Coming to a Menu Near You
June 2, 2008
At the counter stands Hervé This, the world's first-only?-PhD in molecular gastronomy. In front of him sit 31 culinary directors, menu developers, and cooks of all stripes from assorted Earls, Cactus Club, and Joeys rooms, and from Saltlik Steakhouse. This (pronounced "teece"), a chemist and gourmet, is stumping the crowd with that building block of traditional French cuisine: the egg. How can we tell if the one he's holding is raw or hard-boiled? The cooks (mostly men in their 20s and 30s) throw out the answer: only a hard-boiled egg, stood on end, will spin. "Non," says This. All eggs spin. He sets this one in motion, drops one finger to stop it, then lets go. The egg kicks back into gear: "Fresh," he says. His accent makes the word sound sultry.
The chefs are spending their Sunday night at Barbara-Jo's Books to Cooks for this corporate seminar, at the invitation of Stew Fuller, president of Saltlik and a member of the family behind the Earls empire.
This throws out challenges. Standing before a bowl of egg whites: "What would be the best whisk to use?" The room points to the smaller. Non. The larger has more loops, which divide the whites more efficiently. "So again, which one?" Onside now, we yell for the bigger whisk. "Non, better is both. More efficient, and if you are short of time in your restaurants, you should use more whisks together.
"Is any woman here having her period?"
Deep silence. As he contrives that peculiar alchemy of yolk, water, and oil we call mayonnaise, This cites various old wives' tales. Can a menstruating woman make mayonnaise? Yes, he has determined. Must egg and oil be the same temperature? No. He has a storehouse of 25,000 axioms; the ones that delight him are the truths that seem false, and vice versa. "I'm happy when a chef tells something, it's very strange, we make the experiment, and he's right. Then we have some knowledge.
"Who thinks it is true, that you can keep the fruit white with lemon?" Hands rise warily. "Who is taking the bid, one box of Champagne that it is true?" The hands go down. "It is true. But why is it true?" Lemon juice is made of water and acids. "Instead of wasting lemon juice, you could go to the drugstore and buy ascorbic acid." This's friend Alain Ducasse took that advice. "The cost is zero, much cheaper than the juice."
Molecular cooking-as popularized in rooms like Spain's El Bulli and Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck in Berkshire-conjures images of foams, gelées, and globules yielding Frankenfare such as liquid pea ravioli and flaming sherbets. This, however, is interested more in basics than bravura. In his scientific life (he runs a lab through the Collège de France), he's mentoring PhD students researching carrots (how do they extrude their flavour?) and green beans (how do they stay green during cooking?). The room knows that one: finish with an ice bath. "Non. We did hundreds of experiments. The lid does not do anything. The cold water does not do anything." Skip shocking the beans; a waste of time. But the lid? Yes. "The energy will be lower, and we pay for this energy."
By the second hour, the chefs' eyes are, if not glazed, then demi-glazed. "Throw out your cooking books," This urges. (Books to Cooks owner Barbara-Jo Macintosh takes a breath.) "For technique," he amends, urging us to get back to basics. Whip cream, water, and air. What do you get? Chantilly cream. Swap chocolate for cream? Chocolate mousse. Don't you need eggs? "Not economical! Useless!" Brown butter instead of chocolate. Or foie gras. Or Roquefort. Throw it on top of liquid nitrogen, let it freeze as a shell.
People accuse This of disrupting traditional French cooking; not so, he says. "At one time there was only Bach, but Bach all the time, it's boring. Suddenly, we had Mozart. He was considered junky, but it was better than having only Bach. And I'm saying that having the steak plus the soft crab plus the Indian cooking plus the French classic plus the modern cuisine plus the molecular cooking, there will be more pleasure than having only the steak. And if I were the owner of a chain of restaurants"-he looks meaningfully at Fuller-"I would probably make a better offer having steak, pizza, Thai, Indian, French traditional, and molecular. And then the guest will be trapped."