TOP chefs are popularly seen as visionaries who use their intuition and artistic flair to throw together succulent, prize-winning dishes. But the best chefs of the future will be the ones who embrace advances in chemistry and prepare dishes with the precision of a lab technician, according to a Parisian scientist who studies the secrets of taste.
Herv This is the founder of Molecular Gastronomy, which applies the principles of chemistry and physics to cooking. This afternoon he will tell an audience at the Edinburgh International Science Festival how the menu of the future will be based on scientific manipulation, with chemistry allowing strange, new food combinations.
Chefs are already experimenting with scientific breakthroughs. At the Fat Duck in Berkshire, Heston Blumenthal, a disciple of Mr This, manipulates molecular structures to create bacon and egg ice-cream and other unexpected flavour combinations such as white chocolate and caviar; he even squirts green tea and lime mousse into bowls of liquid nitrogen - when put on the diner's tongue, the mousse vanishes into a puff of vapour, leaving nothing but flavour.
This is only the beginning, according to Mr This. "This field will revolutionise future kitchens of top chefs. It already has," he said yesterday. "There will be initial resistance to some of our work. When we proposed making ice-cream with liquid nitrogen, for example, all the main chefs said we were crazy and that it would be poisonous. Now they all do it. I do think that the best chefs will embrace these advances and see them as an enhancement of what they already do."
Mr This believes that the impact of molecular gastronomy will also help amateur cooks, as his laboratory in Paris has made several discoveries geared to help them. Blowing on your cup of coffee will cool it down more than stirring; you can avoid home-made pasta sticking to the pan by increasing the proportion of egg. And if you forget the wild mushrooms for a supper dish, it helps if you know that some 1-octen-3-ol or benzyl trans-2-methylbutenoate - available from chemical supply shops - produces a wonderful mushroom or "forest" taste. And if you can't afford a good whisky, buy a cheap brand and add vanillin solution to create the right "roundness".
But not all top chefs - traditionally a stubborn, proud bunch - are convinced. Gordon Ramsay famously declared that "a chef should use his fingers and his tongue - not a test tube". Yesterday, Michelin-starred Edinburgh chef Tom Kitchin said that while molecular gastronomy takes some of the artistry out of cooking, it will prove an essential tool to any chef who wishes to keep up with the times.
"I'm old-fashioned and prefer traditional preparation," he said. "But we've got to move with the times. I'm going to a seminar at Gleneagles next week on vacuum-pack cooking, which utilises a lot of Herv This's principles. The best chefs will be the ones who will use the new science to expand their creativity. It has to be seen as an opportunity," Mr Kitchin said.
Food writer Alex Renton, who recently attended a conference on molecular gastronomy, said that hopes behind the field are overblown.
He said: "I think a lot of it is hype. It's not going to revolutionise cooking; it won't have the impact, for example, that refrigeration had when it was introduced. But it's more than just a fashion. Chefs and scientists are discovering extra techniques that are going to add another layer of skills to their skill-set."
• Herv This will be speaking at the National Museum of Scotland at 3pm today.
SIMPLE RECIPE MAY CHANGE A CHEAP WHISKY INTO A CONNOISSEUR'S DELIGHT
IN HIS work as a molecular gastronomist, Herv This has made a discovery that might ruffle the feathers of Scotch whisky connoisseurs.
Mr This claims that you need not buy pricey, aged malts to enjoy a stunning dram. All you need is a basic chemistry set.
"With whisky there is an experiment in which you can take the cheapest whisky you can find, which will be very harsh and unpleasant, and add five droplets of vanillin. This will transform the whisky and give it a wonderful, bold roundness and warmth. You can do this experiment easily at home".
Mr This said the experiment is based on the discovery that the ethanol (alcohol) in whisky, interacts with the wood casks in which it is aged, and produces chemicals that are very similar to vanilla molecules.
The aroma of vanilla comes from vanillin, one of the natural chemical compounds in oak. So adding vanillin to cheap whisky essentially mimics the ageing process.
He said: "I don't want to upset people who enjoy fine Scotch and I'm not suggesting you can replace it. But for those of us who can't afford the most expensive stuff, this little secret can transform ordinary whisky".
Vanillin is a crucial ingredient to all whiskys. Many distillers char their barrels before use, a process which apparently assists the release of vanillin from the wood. On its website, Glenfiddich boasts of the "lightly toasted interior" of its casks
Yesterday, a Scotch Whisky Association spokesman could not comment on Mr This's experiment but said: "It is illegal for anyone to sell Scotch whisky with additives".