Back to the future
Raphael Haumont, a physics and chemistry researcher, holds the "Cuisine of the Future" Chair at Paris Saclay University, supported by Les vergers Boiron, at the crossroads of science and cooking.
Raphaël Haumont, you founded the French Center for Culinary Innovation (CFIC) with three-star chef Thierry Marx in 2013 and you hold the "Cuisine of the Future" Chair at Paris Saclay University. Could you begin by summarizing the main topics you examine in your research?
The vocation of the CFIC and our research is take a scientific approach in dealing with the major challenges of food and cooking now and in the future, from various angles: wellbeing, health and sustainable development, as well as looking for new taste sensations. We explore how, both individually and collectively, we can produce better food and how we can improve what we eat and reduce our consumption, but without sacrificing pleasure, by creating a new cuisine and a new aesthetic. Let me give you an example. With my students, we are working on a prototype of a drink container made of vegetable matter. Using the principle of encapsulation, we have created a bubble made of seaweed that is about the size of a tennis ball in which you can stick a straw to drink the beverage. The idea is to propose a new kind of packaging that is biodegradable or even edible to replace cans or bottles. A version of this packaging was actually taken into space by French astronaut Thomas Pesquet.
The cooking that you and chef Thierry Marx are exploring is often referred to as molecular. What do you think of this term?I don't really like this term, for several reasons. First, because it gives people the impression that it is somewhat chemical. In fact, our approach is based on the understanding of molecular action, more from a physical standpoint. Personally, I prefer to talk about bio-mimesis, which means that we try and replicate, under controlled conditions, what nature has been doing best for thousands of years. This notion of control is at the very center of our approach, in particular temperature control. To simplify things, our way of cooking has hardly evolved since the Iron Age. We still basically heat a metal receptacle and adjust the temperature slightly. When you overheat food, you destroy a lot of the nutrients and vitamins. In the cooking techniques we are looking at, we use both heat and cold. This, for example, allows us to make the well-known liquid nitrogen ice cream or sorbet, where nitrogen turns into a gas at -180°C in a room-temperature atmosphere.
Raphaël Haumont steps aside and makes a sorbet made with a Les vergers Boiron mango purée, slightly mixed and then doused in nitrogen. The result: a creamy sorbet, without any sugar or any additive, which has the taste of a freshly picked mango.
How do you work on taste in your approach?Once again, our processes are based on using various techniques to extract and enhance the natural tastes already present in the product itself. It's what the famous Barcelona chef Ferran Adrià calls creating "techno-emotion". In fact, what we call taste is 80% based on aromas or smell. This is why, when we analyze the quality of taste, we work a bit like a perfume maker or an oenologist, closely studying olfactory features, such as perfume head and heart notes and undertones and the wine notion of length of taste. Also, every fruit or vegetable is made up of different parts -skin, flesh, leaves, seeds- each of which has its own qualities that will change depending on how it's processed: raw, cooked quickly or slowly, chilled, freeze-dried, distilled, foamed, etc. For example, in one of our exercises, we took a celery stalk and created three different dishes. Using an ingredient in a multitude of ways also allows us to reduce waste. You can make very good chips with the skin of almost every vegetable. That's why it's important, whenever possible, to use untreated products.
This brings us to the sustainable development aspect of your work. How important is that?Indeed, it's a very important and even essential topic. Sustainable development provides us with a philosophy of the complete food cycle, from the farm to the fork and, beyond, the return of what's left back to nature. This constraint is in fact a source of creativity and innovation. There's a "lipogrammatical" novel by the French author Georges Perec where he writes an entire book without ever using the letter "e". Thus, by excluding certain things, such as chemical additives, artificial coloring, excessive salt and sugar, you force yourself to bring out the intrinsically sublime qualities that nature provides us with. Furthermore, our role in changing people's behavior involves education and popularizing our ideas. I visit schools 10 to 15 times a year, I participate in disseminating information through books and in the media. The idea is to spread these ideas to the greatest number and to make people more aware of taste possibilities and incite them to cook food that's healthier and more environmentally friendly. Finally, even if we're still at the very beginning of the process, we have a duty to increase the awareness level and stimulate the food-making industry to develop new practices that are both economically viable and ecologically sound. We have to give them some practical leads to enable them to create new foods for mass-market consumption, without altering the natural quality of food.
How does your collaboration with Les vergers Boiron, for over a year now, fit into your work?It's a natural fit, if you like, in that they produce natural products in a way that brings out the best of what they possess, by carefully selecting the fruit, which is picked at its peak and processed in a way that maintains the intrinsic taste, without alteration. Today, in our lab, we're exploring several leads that we think can be applied in the near future. At the beginning of the summer, when Les vergers Boiron brings together chefs from all over the world, we hope to delight them by proposing new ideas to push the boundaries of taste and creativity even further.