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How Chemist-Chef Hervé This Sees the Future of Food

“I have 100 spices in my kitchen. Why not the same number of compounds?”

Courtesy of NYT/Francois Coquerel

One of molecular gastronomy's patron saints, Hervé This gets the T Magazine treatment on Sunday September 27. In a profile by Aimee Lee Ball, This looks not at a plate of crumbs, gels, or sous vide meat, but at the future of food.

Ball writes of the 61-year-old chef's new project: "This's big idea is nothing less than the eradication of world hunger, which he plans to accomplish not with any new economic overhaul, but through a culinary innovation that he calls note-by-note cooking, or NbN."

Screen_Shot_2015-09-17_at_9.59.12_AM.0.pngRecipes in NbN cooking look like chemistry equations, because This has broken flavors down by molecular compound. Each (powdered, dry; or bottled, liquid) compound retains its nutrients, and to an extent, its color. A recipe for a dish that tastes like steak and potatoes requires a few different powdered compounds, is reconstituted with water, and is then cooked in a frying pan like a pancake. The final result looks like a spongy pink blini, but apparently tastes as it should despite the obvious textural differences.

NbN cooking is a project This has been working on for more than three years. In 2012, after a cooking demonstration, he and former White House pastry chef Bill Yosses were embroiled in a conspiracy theory when an illogical conservative group accused the White House of pushing an agenda to do away with raw ingredients altogether in favor of "gelatin-like blobs made of chemical compounds."

But This isn't just a mad scientist, eager to prove he can break foods down to each base compound, rejiggering familiar dishes with a few extra grams of cis-3-hexen-1-ol (which "tastes like olive oil on steroids") and serve each new dish garnished with a swish of foam. He's actually trying to solve the problem of food distribution and availability.

According to This, one of the reasons there isn't enough food to go around is because when we transport it, what we're really transporting is water, which makes food spoil. This proposes that we stop shipping "wet" foods across countries or continents and and instead break them down into their parts: separating their nutrients and flavors into a wide variety of powders and liquids that are theoretically shelf-stable in perpetuity, and can be used as ingredients.

Of course, there are critics who say what This is doing isn't addressing the cultural, social, or anthropological reasons for and effects of eating. Nevertheless, This is pushing forward. Will the future of food look like a pantry full of powders and base chemical compounds? Will recipe books one day be filled with chemical equations? If This gets his way, yes.

"The Future of Food" appears in the New York Times's T Magazine on Sunday, September 27.