that I was forced to find a foolproof method. You have to heat the water-and-flour mixture back to 80°C before adding the eggs or it won't work. If you do they work every time. And please, do not grate the cheese but keep it in small cubes when you add it. If you want a crust bake at 180°C, if you want them moist inside bake at 160°C. I like them moist.' A batch of piping hot 'chouzzas' were circulated for our appreciation - very tasty in fact.

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As soon as the demonstration was over, Kevin the trainee chef (above left) rushed out of the kitchen and returned dressed up in his Sunday's best. He walked up to me and, seeing my camera, asked if I could take two pictures of him with Mr Hervé This, one with his pocket camera for immediate broadcast to his friends and another with my own. I bet this will be an important picture to him given the considerable respect enjoyed by Mr. This in France.

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I managed to snatch this picture of a pastry class in progress at the Ferrandi school as I was leaving the building.

Epilogue
The next day I overheard a conversation between two shopping attendants in a cookware shop near Les Halles. I won't name the shop and have no idea as to its veracity, but these are the words I heard:

-Look at this order we just received. It's from the Ferrandi schoool.
The colleague looks at the long list of specialty cookware
-Geez, some client!
-Yeah, and they want 20 units of each item, no less! But it's only a tender and not an order yet. You know these guys, I bet they are already in tight with a supplier (maqués).
-Right, next thing you know they want you to take them to a fancy restaurant...
-... and then introduce them to your sister. Do you have a sister?
-No, I don't have no sister. How about you?
-Neither. But you could let them have your wife.
-No way until I'm paid on commission basis!

Hervé This's seminars are a contemporary equivalent of 18th century literary salons where beautiful ideas are shown, discussed and paraded like works of art. Attending a seminar with Dr Hervé This in the early 21st century was like spending a day in the kitchen with Antoin Carême in the 19th century or with Escoffier in the 1920s. Carême and Escoffier only invented so much and mostly built on what other chefs had made before them. Today's chefs certainly have access to more ingredients and better tools. But these were men who influenced the cuisine of their respective centuries in a decisive way. Hervé This has many precursors and Harold McGee's book On Food And Cooking covers a lot of ground later travelled on by This. But it was This who not only changed forever the way French chefs look at their recipes, and how cooking is taught in professional French cooking schools. As for molecular cuisine, the fashion of breaking up ingredients to reassemble them using high-tech tools and edible chemicals, This is the origin of this movement. Will we still eat alginate pearls and liquid nitrogen meringue in 100 years? Probably not. But you and I won't be around either. If we want to enjoy the culinary Zeitgeist of our times, this is a mighty fine opportunity.

There will be another similar seminar on June 24th 2008.

Published 07/04/2008
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27 Comments

  • #1
  • Comment by Beatrice
  • on: 07/04/2008
Interesting...I didn't know Hildegarde von Bingen could cook.  I seem to remember that many years ago there was a molecular gastronomy restaurant in London that served a dessert made with liquid nitrogen.  As for the lab-based separating device, I'm not sure how this improves on the old-fashioned pitchers that allow the fat to float to the top and siphon off the broth (or what have you) from the bottom.  The subject is fascinating, even for the home cook.  Now, you may be a super-taster, but can you curl your tongue?   
  • #2
  • Answered by fx
  • on: 07/04/2008
Beatrice, Hildegard actually mentionned this in a treatise on medicine but she did write about food and cookery. I just ordered a cookbook 'Hildegard von Bingen - das Kochbuch', we'll see what it tastes like. The decanting device is a project they have to make a decanting machine that can automatically decant (skim the fat) from a gallon of sauce. I think you'd need quite some time with one of them pitchers and all the ones I've seen are made of glass. I will read Hildegard's poems to help my tongue curl and report back!
  • #3
  • Comment by Luke
  • on: 07/04/2008
Bah! Super-taster or not, the effects are fairly limited, and it only makes a difference as far as one's most basic sense of taste goes. Flavor is still a whole different story, and that depends on how good your nose is. (Still, being among the non-tasters, I am envious no matter how I try to justify it.)

That said, this is yet another amazing article. I've typically been wary of molecular cuisine. Mind you, I've always respected the chemistry and physics of cooking, but the very name "molecular gastronomy" conjures images of the ingredients lists on processed food you'd find in a typical supermarket.

The way you describe it (along with the beautiful pictures), though, really takes the bite out of it. Honestly, you totally smashed the picture I had in my head of some nameless research chemist in a McDonald's owned lab working to make paper approximate the flavor of a real grilled burger.
  • #4
  • Comment by Paul Mckenna
  • on: 07/04/2008
In the UK we have a copycat called Heston Blumenthal so if English (only ) speakers want to research the matter thats the guy to Google or go from Wikipedia.

Molecular gastronomy is interesting as is recreating old recipes by such as Apicius but my practical brain tells me cooking is getting on the table on time and on budget.

Paul
FX are you sure you don't bilocate? You seem to be everywhere at once... Great post, I feel like I was there. Especially like the bit about medieval cookery and the use of measurements. Hmm a 300 min egg translated into Pater Noster time!
  • #6
  • Comment by Gayle
  • on: 08/04/2008
Very interesting. I use some chemistry because I try to replicate foods without using eggs. Most recipes seem to have eggs in them. I make a mayonnaise-type food using olive oil and flaxseed meal. Flaxseed meal is very versatile.
  • #7
  • Answered by fx
  • on: 08/04/2008
Luke, the super-taster thing is really thought provoking, in fact apparently there are huge differences in the number of tastebuds people have on their tongues. I fear this might extend to the nose too, judging from the long queues at MacDonald's. As for molecular cuisine and molecular gastronomy, it's definitely not about making industrial food using chemicals. It's about understanding how things work in the kitchen at the molecular level (molecular gastronomy) and then trying to reverse-engineer some dishes to obtain really cool and mind-boggling new dishes. People who do this are Michelin-starred chefs of variable talents, but nothing MacDonaldesque here.
  • #8
  • Answered by fx
  • on: 08/04/2008
Paul, I share your practical approach to cooking. Are you in construction? However, understanding the way things work in the kitchen definitely help you cook more efficiently even when making traditional dishes. For instance if your mayonnaise breaks, it really helps to understand what you are doing (oil in water emulsion) and how to fix it.
  • #9
  • Answered by fx
  • on: 08/04/2008
Callipygia, I have a couple medieval cookbooks (OK, more than a couple) and will try to post a couple recipes. Perhaps I could use medieval measurements as well, but readers already complain about my grams and liters. What will they say about hazelnut shells and misereres?
  • #10
  • Answered by fx
  • on: 08/04/2008
Gayle, indeed eggs are used as thickeners and emulsifiers whereas nowadays they can easily be substituted by other natural products to achieve the same effect. Have a look at the Kalys products to see how they work.
  • #11
  • Comment by Ben
  • on: 09/04/2008
You're probably one of my top inspirations of what I will do later in life once work dies down a bit and I'm more senior. You truly are an inspired gourmet. Can I link to your blog?
  • #12
  • Comment by Luke
  • on: 09/04/2008
Yeah, the thing that first gave me pause about molecular gastronomy was a demonstration I saw about spherification. I thought to myself, "Isn't that a bit too much like candy you can get at a dime store? How the hell is this cuisine?" And that was that. Bias is hard to shake off.

On the subject of supertasting, the response to bitterness alone doesn't explain the phenomenon or whether a person can be called a supertaster. If I recall, one's ability to detect propylthiouracil or phenylthiocarbamide has to do with genetic variation of a particular bitter receptor, and while a very strong response implies that the person is a supertaster, that alone can't determine it. Another way to test it is to count the number of fungiform papillae on one's tongue.

I could be off the mark though, as it's been a while since I've looked into it.
  • #13
  • Answered by fx
  • on: 09/04/2008
Ben, thanks for your kind words and please feel free to link in. I hope you'll have much fun in the kitchen in the future!
  • #14
  • Answered by fx
  • on: 09/04/2008
Luke, the lady chemist explained that the term 'super taster' was used only in the context of a specific molecule. So I may have been proved as a phenylthiocarbamide super taster but I don't pretend I am an overall super taster that can taste the 100 last dishes that were served in a particular plate!
  • #15
  • Comment by Luke
  • on: 09/04/2008
I'm kinda surprised she gave you PTC to taste. Pretty much everyone uses PROP these days. (Not that it matters much for the purpose of a simple demonstration.)

That said, if you ever have time to kill, counting the fungiform papillae on your tongue might be a fun little project. Hey, who knows? Maybe you can indeed taste the last 100 dishes served on a plate and not even know about it.
  • #16
  • Answered by fx
  • on: 11/04/2008
Luke I can't remember which molecule exactly she gave us to taste but will certainly do the papillae-counting test. Sounds quite fun! Maybe some of us have bionic tongues.
  • #17
  • Comment by Aaron in Allentown, Pennsylvania
  • on: 12/04/2008
Inspired by your entry, I purchased the supertaster kit.
Based on my physique and my predilection for fatty foods, I doubted that I was a supertaster.
This morning, my girlfriend and I took the supertaster test.
She was a non-taster, which didn't surprise me.  She loves bitter foods and non-sweetened adult beverages.
It took about five seconds for me to taste that strip, but man, did it taste awful.  I started to gag and dry heave.  I mean, Holy Shit that was nasty.
I've been trying to figure out why I love grapefruit juice and Brussels sprouts in spite of my sensitivity to bitterness.  When I eat bitter foods, I definitely wince at the bitterness, but I take pleasure in it.
I don't know the answer.  My best guess is that I relish those strong flavors because it reminds me that I'm alive.
  • #18
  • Answered by fx
  • on: 12/04/2008
Aaron, this is quite a story! I have not tried the super taster kit and am not sure it is exactly the same we had in the seminar. Probably a higher order version than what they gave us. I think the test only shows the differences in sensitivity to one molecule that hits on the bitterness papillae, and don't think it is meant to test our overall likeness of bitter foods. Still, I hope your girlfriend forgave you for being the 'super taster'!
Excellent pictures! I wish I could take part in these seminars!
  • #20
  • Answered by fx
  • on: 14/04/2008
Martin, thanks for visiting and remember they have another seminar in June, apparently with a few English-speaking speakers!
  • #21
  • Comment by Sam
  • on: 22/04/2008
Excellent coverage of the conference!  But it was awkward to read you continually refer to Herve This as >.  He holds a PhD degree and a professorship - it would be much more appropriate to refer to him as > or >.Thanks for the wonderful photos of the conference!
  • #22
  • Answered by fx
  • on: 22/04/2008
Sam, I'm sorry but your message has been cut. Did you mean that I should refer to This as Dr Prof This, or Prof Dr This rather than Mr This? It's so much more fun to play on this' name that I forgot my manners. Were you at the conference?
Thanks for visiting and hope to see you back on my blog!
j'adore l'idée de mouillettes d'oeuf plongées dans la crème de pain, j'adore Hervé This, j'adore ton reportage. Merci!!!!!!!!!
  • #24
  • Answered by fx
  • on: 28/06/2008
Sandra, merci pour ta visite et essaie d'aller voir un de ses séminaires, j'ai mis le lien sur l'article, tout le monde peut entrer!
Le prochain séminaire, c'est jeudi 18 septembre  de 16 h à 18 h !
venez !
  • #26
  • Comment by Danette
  • on: 01/12/2010
You are so lucky you got to go to this seminar!  I would have loved to have been there.  I assume it was all in French, though, of course, sigh...my French is not good enough to understand a seminar.
  • FX's answer→ Yes the French are not too good with languages and French is a requirement. But there were some lovely Americans there too!


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