The postman, Spike, raises an eyebrow.
“Another special delivery for you,” he says, handing me a packet of white powder and eyeing my yellow Hazchem suit. I snatch it from him, pull down my goggles and respirator and shut the door.
In the past few weeks, my kitchen has begun to resemble a laboratory as I stock up on kit and try out the new trend in global cuisine, Note by Note cooking. Chipotle and miso paste have been replaced by bags of monosodium glutamate (MSG), maltodextrin and citric acid. I’ve swapped Iceland for ICI. Like a cross between Mary Berry and Walter White, I’m baking bad.
Unlike normal cooking, which uses foodstuffs as ingredients, Note by Note cooking uses chemical compounds and chemical reactions to create new edible substances.
The concept was created by the French scientist Hervé This, who also invented molecular gastronomy, which combines actual foodstuffs with state-of-the-art scientific techniques. Note by Note borrows some of these methods and is so-called because he says that it is like a painter using primary colours, or a musician composing note by note.
Meat, fish, grains and vegetables are replaced by powders and potions, which are mixed together and “cooked” to create edible products such as transparent wafers that taste of roast chicken and jelly spheres with liquid centres that taste like acidic potatoes. These futuristic dishes are appearing on menus across Europe and, increasingly, amateurs are taking up Note by Note as a hobby at home. In May, the second International Contest of Note by Note Cooking in Paris attracted 73 entrants, one of whom was a 10-year-old boy.
I’ve ordered a shopping list of chemicals from the internet and substituted a few of the more hard-to-come-by elements with compounds readily available from the chemist, such as sucrose for sweetness and cod liver oil for fish flavour.
Using recipes from the internet and YouTube tutorials, I’ve designed a Chinese menu from scratch using only chemicals. My dishes included lemon chicken jelly spheres, sweet and sour powdered mash, and prawn-flavoured crackers. Nothing I use to create this is recognised as normal food. My ingredients include gellan gum, sodium alginate and calcium lactate.
Before I start, I speak to Note by Note aficionado and food scientist Ciaran Doyle, who studied with Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck. Doyle won a prize at the recent Note by Note contest for a feast he designed that included meat-free roast-chicken sugar biscuits.
“Any chef will tell you that it is fantastic to know how food processes work,” he explains. “If you know how to make gels and spheres, it opens up the possibilities of what we can do so much. Note by Note is a growing trend. I hear a lot of stuff about it through networks and colleges. It’s people messing around with food science, and scientists do it more than chefs do. Some of the flavours are not easy to come by and ideas come out of thin air. There is no point trying to recreate an egg or a piece of beef out of compounds because it will never be as good as the real thing. Instead, you have to think outside the box when you are devising dishes.”
He believes that as the popularity of Note by Note spreads, food-manufacturing companies will increasingly look to it for inspiration for new, cost-effective and easily manufactured foodstuffs.
He gives me a few tips and a recipe for powdered Nutella. He advises on some suitable substitutes for the more difficult-to-buy ingredients. Potato-flavoured methional oil can be replaced with olive oil and I decide to replace hard-to-obtain fish flavouring 2-methyl-3-furanthiol with cod liver oil.
“It’s not a walk in the park,” Doyle says, “but – touch wood – there isn’t anything that you are adding together that will explode!”
There is a serious purpose to Note by Note cooking. Hervé This believes that projected future food shortages will leave humankind no choice but to seek new sources of sustenance. He is determined to show the world the possibilities of his new cuisine and travels the globe, lecturing and demonstrating its potential. His audiences comprise students, high-achieving chefs and fellow scientists. Later this year, he will host a Note by Note event at Le Cordon Bleu school in London. His book, Note-by-Note Cooking: The Future of Food, is published this month.
“I am sure that Note by Note cooking will spread,” he says. “By 2050, there will be nine billion people on earth. We can only feed six billion, so we will have to find a solution. People will starve. We have to feed people. Current technology is not sustainable. We need to do something or there will be a big problem. I am absolutely sure that this is the only way of surviving.”
He is dismissive of the aversion many have to eating products that are entirely artificial and believes that we will have to overcome many of our inherent food biases if we are to survive. “Today, people want natural products. It is a big mistake. Nature hates you; we have houses to protect ourselves from nature. Nature is full of poisonous plants. No food is natural, because when we cook it and prepare it, we turn something natural into something that is not natural.”
He maintains that in the future, there will be no option but to use Note by Note techniques to develop new foodstuffs, and says that the number of different chemicals available to use will give humanity a huge range of new edible options.
“If you want to do something new and innovative in food today, there is nothing except Note by Note,” declares Hervé. “It has limitless possibilities. The number of combinations and types of food you can create is infinite. With beef and carrots the number of combinations is one. But if there are 500 components in beef and 500 components in carrots, the combinations are huge. You can play with texture, taste, colour, shape.”
Back in my kitchen, my meal hasn’t turned out as well as I planned. The most technical part of the menu is the jelly spheres, which are created using a process called reverse spherification. I prepare a bath of water and sodium alginate, which needs to stand for 24 hours. I then prepare the edible mixture using water, monosodium glutamate, citric acid, gellan gum and calcium lactate. In flavouring science, MSG is a source of umami, the “fifth taste” recently recognised by Western scientists, after salt, sweet, sour and bitter. It adds a moreish roast-chicken flavour, complemented by the lemony citric acid. Gellan gum gives the mixture texture and the calcium lactate is the catalyst for the chemical reaction that creates the jelly substance. When this mixture is dropped in the sodium bath, the calcium reacts with the sodium to form a jelly shell, which encases the flavouring. The surface tension of the mixture keeps the liquid in a globe shape.
While the science works, the meal itself is barely edible. The sweet and sour mash made from maltodextrin, citric acid, blue dye and pharmacy-grade olive oil is lumpy, the prawnless crackers are crispy, but taste of plastic, and the jelly spheres resemble lumps and taste like cold mucus. When I plate up the feast, they start to melt into a sugary blue mash. I manage one mouthful before I start to gag. The whole meal tastes artificial, like cooked Lego.
That mankind has a pressing need to find new, sustainable ways to produce huge amounts of cheap nutrition is not in doubt. Scientists are looking at increasingly novel solutions such as insect protein and the nutritionally balanced powdered shake Soylent. Note by Note cooking may be the answer, but, from my experience, it’s not yet one that the average eater will find easy to swallow.