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A short survey of the history of food science is given, with special emphasis on Molecular Gastronomy and the role of N. Kurti.
Nicholas Kurti,
one of the founding fathers of Molecular Gastronomy
by Hervé This
Chemist at the Laboratory of Molecular Interactions Chemistry (Collège de
France, Paris)
Editor in chief of Pour la Science
Honorary Member of the Académie nationale de cuisine
Any evocation of the role of Nicholas Kurti in Molecular Gastronomy should
begin by a quotation from Sir Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, born in America,
soldier, statesman, natural philosopher, inventor and social reformer. In his 400-page
essay On the Construction of Kitchen Fireplaces and Kitchen Ustensils together with
Remarks and Observations relating to the various Processes of Cookery and
Proposals for improving that most useful Art, published in 1794, Rumford wrote « The
advantage that would result from an application of the late brilliant discoveries in
philosophical chemistry and other branches of natural philosophy and mechanics to the
improvement of the art of cookery are so evident that I cannot help flattering myself
that we shall soon see some enlightened and liberal-minded person of the profession to
take up the matter in earnest and give it a thoroughly scientific investigation. In what
art or science could improvements be made that would more powerfully contribute to
increase the comforts and enjoyments of mankind ? »
Why did Nicholas like so much this quotation? I shall probably never know, but I
know that the more we published together, the more he insisted to have Rumford’s
sentence introduced in the texts dealing with Molecular Gastronomy. Or rather
Molecular and Physical Gastronomy, I should say. Let me tell you how all that began,
and you will understand the meaning of his claim.
The ancestors of Molecular Gastronomy
We shall begin the story with a rapid survey of the history of food science. This
is a classical scientific discipline as some pionneers are Parmentier (1737-1813), who
introduced the potato in France and explored the uses of this food ingredient, and the
chemist Jacques Thenard (1777-1859), who helped the gastronome Jean-Anthelme
Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826) to write his universally renowned Physiology of taste ;
later Michel Eugène Chevreul (1786-1889) founded the chemistry of fats, not
forgetting Justus von Liebig (1803-1873), Emil Fischer, Rumford or many others,
including of course, Albert Szent-Gyorgyi (1893-1986).
Food science developed rapidly, going into details of food modification under
various treatments and closely collaborating with the food industry. But in the process
of industrialization, domestic culinary operations were modified because they had to be
adapted to the needs of mass production. The food industry flourished, but the
individuals who cook at home did not benefit from the advances of science. Cooking at
home or in restaurants remained almost the same activity as in the Middle Ages : the
same tools were used, and the ingredients changed little.
In other words, while it is true that Rumford's wish has been to some extent
fulfilled, good basic science and engineering has greatly helped the development of the
food industry in the last 50-100 years ; but it still seems to be very rare to see the
professional scientist cum amateur cook using his physics, his chemistry, his
mathematics to explain, to explore, to improve everyday processes in the domestic
kitchen and, in doing so, perhaps even to create new dishes.
1969, the turning point
Then came the year 1969.
At that time Nicholas was very interested in the history of science (he was largely
responsible for the creation of the Contemporary Scientific Archive Centre, which
catalogued and preserved the papers of distinguished scientists). Being fond of physics,
Nicholas had a particular interest in Rumford, one of the founding fathers of
The Royal Institution in London, founded by Rumford, is well known for its
Friday Evening Discourses, i.e. regular lectures on a wide variety of topics. 1969 was
the 170th anniversary of an event that took place at the first meeting of the Managers
of the Institution that was to become the Royal Institution : on 9th March 1799, it was
resolved that « the proposals for forming the Institution, as published by Count
Rumford, be approved and adopted ». As Rumford was to be mentioned in this
celebration, Nicholas was approached by the Royal Institution, and he suggested the
title « The physicist in the kitchen ». He was already a good cook, having learnt from
his very skilful mother, but the Royal Institution lecture focused his mind and from that
time onwards cooking became serious experimental work. The lecture was filmed by
the BBC.
A frequently quoted sentence of the lecture was : « It is a sad reflection that we
know more about the temperature inside the stars than inside a soufflé ». And in fact,
during the lecture, Nicholas did several experiments, among them the measurement of
the temperature inside a soufflé. The temperature rose, from 20°C, then diminished a
little, and then increased again up to 70°C, at which the soufflé was taken out of the
oven because it was « done pretty well to perfection »1.
During this lecture, Nicholas also demonstrated the injection of fresh pineapple
juice through a hypodermic syringe into meat : the proteolytic enzyme bromelin in the
juice split protein molecules, acting as a meat tenderizer2.
He also prepared meringue in a bell jar, which was evacuated : the swelling of the
foam was very important and the drying of the meringue was much faster than in the
classical method. But the result was different : what he obtained was a « hard
nothing », as he described it.
During the lecture, Nicholas also considered the culinary works of Rumford and,
in particular, the method for making coffee, describing Rumford’s coffee pot, « which
contained a filter and is, in fact, a double boiler, so that however long the making of the
coffee takes the resulting beverage remains hot without boiling » (in 1975, his former
students and colleagues presented him with a replica of that coffee pot).
Then staying with Rumford, he explained the method for cooking shoulder of
mutton « à la Rumford », i.e. at low temperature. Nicholas recorded the temperature
1 Later, we made experiments together in order to explain the decline in temperature after the initial rise, and
we showed clearly that it is due to the rise of comparatively cold layers. It is strange that Nicholas never tried to
explain this rise. I showed that it is due to vaporization of water at the bottom of the ramequin.
2 Nicholas named « à la Pravaz » his recipe using the syringe, after Pravaz, the inventor of the hypodermic
syringe, but the recipe was already published in the 1920’s in France under the name « intrasauces », which
should be kept, as Nicholas himself agreed later.
inside the joint with hypodermic needles and a thermocouple connected to a chart, so
that he could judge when the meat was cooked without taking it out of the oven3.
Finally Nicholas considered the use of microwaves in the kitchen, a truly new
method of cooking, and he invented a new dish, that he called Inverted Norwegian
omelet, or Baked Alaska, where a burning core is surrounded by a cold coating.
In all these explorations, Nicholas was well armed to cope with culinary
processes : as Brillat-Savarin wrote, a good chef has to respect the eternal laws of
nature, and it is often mentioned that they have to be master of fire. Even if Nicholas
was a specialist a very low temperatures, he knew perfectly thermodynamics, which is
everywhere in the kitchen. And cooking, as experimental physics, of which Nicholas
was a master, is primarily experimentation.
The lecture was important, because it induced Nicholas to make many physics
experiments with food ; it was the beginning of the story. Nicholas became famous for
his culinary explorations of « gastrophysics », giving lectures, interviews, making TV
and radio programs... Sometime people forget that he was also a top low temperature
physicist but Nicholas was happy with this public image.
And he cultivated it, because in 1988 he and his wife Giana published a book
entitled But the crackling is superb, with contributions of the fellows of the Royal
Molecular Gastronomy at last
Excuse me now to mention my own contribution, but since I met Nicholas in
1986 I had the remarkable luck that the thread of our lives were intertwined.
First one remark : Michael Faraday became the great physicist and chemist that
we all know in part because he read, as he was young, the book of a clergyman, Isaac
Watt, The improvement of the mind, in which advice was given : have correspondence,
have collaboration, check the facts, do not extrapolate hastily, do not participate in
controversies. Nicholas was fond of Faraday, just as I was, and we tried both to apply
this advice.
The story goes as follows. Living and working in Paris, I did not know the
existence of Nicholas and for many years I was also investigating French proverbs
about culinary processes in my private laboratory, while working for the magazine
Pour la Science (the French edition of Scientific American).
In 1986, a new advertising officer was hired by the company ; she worked
previously for Europhysics letters, of which Nicholas had been the editor. And as soon
as she heard of my experiments, she mentioned Nicholas to me, giving me his telephone
number in Oxford. I called him immediately and, one week later, he came to Paris,
using the opportunity of a meeting of the Société française de physique (the French
physical society). We met in a small restaurant in the Quartier Latin (« Chez Maître
Paul »). I remember that he choose the place, and that we had a wonderful « Poulet au
vin jaune du Jura » (braised chicken with a sauce made from a special wine that is aged
for six years into wood barrels ; a veil of micro-organisms that decompose gives the
wine its characteristic taste).
3 The denomination « à la Rumford should not be kept, because the « gigot de onze heures » is a classical recipe
; it works according the well known principles of « braisage », a classical process for which even special tools
called braisière were made for a very long time. These braisières were put in hot ashes, so that the temperature
was under 100°C, which is a bad temperature for cooking meat : at that temperature, water evaporates, and the
tenderness is reduced.
4 The title was choosen because Nicholas cooked for a French chef heading a restaurant in England his pork
roast injected with pineapple juice. Asked to comment, the chef answered : « It is not terrific, but the crackling
is superb ».
I do not know the mechanism of our souls, but immediately we were like old
friends. And since this lunch we collaborated closely. I discovered that he had made
some experiments that I had also made. But he had also made experiments that I did
not make, and I had some results that he did not know. This was due probably to the
difference of the point of view that we had : he wanted to introduce physics in the
kitchen, and, being a chemist rather than a physicist, I wanted to check the culinary
proverbs, in order to « clean » the culinary books for the next centuries.
He soon came back to Paris. Almost immediately we felt that we should have a
meeting somewhere in the world, where all the people interested in this kind of
activity, using science in the kitchen, could exchange ideas. I remember the day, in my
office, when Nicholas called the director of the Ettore Majorana Centre, Professor
Antonino Zichichi. Nicholas knew Antonino Zichichi from previous physics workshops
in the Ettore Majorana Centre, in Sicily. Antonino Zichichi answered very openly and
kindly that he would agree to have a special workshop if we could demonstrate that
the activity that was our common passion could interest other top scientists.
We had the luck to get immediately the support from Hans Mayer Leibniz, in
Germany, of Sir Arnold Burgen in Great-Britain, of Philippe Corsaletti (who was the
president of Eurotoques, a European association of chefs), of Pierre Gilles de Gennes
(a Nobel laureate, he was the director of the Ecole supérieure de physique et de chimie
de Paris, where I had studied there, and Nicholas knew him well because they met
when Nicholas was working in Europhysics letters), of Pierre Potier in France, and
What was the name to be given to this workshop? Nicholas was fond of
Rumford, and I was fond of Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, who wrote that « The
discovery of a new dish does more for the happiness of mankind than the discovery
of a new star » (by the way this quotation was in the introduction of the 1969
lecture in the Royal Institution). Brillat-Savarin mentioned in particular that
« Gastronomy is the rational study of all that related to man as he is eating. Its
purpose is to keep humankind alive with the best possible food. It relates to natural
history, by the classification of alimentary substances, to physics, by the analysis of
their composition and their qualities, to chemistry by the analysis and
decompositions that it imposes on them, to cooking... ».
Consequently our common activity, in spite of slight differences that we shall
examine later, should then be named Gastronomy. But it was only part of it : I
proposed that we use the name Molecular Gastronomy, but Nicholas resisted my
chemical inclination and insisted that we also indicate that some processes are not
chemical, but physical : we agreed that it would be an « International Workshop on
Molecular and Physical Gastronomy ». One remark : it has been sometimes asked
why we did not call it « Molecular and physical cooking », which would have
avoided this pompous « gastronomy ». Nicholas and I knew that it was not
appropriate, because we wanted to use science in order to examine culinary
processes, certainly, but also some phenomena that arise when we are eating. For
example, is there a way to avoid the astringent taste of tea? Which kind of wine is to
be drunk as we are eating salad? Which kind of spoon should be used as we are
eating oeuf à la coque?
In 1992, in Erice (Sicily), we co-directed the first « International Workshop
on Molecular and Physical Gastronomy ». As we had wanted, the participants were
either chefs or scientists, and experiments alternated with discussions. At the end of
this very fruitful meeting, Nicholas agreed to be my second father.
And it was the beginning of a still closer collaboration. We had daily
telephone calls : I told Nicholas about my experiments, and either he discussed them
or he gave me his own results. In this way, we made rapid progresses. I remember in
particular a work on vinegar « reduction » : Raymond Blanc, a French chef running
the three star restaurant Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, near Oxford, told Nicholas that
boiling vinegar would reduce its acidity. Nicholas mentioned it to me, and I made the
simple experiment of boiling vinegar, and measuring the pH after various boiling
time. He confirmed the result, but, in Paris, I got a different result. How was it
possible? As we compared our experiments, we found that the only parameter that
changed was the nature of the vinegar : Nicholas had used white vinegar, and I had
used wine vinegar. Then we tried other kinds of vinegar, and we finally found that
there is no general low : some vinegar have a pH that is reduced by boiling, others
have a pH that is increased, some have a pH that goes up and then down, and some
others have a pH that decreases before increasing... The explanation is simple :
vinegar is not a simple mixture of acetic acid and water. It includes a lot of other
acids and bases, strong or weak : tartaric acid, formic acid, etc. This experiment
shows well how collaboration was fruitful.
As we were doing this kind of experiments, we prepared another workshop of
the same kind. It was in 1995, and the topic was « Sauces or dishes made from
them » ; the third workshop, in 1997 was about « Cooking », and the fourth
workshop, alas without Nicholas, was recently in Erice about « Flavors, how to get
them, how to distribute them, how to keep them ».
At the same time, we published a lot, together (I always produced the first
draft, and he made a lot of corrections). We were first invited to make a long
contribution in Scientific American. Then we wrote the « scientists notes » for the
cookery book of Raymond Blanc. And we were the editors of « The cooking
chemist » in The Chemical Intelligencer, invited by Istvan Hargittai. We should not
forget also a Newsletter that I ran for some time after the first workshop ; this
newsletter was stopped because after six issues Nicholas and I were almost the only
At the same time, we had many pleasures : we were given the opportunity to
teach Molecular and Physical Gastronomy in the University of Tours (France), we
were chosen as « patrons » by the students of the Ecole nationale supérieure de
biologie appliquée à la nutrition et à l’alimentation (ENSBANA), in Dijon, we were
invited to lecture, sometimes together, in France and England, etc.
Nicholas gave me a lot of good advice that I was not always able to follow,
because I did not always understand him.
One that I could follow and that I am sharing with all my students and auditors
is the following : « Hervé, he said frequently, make simple experiments ». There is
no better advice. It is clear that we could show to the public a lot of complicated
things : NMR analysis of food during culinary transformations, precise thermic
differential analysis, etc. But the public would then only say that we are clever
people and would not truly accept our results. Doing simple experiments is a good
way to make good demonstrations and to increase the « palatability » of chemistry
and physics. I mention this point because Nicholas, consciously or not (I do not
know), and I used Molecular Gastronomy as a way to communicate science to the
public. If the layman says that he hates chemistry (« a polluting, dangerous, sticky
activity »), it is easy to make him notice that cooking a steak is doing chemistry :
before the cooking, it is red and needs seasoning to make, at best, steak tartar ; after
it is brown and tasty, because of Maillard reactions, and others. If the steak is to be
cooked perfectly, the chefs would benefit to know and use some chemistry.
Nicholas did not always agree with me. I remember for example when I was
passing a Ph D in physical chemistry (the jury included Jean-Marie Lehn, Pierre Gilles
de Gennes, Nicholas, one French chef , Pierre Potier and other scientists). This event
seemed to be very important for Nicholas because the title was « Molecular
Gastronomy », but I dropped the « physical » in the title, because I had the feeling that
« Molecular » was enough to say that chemistry and physics were used in the kitchen
together. Contrary to Nicholas, I never considered that they could be separated. Was I
On other occasions, I could not understand some of his remarks. For example,
when I was testing old wives’ tales about food, he frequently mentioned that I wasted
my time if I made tests of non written proverbs or of obviously false indications.
However, when we published the first article of « The cooking chemist » column, we
wrote together « These minute investigations may perhaps be tiresome to some
readers ; but those who feel the importance of the subject and perceive the infinite
advantages to the human species that might be derived from a more intimate knowledge
of the science of preparing food, will be disposed to engage with cheerfulness in these
truly interesting and entertaining researches. »
Finally I never understood why he was so fond of Rumford as becoming a
specialist of the life and work of this scientist. Did he consider Rumford as the ancestor
of Molecular Gastronomy? In fact Rumford was certainly not, because I recently found
a publication by Antoine Laurent de Lavoisier on stock preparation, where the great
French chemist was writing : « One cannot avoid being surprised, each time that one
ask questions on the most familiar objects, on the most trivial things, to see how our
ideas are often vague and uncertain, and how, thus, it is important to fix them by
experiments and by facts ». Another possibility was thtat Nicholas admired Rumford
for being a scientist, an engineer as well as a gastronome. Nicholas was always
interested in energy conservation and the proper use of energy. Rumford designed
fireplaces and stoves, and the already mentioned coffee pot. He was interested in
nutrition and social problems. He was not exclusively a « laboratory scientist » ; nor
was Nicholas.
I have to repeat that Molecular Gastronomy has many patrons. Nicholas is to remain in the
history as one of them for his work in introducing physics in the kitchen. I wish he could also
be celebrated for a major part of his heritage, a part that I invite you to share with all the
people you meet : it is written in my heart and it is « Let us have simple experiments ».
Nicholas Kurti, The physicist in the kitchen, Proc. Roy. Instn. 42, No.199, p. 451-467
But the crackling is superb, an anthology on Food and Drink by Fellows and Foreign Members
of the Royal Society, edited by Nicholas and Giana Kurti, Adam Hilger, 1988, Bristol.
Raymond Blanc, with scientist notes by Hervé This-Benckhard and Nicholas Kurti, Blanc
Mange, BBC Books, London, 1993.
Hervé This-Benckhard, Une petite histoire de la gastronomie moléculaire, in Papilles, n°13,
nov. 1997 (Editions Au temps qu’il fait).
Nicholas Kurti and Hervé This-Benckhard, Chemistry and physics in the kitchen, in Scientific
American, april 1995.
The cooking chemist, monthly column in The chemical Intelligencer, Springer Verlag.
‘Molecular gastronomy’ was invented by scientists to apply physics and chemistry to restaurant and home cooking, and is best known today through the world’s number one restaurant, elBulli, in Spain. This article examines molecular gastronomy as it is practised by three types of producers in different locations: by professional scientists in the laboratory, through a case study of its founders Nicholas Kurti and Hervé This; by professional chefs in the restaurant, through a case study of Ferran Adrià at elBulli; and by amateur ‘foodies’ in the home, through a case study of foodie called Rob. It argues that molecular gastronomy is particularized in each location, as it is tied to the scientist’s goal of ‘culinary enlightenment’, the chef ’s goal of ‘culinary creativity’, and the foodie’s goal of ‘gastronomic education’. In doing so, it contributes to debates about the shifting boundaries of science and expertise in late modernity.
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