Charging up the rue François 1er to an interview at Radio France, the man who is trying to change French gastronomy is talking egg whites, discussing their viscosity, their surface tension, and different ways of introducing air into them. One is the whisk; another is the bicycle pump. He is not seriously proposing the use of cycling equipment to make a soufflé, but, multiplying the diameter of a whisk wire by the number of wires in the whisk by the average depth of each whisking movement, he concludes that the standard whisk is little better than medieval, and begins to speculate about better options.
Hervé This is not a cook, but a scientist. He does not work in the oven-blasted heat of kitchens, but in the thin, rarefied air of the Collège de France. He doesn’t grow misty-eyed over Fernand Point, the legendary cook who first mined the regional vein in haute cuisine; he grows emotional over Antoine Lavoisier, the 18th-century researcher who drew chemistry out of the alchemical night. By dint of his energy and intellect, This (pronounced “Tees”) has become the leader of a discipline called molecular gastronomy. It is his conviction that forcing the canons of the French table through the sieve of hard science will create a new form of cooking from which the dust of centuries will have been loosened and all useless procedures discarded. Armed with an IBM ThinkPad and a bone-handled Laguiole penknife, he applies himself to the task daily and passionately, in the role of showman and savant.
Headquarters for the campaign is the Collège de France, a stately building with a cobbled courtyard that stands across the Rue St.-Jacques from the back entrance of the Sorbonne. To give an American approximation of the intellectual weight that the institution carries, one would have to multiply Yale, Harvard, and MIT several times over and roll them into one. Despite its pedigree, the atmosphere is marked as much by modesty as by erudition. Since the founding of the Collège, Parisians have been able to simply walk in off the street and attend lectures. Today, skateboarding teenagers might be found launching themselves from the base of a statue of Claude Bernard (author of a 19th-century landmark study on experimental medicine) that stands in front of the building. The massive, unmarked vine that crawls up a courtyard wall is one of the first ever to be grafted onto American rootstock, a technique that saved the French wine industry from phylloxera in the late 19th century.
This’s small fourth-floor office in this august institution, reached by a rickety elevator and a walk down a cluttered corridor, is nothing if not humble. The visitor who expects to push open the door and find This pacing between assistants shouting, “I want a meeting with the fricassee team,” or asking how the papers on profiteroles are coming along is in for a surprise. On the cluttered desk, The Merck Index leans against Escoffier’s Guide Culinaire; on the floor, household pots are stacked against a centrifuge. It is unclear whether the labeled beakers and petri dishes that take up the counters are experiments currently being observed, recently concluded, or long since forgotten. The room is not so much a laboratory as an extension of This’s mind.
One would describe This as tall if he didn’t always seem crouched, about to pounce on an imprecision. One would never describe him as calm. Brushing his lank gray hair from his eyes, wearing his signature white collarless shirts, and invariably in motion, he has the demeanor of a country vicar delivering a particularly impassioned sermon. His face has two basic settings. Look one, wide-eyed and charmed, seems always to be saying, “See, science isn’t that hard at all!” Look two is more tentative, gauging just how much hard science a particular audience can deal with. It must be said that he is good-looking, but he is much more than just a handsome academic. He is a public intellectual, which in France means he is a star.
The field of molecular gastronomy began over a meal that This shared with a retired Anglo-Hungarian physicist named Nicholas Kurti in 1985. At the time, This was editing the popular science journal Pour la Science while doing culinary experiments at home. An advertising rep told him about Kurti, who was doing the same in his Oxford laboratory. Within days, the two men were sharing a poulet au vin jaune at Chez Maître Paul.
Kurti died in 1998, but This is clearly devoted to the man—he can list his idol’s career from a Budapest Gymnasium to the Legion of Honor like a San Francisco Giants fan reeling off Willie McCovey’s batting average. Other stars in the world of culinary science were similarly taken with Kurti. Endearingly, the word Champagne comes up with great frequency when his name is mentioned. Harold McGee, who published the groundbreaking On Food and Cooking in 1984, recalls planning the first conference of molecular gastronomy over a half-finished bottle that Kurti brought out in the shabby Berkeley, California, motel where he was staying. Shirley Corriher, the best-selling author of CookWise, recalls that chilled Moët & Chandon was served promptly at 11:30 after the morning seminars at that first conference.
A central question about molecular gastronomy seems to rise from these lovely details, for the world of Champagne receptions is not the world of kitchens. Few outside the profession truly understand the physical demands on a cook or understand the stress level induced by being judged on every single dish you put out during the rush of a service twice every day. Where does molecular gastronomy fit in? Is it a discipline that can actually help chefs put out good food and meet payroll? Or does it simply provide modern scientific tools for that age-old need of some chefs to serve an ingredient in a form different than its own? Before, we’d be presented with fish mousse in the shape of the Arc de Triomphe; today’s fashionable cooking can seem to be all about emulsions, gels, and foams.