Note-By-Note Cooking: Is This’ Idea Going to Be All That? By Chef Michael Wille

The question I’m asked most often about my work as a culinary instructor is not “will note-by-note cooking be the future of food?”, but usually along the lines of: “Do you ever have a student who you can just tell is going to become the next famous chef?” My cooking career spans 31 years and I’ve taught at one of four different culinary schools. Over my past 14 years of teaching I still cannot seem to spot that innate talent that is undoubtedly going to change the world of cooking forever. I guess that is why I have stuck to the teaching and cooking thing as opposed to branching off into a more lucrative career as a soothsayer.

While I was corresponding with Jennifer Kaplan for her post on sustainable food innovation, I noted that she was affiliated with the CIA. No not that one–The Culinary Institute of America. I was looking for guest bloggers to write about Note-by-Note Cooking. She connected me with Chef Wille, and I am pleased that she did. Here is that result. Wishing you a pleasant reading experience.

Although clairvoyance often eludes me, I certainly have many students who possess more talent and passion than others. Some who seem to be in the kitchen because like me at their age, they knew their parents would make them go to college and couldn’t see themselves working behind a desk and a computer. Others who may have been inspired by the barrage of cooking shows and media that are constantly streaming in front of them. And many who have dined in enough Michelin starred restaurants to make any culinarian making ends meet on a teacher’s salary jealous.

For some of these students, the repetition, rigor and dated recipes of the classical French cooking we teach in our kitchens may seem too old fashioned for what they came to school to learn: Suprêmes de Volaille with Hollandaise Sauce, Sole Meunière, Consommé a la Brunoise. It can be frustrating for instructors to have students who want to constantly bypass the fundamentals of cooking and sauce making during the beginning classes and fast forward into something along the lines of compressing fruits, spherifying liquids or spinning tomatoes in a centrifuge to make a consommé. Although these methods can produce stunning and efficient outcomes in the hands of a proper alchemist, we often blame this form of culinary witchcraft on many of the popular disciples of molecular cooking such as Ferran Adrià, José Andrés, Grant Achatz or Heston Blumenthal.

very fancy presentation of a dish prepared in at Meta in Singapore
A molecular gastronomy amuse bouche featuring a cracker of puffed grains with salmon roe, octopus, chives and crème fraiche

I could mention any of these names on day 1 of class and there would be at least a handful of students who would know these chefs or their restaurants, rattling off their signature dishes and dreaming of learning how to make them: “potato truffle explosion”, “caramelized quail egg” or “meat fruit.”  However, I’d be hard pressed to find a student familiar with Hervé This, the French food scientist that invented the practice and coined the term “molecular gastronomy” back in 1988 with fellow scientist Nicholas Kurti. It wasn’t long after his aerating protein based foams with pressurized air instead of whipped egg whites (traditionally done as a sabayon or a mousse)  and slow cooking eggs at low temperatures with thermocirculators (traditionally done as a basted egg) that chefs began applying this different style of gastronomical knowledge to cooking techniques, thus creating their own whimsical dishes and a new form of cuisine that has adopted a variety of names, often shunning the “molecular” moniker.

But while the rest of the culinary world is still trying to come to grips on what to call molecular cooking for the past 32 years, Hervé This has already long moved on to note-by-note cooking which he developed in 1994. He eventually convinced his 3-Michelin starred chef friend Pierre Gagnaire to create “Chuck Corea”, a dish of apple flavored jelly pearls, a lemon flavored iced granite and a glucose caramel strip. Not an apple, lemon or granule of sugar was used to flavor the dish as it was merely comprised of the “raw” chemical compounds.

Years later, the first note-to-note meal was served in its entirety. Six to twelve months of development for that first “note à note” meal served in Hong Kong in 2008 may seem like a long time, but keep in mind it took centuries of evolution to see French cuisine morph from La Grande Cuisine of Marie-Antoine Carême in the early 1800s, to the Cuisine Classic of Auguste Escoffier which we often reference in our culinary school kitchens, to the Nouvelle Cuisine of Chef Paul Bocuse and the Troisgros brothers through to the 1960s and 70s that eventually gave birth to New American cuisine. Thus, a few years of recipe development would be hardly a drop of liquid in the sauce pot so to speak. 

Hervé This points out that note-by-note cooking should not to be confused with molecular cooking as it does not transform traditional ingredients using modern equipment or technique but uses only the chemical compounds of foods to either recreate traditional dishes or to invent entirely new dishes. This’ hope is that chefs will harness their creativity for the culinary pleasure of our diners boasting his ability to create one entirely new food every month for the next 20 years. This palate of creativity conjures a quote from cooking school disciple Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin: “The discovery of a new dish confers more happiness on humanity than the discovery of a new star.”

Historically, these new cooking techniques and styles along with new cooking equipment have often been rooted in fine dining (due to its high operating expenses and labor intensity) and eventually trickles down to other dining platforms. Something Chef David Kinch of Manresa knows plenty about regarding his contributions to the maturation of American Cuisine. But even with the discovery of all these new dishes and some much needed happiness in this dire time of restaurants, one may question where note-by-note cooking will fit in to our culinary scene if it is not simply a follow up to molecular cooking.

Would it be a better fit for the established Farm-to-Table temples of Chez Panisse, Single Thread or Noma or will it be boxed into the molecular alchemy of restaurants such as Alenia, Fat Duck or Pierre Gagnaire’s eponymous restaurant? The latter seems to be a more logical progression of course and what we have seen thus far of note-by-note cooking. Dan Barber discussed the diametrical philosophies between Farm-to-Table and molecular cooking way back at the 2010 International Chefs Congress stating, “either you pray at the mantle of the farmer’s market or you drink the Kool-aide of maltodextrin and guar gum or all that stuff.”

specialty dishes spread out on a table ready to be served
Culinary students practice Classical French cuisine through repetition of skill by cooking and plating dish after dish of classical French recipes.

There has been a perceived chasm between these two cooking philosophies and we as chefs have been forced to choose between one or the other. As Chef Dan Barber points out, however, the best chefs practicing molecular cooking are doing so in the pursuit of flavor, which is no different than what the best farm-to-table chefs are after. One would expect the best note-by-note chefs would be in pursuit of the same thing.

Over the past few decades, molecular cooking equipment such as thermocirculators and isi canisters have become much more mainstream and are found in many higher end kitchens, as have some of its more useful ingredients such as agar agar to gel foods without the use of meat gelatin or transglutaminase used to bind meat proteins as “meat glue.” Although, it has taken some time for these practices or equipment to gain acceptance and they still remain expensive enough to be out of reach for many restaurants, culinarians or home cooks.

It is aspirational to watch the enthusiasm with which Hervé This talks about his note-by-note cooking but difficult to buy into its potential outlined in some of his theories. This envisions the dried herbs and spices of our spice racks will be replaced with jars of lipids, amino acids, protein powders or benzyl mercaptan. He also argues that note-by-note cooking will be the future of food due to its ability to overcome the food insecurities that plague our current fragile global food system. Because note-by-note compounds do not contain any water, This believes we can not only stop the spoilage of our food, but we will lessen the resource intensities by not having to store, ship or refrigerate the water associated with these foods.

fancy presentation of a dessert that appears to be one that was accidentally dropped
Culinary students learn about plating aesthetics by recreating iconic dishes. Here a student plates a chocolate cake for restaurant service by emulating Massimo Bottura’s iconic dish “Oops I Dropped the Lemon Tart!”

In one of his examples he talks about carrots being 80% water and how we pay to ship produce to food deserts or places such as Singapore. This claims we can double our food production by simply eliminating the amount of spoilage we incur in our current food system – which is estimated globally to be 1.3 billion tons or $1 trillion US linked to poor transport and harvest practices. One question that remains unanswered is whether or not the resources it will take to extract these compounds will be less intensive than the production and shipping of the raw product.

By the year 2050 global population is expected to grow to 9 billion people and it is well documented that our current food systems will not be able to accommodate the appetite of this growing population. Given the slow adoption of note-by-note’s predecessor, molecular cooking, and how it has barely penetrated beyond higher-end kitchens, households and fine dining throughout the past 30 years, it is unlikely that note-by-note cooking will be the silver bullet that will fix our failing food system or provide food to our remote food deserts.

I have no doubt that note-by-note will gain some form of popularity throughout the echelons of fine dining and I am intrigued by its potential for some of its applications. But until we are able to reduce the growing inequity gap in our global population and provide small, local food hubs for our underserved communities and food deserts, note-by-note is likely to remain an elitist form of dining that will plague culinary school instructors with its grandiose ideas as they continue to teach the importance of classical French cooking technique.

Keep in mind, I’m merely a cooking teacher and not a visionary or soothsayer. I recognize that our food systems will have to change but I’m not convinced that note-by-note will be the style of cooking that will save our planet.

Next week: Turning our focus away from classifying foods as healthy or unhealthy

photo of the author
Chef Wille

Chef Wille is an Assistant Professor at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA), Greystone in St. Helena California. He has taught cooking for the past 14 years at a variety of institutions (CIA Singapore, Cabrillo Community College in Aptos, CA and Professional Culinary Institute in Campbell, CA) and has been cooking professionally since his graduation from the CIA, Hyde Park in 1989. He cannot read tea leaves but makes a mean tea leaf smoked duck breast.

2 thoughts on “Note-By-Note Cooking: Is This’ Idea Going to Be All That? By Chef Michael Wille

  1. Questions abound relative to the emergence of note by note “cooking” as a discipline allegedly derived from molecular gastronomy. Among my reactions are – where are the food scientists and technologists – and nutrtionists in this mix? Must chefs now become food biochemists and physicists in addition to their basic skills? What rationales will the food process phobics have to this agglomeration of science and culinology? How are the advocates sneaking in the word “compound” to replace “chemical” – that most evil of all entities perpetrated by humankind on humankind? How many “ingredients” constitute an acceptable number for a food for the local organic naturalists?

    The constituent profile has been a tool for comprehending food for several decades. Flavorists have been formulating sensory incorporation since forever. Molecular gastronomy at the food service level is a recent bold tactic – can – or should – it be extended back into food processing to enable delivery of intriguing food innovations more universally?

    Note by note is more than gutsy – requiring in-depth knowledge of nutrition, biochemistry, physiology, etc. Will it really offer extended shelf life due to controlling water activity? And obviously subject to very meticulous regulatory oversight. Here we are in the midst of a commercial surge toward highly formulated plant-based surrogates – and, like manna in the
    desert, plops note by note -derived – figuratively – almost from
    air. I presume that thoughtful professionals are studying integrating note by note with molecular gastronomy and other
    daring sparks to derive nutrition to further delight folks.

    My kids and grandkids will enjoy the results of these
    experiments – while still relishing whatever in the future passes for bagel, lox, clam chowdah and pizza.

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    1. Cogent points, Aaron. It is my understanding that culinology has been embraced more by chefs than by food scientists. If used to produce a restaurant meal to be served shortly after preparation, then shelf life is not an issue. I hope that we will see more interest in culinology in the future from both sides of the fence.

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