The Dirac on my plate was a far cry from the note-by-note meals This envisions, which he says should tantalize the tongue. The winners of the 2014 contest, a 21-year-old Belgian medical student named Frédéric Clarembeau and his partner, Elodie Ricquebourg, came closer to this vision with the dish they created, Palette de saveurs aux notes d’Asie. Their creation looks from the photograph posted online as though it could have a place on any Manhattan tasting menu: a soup garnished with cream and saffron threads, accompanied by a meticulous arrangement of grilled bread, fried chicken, and Parmesan crisps. When I spoke with Clarembeau, he explained that the “soup” was freeze-dried coconut extract and gellan gum (a bacteria by-product) presented in two contrasting consistencies: in a hot liquid form, and as a cold whipped cream that wouldn’t melt. He had prepared a red garnish by squeezing a jelled soy-sauce mixture from a syringe onto an ice cube, and the “chicken” was really wheat starch, gluten, milk protein, glutamate, and centrifuged carrot fibers pulverized in a coffee grinder and then pan-fried. A caramelized sauce flavored with limonene and geraniol—aromatic chemicals used more often in cosmetics than in cooking—topped off the creation. Clarembeau and Ricquebourg’s recipe was judged on feasibility, originality, and flavor complexity, though Clarembeau admitted to me that their dish “wasn’t mind-blowing, but it tasted good.”
Some in the NYU crowd worried that note-by-note would gut the emotional and cultural role of food. A valid concern, and yet it seemed that the audience had overlooked the cooking that is integral to This’s plan. The ingredients may be unconventional, but working them into appetizing meals still requires a chef’s creativity, not to mention the usual stirring and sautéing. “If cooking were only a matter of technique it would be a very sad thing indeed,” This writes in his book. “Cooking is able to transcend mere doing by virtue of the fact that it also has an artistic aspect.”
Even if his plan to save the world falls short, note-by-note could—and aims to—give rise to a new kind of culinary experience that moves past the constraints of nature’s grocery store. DJs fill clubs by playing synthetic beats that sound nothing like any music made with traditional instruments. So why can’t chefs break loose, too?
The NYU foodies were not entirely sold. “I don’t think there’s anyone who left the room who was like, ‘Wow! I can’t wait to have a note-by-note dinner,’ ” Anne McBride, the adjunct faculty member who’d invited This to speak, told me later.
When people call note-by-note disgusting or a threat to the future of food, This hears only the same objections he received in the 1980s when he preached the gospel of now-standard restaurant techniques and ingredients like sous-vide cooking and hydrocolloids. As with molecular gastronomy, This has started by implanting note-by-note in haute kitchens, hoping the 99 percent will follow. Already, Pierre Gagnaire, a three-Michelin-star chef and This’s longtime collaborator, has served note-by-note-style dishes in his restaurants. One Gagnaire dessert, the Chick Corea, uses ascorbic acid, beta-carotene, calcium lactate, centrifuged apple, and other ingredients to create lemon-flavored liquid-filled pearls and cubes of fruit fiber that are served under a brittle green menthol crust. Le Cordon Bleu has hosted dinners to teach This’s principles to its up-and-coming gastronomes. And, a few days before visiting NYU, This had pitched Jean-Georges Vongerichten on the idea of a note-by-note café.
“If you give this new food to the king, everybody will want it,” This said at NYU, adding that he doesn’t care about foodies. It’s the meat-and-potatoes folks he’s after. Or, as he hopes they will be called, the Dirac people.