Raymond Blanc on good chicken, flavour compounds and molecular gastronomy

by Raymond Blanc30 June 2020

The legendary chef talks about his foray into what became molecular gastronomy in the 1980s, the culinary physicist Nicholas Kurti and why he walked away from the culinary movement after bringing it to the fore.

A legend amongst legends, Raymond Blanc's impact on the UK's food scene over the past three decades is unmatched.

A legend amongst legends, Raymond Blanc's impact on the UK's food scene over the past three decades is unmatched.

A legend amongst legends, Raymond Blanc's impact on the UK's food scene over the past three decades is unmatched.

A legend amongst legends, Raymond Blanc's impact on the UK's food scene over the past three decades is unmatched.

Molecular gastronomy – a school of science which focuses on the chemical transformations behind cooking – has been behind the rise of world-famous chefs such as Ferran Adrià and Heston Blumenthal. Heston in particular captured the British public’s imagination with his mind-bending menus, experimental approach to fine dining and mantra of questioning everything that was previously taught about cookery. But back when Heston was still a young chef, podding peas in the kitchens of Le Manoir, Raymond Blanc was already attending the first seminars which brought together the worlds of science and gastronomy. Here, he recalls the first murmurings of this global movement, and how an experiment involving roast chicken proved it was something to be taken seriously. As told to Tom Shingler.

Raymond Blanc
Raymond Blanc

Back in the 1980s, Heston actually worked at Le Manoir for a few weeks, mostly podding peas and beans, which I don’t think he enjoyed very much! But of course he became one of the true geniuses of gastronomy, and is now one of my closest friends. I have huge respect for him and what he does, but he knows I have a different approach to food and cooking. However, I have always been incredibly interested in the science and chemistry of cooking, and it was an obsession for mine around the same time Heston entered my kitchen all those years ago.

We’d already won two Michelin stars at Le Manoir in 1981, but I realised I wanted to go beyond just cooking good food; I wanted to engage with the chemistry behind it. I read all the books I could find about science and cooking, but I couldn’t really understand or gain anything from them because they were always written by scientists for scientists. I started going to the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery every year, but I was the only chef to attend as, again, it was designed for scientists.

It wasn’t until a few years later – I think around 1989 – that I found a teacher. There were some big key speakers at the symposium that year, such as the French chemist and chef Hervé This and food historian Maggie Black, but it was only when I heard a professor called Nicholas Kurti speak that I knew he was the man to talk to. He demystified the chemistry of cooking and talked about it in such simple terms. I went straight to him and asked if I could be his student. Luckily, he was looking to work with a chef who was interested in chemistry, and we instantly became friends.

I think it is a sad reflection on our civilisation that while we can and do measure the temperature in the atmosphere of Venus, we do not know what goes on inside our soufflés.

Professor Nicholas Kurti (1908-1998)

Even though molecular gastronomy is focused on cooking, I don’t think any actual chefs became involved with it until I started working with Professor Kurti. In 1991 we created the first symposium of gastronomy, held in Erice, Sicily, where I demonstrated things like fermentation and emulsions in front of forty professors. I became completely immersed in the science behind it and even produced a TV series and book with Professor Kurti called Blanc Mange, which aimed to show how cooking and science worked together in a simple, accessible way.

One of the best moments of this series was when we scientifically proved that a high-quality organic chicken tasted far better than an intensively farmed one. We put three chickens – one intensively farmed, one free-range and one a famous Poulet de Bresse – in three identical ovens. As they roasted, we captured the flavour molecules through copper tubes containing gases which separated them into groups. A computer connected to these tubes would measure the compounds and create readings based off them.

With the low-quality chicken, you couldn’t see much happening on the screen. With the free-range chicken, there were lots of spikes, but with the Poulet de Bresse, which was reared for sixteen weeks on a varied diet, it was going all over the place!

While the scientific readings were interesting, the real proof for me was in the aromas. At the end of each copper tube was a mask, which you could wear to inhale the aromas coming off the chickens. The nasty chicken was all greasy and fishy – horrible. The free-range chicken was wonderful, all roasted and nutty and incredibly pleasant. Then there was the Poulet de Bresse – oh my God, it was a symphony!

This experiment proved what I already knew. What’s going to taste better – a young chicken which has been force-fed with all sorts of horrible food, a free-range chicken which is just eating corn, or an older chicken which has run around eating all sorts of wild and natural ingredients?

When Blanc Mange aired on the BBC it got two million viewers, which was huge for a programme on science. Professor Kurti asked if I would become a champion for molecular gastronomy after the success of the series and our work together, but – I think to his surprise – I said I didn’t want to be. I felt food was so much more than something you could distil down into a scientific formula.

The provenance of the ingredients, the way wine goes with food, the friends around the table, the weather, the hospitality… all of this makes up the complete ensemble that is eating, and to take just one element of that, you lose so much. Being an expert in molecular gastronomy can be incredibly useful to a chef, but it also focuses on just one element, almost turning the style of cooking into something fashionable and lacking emotion. You need to understand all the elements that go into a great meal to be a truly great chef.

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