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Gagnaire and This Cross Imaginary Line, Create Purely Synthetic Food

May 12, 2009

via UK Times Online

(Cross-posted at The Contrarian.)

A recent piece in the UK’s Times Online hipped me to some developments in my world that might be interesting in yours. Two scions in the genre of fine dining have teamed up for a foray into truly synthetic foods. Now, this chow may not be “made of people” like Soylent Green, but it still smacks of kind-of-disgusting if you ask me. The shame of it all is that both Herve This and Pierre Gagnaire were heroes of sorts to me. Particularly Gagnaire.

A bit in the way of backstory: Herve is a food scientist; that is a scientist focused on food. His work is credited as the foundation of today’s techniques known as Molecular Gastronomy, in the parlance of our times. He has mentored — directly or indirectly — each and every star in the MG constellation: Wylie Dufresne, Heston Blumenthal and Grant Achatz to name but a few. And, of course, Ferran Adria.

Now, I am not here to doubt or refute the value of their collective contribution to the world of cooking and eating — for it is not only immense, but also fantastic. (Take a moment to explore the links of those chefs I just mentioned. . . there is some very far out stuff there.) Gagnaire is a chef of extremely high regard, and his Paris temple of gastronomy, Restaurant Pierre Gagnaire, has won hosts of awards over the years, including the coveted 3 Michelin Stars. His work is breathtaking, refined, elegant, etc. Also, it is very, very French.

Of the many tenets associated with MG, one of the foremost is that foodstuffs be mentally reduced to their elemental building blocks and reconsidered. What makes eggs do what they do, and how can we add to or diminish those properties? Do carrots need to be roasted in order to taste or appear roasted? Can we “poach” a chicken in an oven? What does it mean to coagulate vs. congeal, and how can we take the distinction to a logical conclusion about how best to prepare a given dish? As part of this process, most MG cooks use a host of additives and chemicals (not to mention highly specialized pieces of equipment) in the cooking process to achieve particular results — Fried Mayonnaise, Spherical Olives and the like. Yeah, these guys have a language all their own.

Gagnaire and This have been working together for some years, and they’ve now developed a series of dishes, called La note a note, derived in part or in whole, from purely synthetic sources. That is to say, rather then cooking carrots under pressure for a given time and then pureeing and/or reducing to concentrate the beta carotenes, they’re simply starting with the synthetic carotenes and “building” food from scratch. Certainly interesting from an analytical stance, but is it delicious?

Can food be considered merely the sum of its parts, or is there some nuanced — dare I say mystical — superiority to the wholesome foods “intended” by nature? Regardless of the preparation, I do believe that there is inherent value to beginning with actual food, rather than lab made synthetics.

From the Times Online:

[This] says compound cooking will enthral our taste buds — or, rather, our trigeminal nerve — and help to end food shortages and rural poverty because farmers could increase profitability by “fractioning their vegetables”.

Pretty lofty goals indeed, but fractioned vegetables? Really? Here’s the recipe for one such “foodstuff,” called Polyphenol Sauce:

Melt 100g of glucose and 20g of tartaric acid in 20cl of water. Add 2g of polyphenol. Boil and add sodium chloride and piperine. Bind the sauce with amylose. Take off the heat and stir in 50g of triacylglycerol.

C’mon then. . . is this even food? Granted, what they’re talking about is sugar, salt and a host of binding and flavoring agents. Cooking through chemistry is at least on some level familiar to the junk-food-addled minds of most Americans (Twinkies, man. . . Twinkies), but it’s possible these foreign chefs have stepped over a line with their fully synthesized food. Blinded by a purely scientific approach, they missed (deliberately, I imagine) the crucial conciet that food is more than its base building blocks. Or is it?

I wish Rudolph Steiner were here to comment on this, as his Demeter system for biodynamic farming  — which regards the whole farm as a living organism with a multiplicity of parts associated in myriad ways with the whole — is about as esoteric a tradition as can be found. In that system, there can be no base building blocks, no elemental compounds from which to build food. The whole is required to make the individual. . . they are inseparable.

Although I have long been fascinated with MG and laboratory techniques in the kitchen, I am not encouraged in the slightest by the notion that food, or the process of growing food, will lose completely it’s metaphysical attachment to the Earth, the Sun, and the seasons.

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