While doom-mongers have introduced the unfounded concept of “ultra-processed food” to suggest that foods containing food additives are bad for us, we would like to give some serious consideration to the food challenges of the future: in 2050, we will have to feed about 10 billion human beings. The idea of “note by note cooking” is one proposal for a way to achieve this.
There is certainly an ultimate lack of logic in the energy inefficiency of bringing food from the other side of the world so that a few rich people can eat fruit out of season. There are certainly some food compounds that can be dangerous, and which need to be carefully regulated to avoid risks. There is certainly a need to change how food products are labelled, to give customers better information and help them make better food choices. Certainly…
However, it is also certainly a good thing to work from sound principles, such as the French law of 1905 on the sale of foodstuffs, namely that they must be sound, fair and of marketable quality. And this law should be intelligently interpreted, in the spirit of the law. For example, it is not certain that we should use the word “natural” for food, because technically no food is: the dictionary definition of natural is something that has not undergone human intervention … however any culinary transformation requires the intervention of a chef, artisan or artist (…the word “art” is not only part of artist but also artificial).
Additives should also not be lumped together; we should take into account that the list of permitted additives is “positive”, which means that they have been subject to evaluation, and sometimes even re-evaluation (as in the case of aspartame, which we can never remind readers often enough, has emerged unscathed twice from evaluation).
And, without giving in to irrational fears whipped up by the prophets of doom, we should note that these are most often products that were born out of domestic cooking. For example, going back at least as far as Guillaume Tirel’s Viandier, in the 14th century, cooks have prepared green colouring for food dishes. And these days we have to rely more on colouring agents now recognized as additives, than on culinary practices that use copper basins to give vegetables a beautiful green colour. Or how about caramel: why should we be suspicious about the range of additives classified under the additive E150, when all we are doing in cooking, when we heat sugar to high temperatures, is producing caramels? More generally, the same goes for additives as for medicines: a certain section of the public is doubtful about their safety, even though the same people are prepared to poison themselves with essential oils (be very wary of basil, tarragon or nutmeg oils!), which they value because they are “natural”
Natural: the word is out, and it’s a matter of fierce debate these days. We have seen what we might think of foods that are supposed to be “natural”, but it must be noted that the two opposing sides on the political scene are both equally at fault. On the one hand, it is wrong to believe that “natural” is by definition good, because after all, hemlock, the Black Death and cholera are natural, aren’t they? And the Poison Control Centres are forever recording cases of poisoning from “natural” products: not just mushrooms, but often plants, and it is enlightening to cross-reference the “compendium of toxic plants” established by Efsa (the European Food Safety Agency) against sales on the Internet, because we can see that many plants which are used traditionally ought to be treated with much more caution. On the other hand, some sectors of industry use the word “natural” in a way that I strongly condemn, particularly with regard to food preparations which add to the flavour of a dish, and which are wrongly known as “arômes” across the board in French (in English the word flavouring is used, and is subtly different from the word flavour). Let’s think about these preparations, for example those used to “flavour” our yoghurts. The reason I started off condemning the use of the word “arômes” or “aroma” as an English equivalent to describe them, is that the word “aroma” is conventionally used in French to describe the smell of aromatic plants. In other words, the word is misapplied and then becomes a misnomer, when we refer to preparations that give food a particular taste. And what of the word “natural” to describe these preparations? The simple fact of them being preparations implies the intervention of a human being, and therefore artificiality! But let us suppose for a moment that we continue to use the word “natural” for some things: that could be the thin end of the wedge, as clearly demonstrated by the example of vanillin. In the beginning there was vanilla, composed of the fermented pods from a vine, which is used to give dishes – custard for example – a widely appreciated taste. This taste comes from various compounds, one of which – vanillin – can almost convey the whole taste on its own. As it happens, this compound, vanillin, is very easy to synthesize molecularly. Synthetic vanillin is exactly the same as the vanillin in vanilla… but of course vanilla is not only vanillin, on the one hand, and on the other hand, accuracy would require us to distinguish the origin of these two vanillins. Hence the word “natural” which was then used to describe vanillin extracted from vanilla pods. And this is where the rot set in, because soon enough a technique was developed to use pine needles (which are perfectly natural) and environmental micro-organisms (also perfectly natural) to make fermentations that produce vanillin… perfectly natural, of course.
I have therefore been campaigning for years to ban the word “natural”, a source of disputes, conflicts and inaccuracy, and for flavouring preparations to be called “extracts” (implied: from plants or animals) or “compositions”, in the way that perfumes are compiled. Will you help me with this campaign?
And finally, while there is a strong temptation to define food by just how natural it is, it is not clear that the current popular classification of “ultra-processed foods” is even a valid one. For those who want to know more, please see a public session organized at the Académie d’agriculture de France on May 20, 2018, and podcasted at https://www.academie-agriculture.fr/actualites/academie/seance/academie/des-matieres-premieres-agricoles-aux-aliments-quel-impact-des
Note by Note cuisine
In the midst of these discussions, since 1994 I have been promoting “note by note cooking”, which is in fact a synthetic cuisine, in the same way as synthesizer music is synthetic music.
A historical comparison of music and the culinary arts will indicate how note by note cooking is obvious and … natural. Originally, some two hundred years ago, music was made with instruments (violins, trumpets, flutes…), distinguished by producing ready-made sounds, specific to each instrument: the tone of a flute is not the same as that of a violin. And, at that time, we cooked with fruits, vegetables, meat, fish… which each have their own distinct taste. Then, about a century ago, physics succeeded in analysing sound: we came to understand that all sounds can be broken down into a “fundamental” and “harmonics”, while the tone of classical musical instruments derives from a particular proportion, developing over time. Around then, chemistry began to analyse food, and it was gradually understood that all food is made up of various “compounds”: proteins, amino acids, sugars, lipids, vitamins… Fifty years ago, music evolved further, when electronics appeared; in those days a room full of computers was needed to achieve the first synthetic sounds and the first synthetic music… until it was everywhere. You can now buy a basic synthesizer in a toy shop for about 20 euros.
In the culinary field, I proposed in 1994 that we should do as we do for music, that is, that we should construct food component by component: that is what note by note cooking is. The first press presentation was held in Hong Kong’s Mandarin Oriental in 2009, and since then more and more chefs around the world have been working to produce new dishes. I do not have the space here to go into the full fascination of this work, but I would like to highlight at least two of the features: (1) a new culinary art is developing; (2) note by note cooking would seem to have its uses when we are looking to feed ten billion people.
But let’s finally get to the point: on June 7, 2019, we held the final of the seventh international note by note cooking competition.
Much more positively!
Instead of wasting my time discussing ideology and engaging in endless controversies, I am carrying on promoting note by note cooking all over the world, country after country… Chefs are interested in the possibility of a new culinary art, as I mentioned, but, above all, an international competition has the advantage of spreading the advances internationally, while proposing work with clear guidelines.
Every year for the past seven years, we have announced a new theme, and competitors from all over the world have worked on it, developing recipes, which are judged on the first Friday in June. After using methional (a compound with a baked potato taste), we had a competition using proteins, another competition dedicated to crispy consistency… And this year, we announced two themes: cocktails and “diracs”.
Diracs? The word dirac, called after English physicist Paul André Marie Dirac, is used to describe “synthetic meats”. Why not just refer to synthetic meat? Because the word “meat” refers to the flesh of animals. And so to describe preparations made mainly of protein and water, the word dirac has been used.
With this theme announced, competitors from all over the world entered… and competitors even came to the final from Korea, Italy and Ireland! There were three categories: students, professional chefs, and others, and eleven nationalities were represented. The offerings were immediately placed online on the website of the International Centre for Molecular Gastronomy, since it was this centre that was in charge of organising the competition.
Next year’s theme? New associations of compounds, to make it clear that the arts – and in particular culinary art – are not subject to hidebound rules. In music, the chord do-fa sharp used to be called the devil’s chord… but Johann Sebastian Bach made wonderful use of it. In the food industry these days there is a false theory of “food pairing”, which claims to set out the rules of an aesthetic of eating, i.e., what is “good”. This theory, which flirts with other false theories of so-called “molecular harmonies” has no scientific basis, and this is what we will demonstrate next year. Do you want to participate?