Is cooking with pure chemical compounds the future of food?

Molecular gastronomy inventor Hervé This says a technique called ‘note by note’ cooking could tackle food security, food waste and even overconsumption of calories.

5 March 2018
technologyinnovationingredientsfood wastecalories
image credit: Sandrine Kauffer

Note by note cooking sounds like it should involve matching tunes with food. But while a company called Musical Pairing has actually patented just such a process in the US, that’s not what note by note's creator, Hervé This, is all about.

He does, however, take inspiration from music to explain his new technique.

“Two centuries ago, music was performed using traditional instruments and cooking was using traditional ingredients. Then one century ago, physicists began analysing sounds into pure waves as chemists were analysing food into pure compounds,” he says.

“About 50 years ago, one room full of computers was used to synthesise music from pure waves, but today a synthesiser costs only 20 euros in a shop for children. For food? Pure compounds are cheap and it's easy to make synthetic food. This is note by note cooking.”

In essence, it uses compounds that are responsible for taste and smell to make a meal, such as sucrose, protein, lipids, vitamins and anthocyanins for colours. There isn’t an actual vegetable or piece of meat in sight.

As a chemist at France’s National Institute for Agricultural Research, This says the food industry better start preparing its instruments, as note by note cooking is about to make some noise.

Note perfect

So why is note by note cooking so compelling? There are sustainability arguments, with the cuisine using shelf-stable powders and liquids, eliminating food waste. It would also be easy to employ vitamin fortification to tackle malnutrition.

In fact, there are numerous benefits, according to This, from food security, energy savings on transportation and water savings in arid countries, to tackling allergies and even making food from inedible plants by extracting only the good compounds.

“Fruits and vegetables are fragile physical-chemical systems, full of water, so that they are expansive to transport and easily damaged,” he tells Food Spark.

“In order to reduce spoilage, it would be useful to extract water from them at the farm, so that only ‘dry’ nutrients would be transported – without cold systems. This would also have the advantage of making the prices more regular, because of the possibility of storage.”

The creator also rejects the idea that this technique removes people’s connection from real food, claiming that it opens the floor up to innovation.

“Instead of saying that there would be no carrots, I would say that, as for music, there will be traditional as well as new food ingredients,” explains This.

“It creates new dishes. And here, the possibilities are infinite. Using note by note cooking, you can create everything! The shape you want, the consistencies you want, the colours you want, the odour you want and the number of calories,” he says.

image credit: Sandrine Kauffer

Michelin chefs sing note by note’s praises

It all sounds good in theory, but has an actual meal been created? Yes, quite a few times. Most recently, Michelin-starred chef Julien Binz served up France’s first ever 100% note by note meal to 40 guests in February – there was no meat, fish, eggs, vegetables or fruits, only pure compounds.

The menu included sorbet beetroot with almond and cheery, roasted chicken with mushroom and croutons, and egg with truffle, rice, fenugreek curry, hay and celery. These dishes incorporated odour compounds by Iqemusu, a company inspired by This.

Binz says he wanted to show the dishes of the future, but it took two months of daily experimentation to create the menu.

“I used products such as plant proteins from peas, milk proteins, egg proteins, polysaccharides such as agar-agar, amylopectin (maize starch), carrageenans (extract from red seaweed), water, sucrose, glucose, but also various emulsifiers, choosing of course perfectly safe food ingredients,” he says.

“And for the odours, I used ‘evocations’ from the Iqemusu company. These bottles contain odorant compounds dissolved in oil. This is brand new, because the cook can now create his own flavour, based on the mixture of many odorant compounds, as a perfumers creates a perfume. Instead of using ready-made flavourings, one can make an infinite number of new flavours.”

While Binz says he still loves fresh ingredients, he has used the technique in the kitchen ever since he discovered it, in particular when a guest has an allergy. “A lactose-intolerant guest could taste the ‘revisited egg’ and she was so happy and so surprised by the new textures and perfumes,” he says.

Others to have used the technique included French chef Pierre Gagnaire and Olivier Falchi from restaurant Le Sud in Buenos Aires, Argentina, while the restaurant Senses in Warsaw, directed by Italian chef Andrea Camstra, is the first restaurant devoted to the cuisine.

image credit: Sandrine Kauffer

Compound kits

Just like gelatine or vanilla essence, This sees products for note by note cooking ending up on supermarket shelves.

“I am confident, because I introduced gelling agents from algae in the food sector and I see them now in supermarkets. The same for some tools such as siphons or low-temperature cooking. For note by note cooking, it will follow,” he says.

It’s not an expensive concept either, says This, as plant proteins can be bought by the tonnes and odorant compounds are very cheap, with a pure bottle costing 10 euros.

While note by note cooking may be too difficult for the public at the moment, This is convinced things will become simpler, and can even see a future of meal kits offering people the opportunity to cook in this style.

“I hate the idea that additives are only for companies. Either such compounds are useful and the public should have it, or they are not and the industry should not use them. The same for odorant compounds, or flavourings,” he says.

Food for the masses, perhaps, but certainly food for thought.  

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