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Le Cordon Bleu News, 05/09/2014
Meet Christophe Lavelle
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Interview with Christophe Lavelle

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Meet Christophe Lavelle

Christophe Lavelle is a researcher at the CNRS (French National Center for Scientific Research). Working at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, his main areas of research include the regulation of gene expression and the biophysical properties of macromolecules. Passionate about food and the link between art and science, he teaches in many French universities (Paris VI, Paris VII, Cergy-Pontoise, Aix-Marseille, Lyon, Lille, Toulouse, SupBioTech Paris, Le Cordon Bleu Paris) and is frequently asked to give conferences to the general public and to professionals in the food industry, in France and abroad. Author of more than 40 research papers, he also works with several publishers (Belin, BPI, CRC Press) on collective books on culinary science. He is a member of a number of scientific and food societies (including the French Biophysical Society, the American Biophysical Society and the Disciples d'Escoffier Society).

Could you begin by reminding our readers of the definition of molecular gastronomy?
Molecular gastronomy is a scientific discipline which studies phenomena which arise when food is prepared and consumed.  To paraphrase Brillat-Savarin, it could also be described as “the reasoned knowledge, on a molecular level, of everything that concerns man and nourishment”.  Molecular gastronomy is not to be confused with molecular cuisine, which, as its name indicates, is a type of cuisine (and not a science), which remains very difficult to define

How did you become interested in this subject?
When you have the same degree of interest in both science and cuisine, it is fairly natural to become interested in molecular gastronomy! My scientific studies, which revolved around understanding our cell structure and gene expression, has elements of physics, chemistry and biology which make up the ad hoc basis for trying to understand cuisine.  There was also a human element and meeting Hervé This, almost 15 years ago, was definitely a catalyst in my involvement in this discipline today!

Has your research and the subjects you are involved in changed your relationship to food and how you see the world of cuisine?
Absolutely.  First and foremost because, being a scientist, we have a natural tendency to want to understand everything (even if, in reality, we know that we have to accept living with many unanswered questions!)  I cannot, therefore, stop myself from thinking about where the ingredients I am buying have come from, of the different reactions that will take place when I cook them, the evolution of these ingredients and their possible effect on my metabolism and my health when I eat them.  This might lead one to think that the pleasure of eating is taken away.  But not at all, in fact the opposite is true!  I guarantee that, thinking about a tomato growing on the vine, how the proteins in egg white stretch when whisked, or how the triglycerides in cocoa butter crystallize when chocolate is tempered, only improves the culinary experience!

Do you enjoy cooking?  What do you enjoy most in cuisine:  Preparation, chemistry, creativity, sharing or all of them combined?
I am always cooking and for any type of occasion (for family, friends or just for myself), and always with the same amount of enjoyment, no matter what the context or importance.  The whole process is fascinating:  Ingredient choice, making the recipes, preparation, eating, sharing, and all the thought processes behind it, whether artistic, technical or scientific.  It is important not to get too worked up about it, and even if sometimes it is fun to be challenged with original and/or sophisticated dishes, it is much more important to appreciate simple (but delicious) dishes on a daily basis.  In other words, hare à la royale is great but so is pasta with basil!  If we add to that the sheer delight (inseparable in my eyes) of tasting a number of well chosen bottles (wine, of course, but also beer, cider or other fermented drinks), a whole new level of enjoyment is reached.

Do you have a favorite product and why?
After Brillat-Savarin, I am equally happy to paraphrase Ratatouille, because not only "anyone can cook”, but also "everything can be cooked".  You only need to look at the ingenuity of different populations who have learnt, throughout history, to make the most of what is around them.  In this respect, I don’t have any “longstanding” product which is a favorite, but more passing phases when I discover a new product (or, more precisely, when I have the opportunity of working with them for the first time).  There are, of course, a number of constantly recurring products which never cease to fascinate me, in different ways.  For example, egg white is the perfect example of a food which is pretty useless in its own right (no flavor, viscous and unappetizing texture) but which has amazing texturizing properties (the magic of meringue or a perfectly made soufflé).  At the other end of the scale, some cured hams have the most remarkable flavor and don’t require anything other than being served in their natural state, without any cooking necessary (cooking being the art of transforming food).  I am, however, very partial to cod with chitterling sausage which is, without doubt, due to my Brittany roots.

Christophe Lavelle will teach courses in the Hautes Etudes du Goût program. To discover the program, click here.


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