Bulking Up Our Supplies by Breaking Food Down: Introducing Note-by-Note Cooking
When renowned head chef of several Michelin star restaurants Andre Chiang visited France as part of a documentary he was filming for Channel News Asia, viewers may have been surprised when he spent a significant portion of his screen time not in restaurants or kitchens, but in science labs.
One of the people he met in these labs was Hervé This, a Parisian chemist and the father of molecular gastronomy, the investigation of physical and chemical transformations of ingredients that occur during cooking. More recently, he’s also the developer of a radical style of food preparation: note-by-note cooking. This style of cooking involves preparing dishes using pure compounds obtained by fractionating plant or animal tissue. In other words, we can take a carrot, put it in a blender, separate the different compounds, and dehydrate them. Now instead of a carrot, we can work with a selection of powders and solutions that each make up a different aspect of the carrot’s taste, texture, and smell.
On Chiang’s program, This demonstrated how to make an artificial steak using note-by-note cooking. He combined the cellulose from carrots, powdered proteins from eggs, the solution of pepperine from pepper, and oil. He then pan-fried it on a small griddle. The result hardly looked like a steak — more like a pancake or an omelet. But This’ comment afterwards made the potential impact of his innovation clear.
“You see, we have no waste at all — (because) we use the right amount of everything.”
A Potential Fix for Our Broken Food System?
As Chiang made clear in his documentary, our food system is severely broken. Food waste occurs at every stage in the production chain — in handling, storage, transportation, on the grocery store shelves, and in homes and restaurants. Overall, one third of all food produced goes uneaten, while almost 9% of the world’s population go to bed on an empty stomach every night.
The note-by-note cooking model would cut down on this food waste. If instead of transporting a carton of apples, for example, we could instead transport the components, we could not only cut down on transport costs, but also do away with wastage should the apples get bruised during transportation and not make it to the produce aisles of the supermarket. Moreover, as This demonstrated, note-by-note cooking produces zero waste during the actual cooking process — there’s no need to peel the skin off vegetables, or dispose of bones.
This’ dream is that note-by-note cooking becomes the solution to the global problem of food waste. However, when he first proposed the idea in Scientific American back in 1994, it was poorly received by the culinary community, who accused This of ruining the art of cooking.
“I was met with death threats.”
Furthermore, laymen were understandably skeptical of this new form of cooking — after all, who wants all fresh produce to be replaced by powders and solutions? Hervé This understands this reluctance, and his recommendation is to encourage more chefs to learn about this style of cooking.
In 2018, This visited the At-Sunrice Global Chef Academy in Singapore, where chefs were tasked with creating an Asian-inspired note-by-note dinner. The menu included shark fin made of agar agar and longevity noodles made from gluten-free starch, topped with the essence of rice wine and chicken. Local news outlets captured this event with much enthusiasm, and the guest list for the dinner included ministers, celebrity chefs, and fellow scientists.
However, as effective as This has been in introducing his new cooking technique to various culinary institutes across the world, it’s hard to believe that his efforts will lead to a massive overhaul of the way people consume food in the near future. This’ argument is that, “if the chef is there, the public makes it.” He points out that potatoes were not consumed widely in France in the 1700s as they were deemed “dangerous” by the medical professionals of the time. Antoine-Augustine Parmentier, a German prisoner who had eaten potatoes, changed this by bringing potatoes to France and serving them to the king. When the public saw the king eating potatoes, they, too, wanted them. This wants to use this strategy with note-by-note cooking, “I give it only to the ‘king’ or maybe now it’s Lady Gaga and if she eats it and wants it, other people will want it too.”
The problem is that adopting note-by-note cuisine is far more complex than choosing to eat potatoes. At-Sunrice team member Tais Berenstein mentioned that although note-by-note cooking has its merits, “the greatest difficulty is in creating the actual recipe.” This makes sense — the methods are very technical, and the measurements needed are probably too precise to be carried out from the comfort of our own homes. Admittedly, note-by-note cooking is gaining a lot of traction in the culinary world, but only in its upper echelons. While we may be inspired to try these dishes created by celebrity chefs that we see on the news, we can’t recreate them at home, and how many of us can actually afford to eat at their restaurants? Regardless of its adoption by elite culinary institutes and food tech competitions, as long as note-by-note cooking remains exclusive to haute cuisine, it is unlikely to result in substantial change in our food system.
Making Avant-Garde Cuisine Mainstream
Perhaps a better strategy than hoping for home cooks to adopt note-by-note cooking is to work on producing ready-made foods through note-by-note that can easily be incorporated into everyday meals. We aren’t that far off — the production of plant-based foods is a great example. Impossible Foods, for example, uses basic compounds (protein from soy and potatoes, flavor from heme, fat from coconut and sunflower oils, and binders such as methylcellulose and food starch) to produce their famous burgers — a recipe quite similar to the one that This showed Chiang when he visited. The fact that Impossible Foods products are readily accessible and easy to cook with made them easily adoptable by home cooks.
Of course, Impossible Foods runs into the same criticism as note-by-note cooking — they are “synthetic, “processed,” and people do not want to be “consuming chemicals.” From a scientific standpoint, these criticisms don’t quite hold up — if an egg contains peptides, it doesn’t matter whether you’re consuming the peptides by eating a whole egg or by eating egg powder, since it’s coming from the same egg. Additionally, we’ve been consuming “processed” products for a long time already — pasteurized milk, protein powder, and vitamins, to name a few.
As note-by-note cooking becomes more adopted, the dinner plates of our future might look more “processed,” but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s a chance to reduce food waste and potentially solve global issues such as world hunger and climate change.
We probably won’t be seeing mass-produced dishes created entirely with note-by-note methods anytime soon, but as with Impossible Foods, it’s likely that note-by-note cooking will continue to become more incorporated in our lives — eating lab-produced meat with normal buns, for instance. As This puts it, “food can be traditional, and note-by-note at the same time. You can have Mozart and Lady Gaga at the same time.”
Published exclusively in the Brown Technology Review