I’ve been a sommelier for 30 years, I’ve always tried to understand cooking and cuisine because you cannot be a sommelier if you don’t know how to cook. When I took my sommelier course in 1999, we didn't learn about cooking or cuisine, it was just about matching wine and food. I then travelled the world to discover food - from street food to high-end - to meet and work with chefs, to learn cuisine and to improve my work as a sommelier. Near the end of the 90’s, I discovered that the aromatic compounds of food and wine were more important than the acidity, bitterness, sweetness and taste - everything that the world of gastronomy had been founded upon and communicated through, between chefs, winemakers and sommeliers. I started turning to science to try to understand, for example, why black olive went so well with Syrah wine; mint with Sauvignon Blanc; and ginger with Gewurztraminer. When you put certain ingredients together, that share the same aromatic components, you create an aromatic synergia and like harmonies in music, the sounds are amplified. Since then I published Taste Buds and Molecules in 2009 and I’ve continued to work with scientists in Montreal, Barcelona and Bordeaux.
So, who am I? I’m a sommelier, a cook, a writer, a researcher and a scientist but most of all I am a Creator d’Harmonie - I’m a matchmaker.
What is aromatic science and what purpose can it serve to members of the culinary community?
Aroma is everything. When you have a cold in the morning, you wake up and can’t taste anything. Without smell, we can’t appreciate food and we can’t determine the quality because it’s missing its most important component: the aroma.
When I worked with Ferran Adria, creating over 60 dishes together, we never once spoke about matching wine and food. After explaining my theory, he understood that I could help him discover a new feel for creativity. I don’t combine flavours because I want to be creative, but because they belong together. We are able to magnify foods that share the same aromatic compounds, through combination. I work on the scientific side of food and wine, asking the question - what are the dominant molecules in ingredients? The research I do, trying to discover the dominant aromatic molecules in every ingredient, is very complicated, but the results of this research show that it’s actually very easy for everyone to apply.
I just finished my 26th book L’Essentiel de Chartier; essentially volume two of Taste Buds and Molecules. There’ve been five books in between but they were all inspired by Taste Bubs and Molecules. This one is the real masterpiece; it’s my combined research of the last six years with each page dedicated to one ingredient, listing other ingredients that share the same aromatic compounds as well as ideas for recipes showing how these ingredients can be paired together. I always have millions of ideas for potential recipes in my head.
L’Essentiel de Chartier was just recently awarded in the category of “Best Cookbook in the World - Innovation Category” for Canada at this year’s Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in Paris. How do you feel about your new work being presented with such a recognition of excellence?
I was both happy and surprised because on receiving the award I realized they understood that, beyond sommellerie and my personal professional experience, how fabulous this theory is for creating excellent food. Sometimes, I feel I have the title ‘sommelier’ written across my forehead when I think I’m more than that - not better, just much more. My work is so diverse, and I’m somewhere else now than where I once was.
What in particular do you think is so innovating about this book?
Innovating is a big word. In my case, innovating is to take advantage of science, and to understand my own work. At the end of the 90’s I felt very stuck, which led me to take a break in the early 2000’s, to take a step back and put myself in a danger zone, to be more free and to have time to do some reflection on where I had come from and who I was. I was very challenged by molecular gastronomy - and when I say this I’m not talking about restaurants but instead about the scientists who went into food to understand and discover the answers to why certain cooking practices exist. For example, why do we wait five minutes after taking a roast out of the oven before cutting into it? The answer seems so simple to us, but there’s always a scientific reason. Chefs then take advantage of those discoveries of science and utilize them to develop new ways of cooking and serving food. As a sommelier this was challenging, the changing techniques of preparing the same ingredients was actually altering and expanding their flavour and aroma characteristics. I had to learn to completely change my way of thinking around matching wine and food. This was the beginning, my goal at that time was a bit heavy - to redefine the matching of wine and food for the 21st century. That was the original long title of my work, but I realized who I was and what was most important to me: aromatic components. I needed to understand them, that was innovation in my work and my way of thinking. I’ve been innovative because I need it, not because I’m better than anyone else; I’m just a curious man.
You’re very clear in your distinguishment between molecular harmony and sommellerie, and that of molecular gastronomy. What are their fundamental differences, and why are they important for us to understand?
Molecular gastronomy doesn't exist and at the same time, it’s existed since the cavemen decided to cook red meat in the fire. That was molecular gastronomy because through fire, man changed the molecular compounds and state of the meat. Today’s molecular gastronomy is more about the techniques of cooking. It’s new techniques, adapted from the old to create new food out of the same ingredients. It’s not the show, however. There’s been great confusion recently about the “show” of food - with nitrogen and bubbles it resembles a performance on your plate - but it has to be much more than that too. If there’s nothing behind the show, it will be no good. It’s easier to make a show, to distract from the food, but if you taste, you see through it.
What I call molecular harmony and sommellerie - the word molecular is revering specifically to aromatic compounds. They are linked, but the difference between the two terms is that one is addressing a technique, and the other the molecular compounds of ingredients. If I think of someone like Albert Adria, chefs have changed my brain totally. Since reading the books, I have completely changed the way I approach my work. They have influenced me along with molecular gastronomy, so I owe them a lot. It’s very important and I continue to be inspired but I am also doing something that is really my own.
Based on your theory, that each ingredient belongs together with a finite number of others, it’s really up to chefs and the manipulation of technical approaches through molecular gastronomy to create new and infinite possibilities for creating combinations of these ingredients.
Creativity and inspiration is everywhere. When I bring my information and research to a chef, they use their creativity to constantly develop new ideas. For example, working with Ferran Adria on the matching combination of parmesan cheese and coffee, we looked at what had been done before and what we could then do differently. We played with the state of the ingredients; freezing, defrosting, frying, everything. Once we know that two ingredients share the same aromatic components, that they create synergy, we use this sensibility like a musician to create.
To sit and be in the kitchen, working with the chefs, is the best time of my life. That’s where my science takes form. That’s what I’d really like to communicate at Terroir.