Cooking For Engineers


Kitchen Mysteries by Herve This

by Michael Chu
According to the software that I wrote to manage Cooking For Engineers, I started writing this review of Kitchen Mysteries in January of 2008. I've been kind of stuck since I read it then and have spent the last year deciding what I should do about books, equipment, and restaurants that I can't wholeheartedly recommend. As a way to reduce my work load, I decided when I joined Fanpop in 2006 that I wouldn't publish reviews of products and places that I didn't like. This decision was partly so the only content on Cooking For Engineers would be primarily of high quality or recommended stuff, but, mostly, it was so I wouldn't have to actually write those articles. I think I decided this morning that going forward I'll make some exceptions to this rule. So here's the first.

When an English language translation of Hervé This's Kitchen Mysteries was published in late 2007, I was pretty excited to read what he had to say. This (I think it's pronounced "tees") is famous as one of the founders of molecular gastronomy and for publishing a book by the same name in 2002. In his new book, he dives into some of the science of the kitchen and how it affects the way we cook. I was hoping for a book similar to those written by Harold McGee and Robert Wolke, but, unfortunately, that wasn't what I got.

Kitchen Mysteries is a weird book to read, and I didn't find it easy to get through. Many of the sentences felt oddly constructed and the logical flow of some sections and paragraphs seem weird and disjointed. A lot of the time, This skips entire descriptions and logical steps when discussing a particular kitchen phenomenon (exactly the behavior he laments at the beginning of the book). I don't know if it's how This writes, if the French prefer to have their books written in this style, or if Jody Gladding translated the text poorly, but half the time I don't know what I'm reading about or where he's going until much further in the section and after having made several logical leaps to figure out what he's talking about. This (or Gladding) dives in and out of plain language (the parts that make sense) and esoteric prose that borders on poetry (the parts that require imagination to understand the author).

The language is a big problem. Through much of the book, Gladding chooses to use the word "grill" for "fry". Although, this might not be technically incorrect, it's awfully confusing. When I finally figured it out, I had to go back and reread entire chapters to see if my understanding of what This was trying to say had changed given the completely different cooking method. (In common American English, "grill" usually means to cook over a grill or grate with a heating source from underneath. As I understand British English, "grill" means to cook over a grill with a heating source from above - "broil" is what I'd use for that. Gladding uses "grill" to mean "pan fry". I discovered this when the text talks about grilling in clarified butter. There is an alternative meaning used in conversational American English (and not so much in cookbooks and food texts) where "grilling" means to cook on a griddle or flat-top like those found in restaurants and diners. This is the one closest to the usage of the word "grill" that Gladding uses throughout the translation.)

Another issue I have with the book is that sometimes the information (after I've figured out what he's saying) is just wrong. In a three-page (and these aren't large pages) chapter entitled "Microwaves", This inadequately discusses the concept, science, and use of microwave ovens. He then concludes by remarking that the electromagnetic radiation emitted by microwave ovens are tuned so they affect only water but not oils and fats. He claims, after microwaving two containers, one with water and one with oil, until the water begins to boil, the oil will still be cold. This is, of course, completely false and is really easy to test! (Since my wife makes soap at home and routinely heats oils in the microwave oven, I know oils absorb microwave radiation. But to prove the point, I filled two containers with water and oil and heated them until the water boiled. An increase in about 70 C°. Although the oil did not have the same rise in temperature - about 35 C° - it was in no way cold. In fact, it was significantly hotter than the hot water that's in my water heater!) Perhaps, I reasoned, it might be because French microwave ovens work on a different frequency... but This provides "2400 megahertz" as the frequency which is pretty close to the standard 2.45 GHz used in the United States. Since I don't have a 2.4 GHz microwave oven, I can't tell if that 50 MHz delta will cause oils to not absorb energy. (I should also point out that when This mentions "2400 megahertz", the sentence that follows explaining what that means says "the electromagnetic field oscillates 2400 times a second" which is only a million times away from the truth. That's more of a problem with the editor not catching errors or the translator making a mistake.)

Finally, the last gripe I want to mention is that This constantly introduces topics, talks about them for two or three paragraphs and then moves onto something else without answering the question or even making a real attempt! For example, in the section entitled "How Long Must Vegetables Be Cooked?", he begins by saying there is no global answer (which is a good start). Then he has a paragraph (3 sentences) on how the cell walls become porous (due to pectins and hemicellulose being altered chemically by the heat) allowing water to pass in and out of the cells. Then he moves on without segue to a final paragraph (2 sentences) mentioning how vegetables can swell if a little salt is present or harden when too much salt is present in the water. End of section. Nine sentences. Question unanswered and, in actual fact, only addressed in the first couple lines. The section should have been called "A Couple Things I Noticed About Heating Vegetables". This does this all the time through the book, and I found it infuriatingly frustrating.

And, now, I think I've spent more than enough of my life reading and discussing this book.

Kitchen Mysteries is available in the following formats:

Written by Michael Chu
Published on March 01, 2009 at 10:05 PM
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9 comments on Kitchen Mysteries by Herve This:(Post a comment)

On March 02, 2009 at 01:52 AM, Michael Chu said...
I just thought of another thing that annoyed me. This mentioned in a footnote that often gourmands are ranked higher than gourmets and this is incorrect. Gourmets are people who delight in wine and gourmands are people who delight in good food. I don't know if this was a translation problem, but these are news to me. I'm not familiar with the supposed hierarchy that This feels necessary to dispute (maybe it's a French language thing?) and I've certainly never heard or read anything that even hints that gourmand = food and gourmet = wine. If there's a translation issue here, then these should have been a note from the translator (which I feel should be liberally provided throughout the entire book).

If you do choose to read the book, I would suggest that unless you have secondary material backing up any of This's comments or claims, be careful when quoting his statements as fact.

On March 02, 2009 at 09:31 AM, Harlan (guest) said...
Subject: saw him talk in person -- equally disappointing
There's no question that his work has inspired a lot of other people to do great things. And his work with eggs and foams has been very important. But he's not that compelling in person either. He doesn't enjoy food, and it shows. The talk I saw him give in NYC was disjointed, just as you describe the book. In contrast, I recently saw Harold McGee talk about molecular cooking, and he was much more entertaining!

On March 02, 2009 at 10:50 AM, joesan (guest) said...
According to Larousse "A gourmand merely enjoys good food, whereas a gourmet knows how to chose and appreciate it".

It also mentions a heirarchy that proceeds thus (sic!) -

Goinfre - Greedyguts
Goulu - Glutton
Friand - Epicure
Gourmet and at the very top the -

No mention of one being more related to wine...

On March 02, 2009 at 01:01 PM, Superrel said...
Thanks so much for your review! I felt the same way. It took forever to get through and the whole time I wasn't sure why I was reading it or why I should trust him. Also, the tone was a hair demeaning--perhaps that was just the translation

On March 03, 2009 at 05:39 AM, an anonymous reader said...
Subject: If this may help ...
As far as language is considered Joesan's definition and hierarchy are correct.

As a rule of thumb one could say that Gourmand refers to an attitude toward "everyday food" while Gourmet is closely related to "fine food and meals" (As a matter of fact in french "Gourmet" is often used as a noun with "fine" as an adjective i-e: fin gourmet).
Gourmand carries a "pleasure" idea while Gourmet carries "knowledge" and thus another level of "pleasure".
So a Kid (well most kid) will be said to be Gourmand while it's fair to assume that Michael here is Gourmet ;)

On the other hand (and even though the words do not specify what kind of food we are talking about), French will most of the time imply that a Gourmand is more into sweet food... someone who loves chocolate, cakes, ice creams, pastries and such will be said to be a Gourmand.


PS : the knowledge issue might be the reason of the wine issue but I have to say it's the first time I hear the gourmet/wine association.

On March 03, 2009 at 01:37 PM, Michael Chu said...
So, I've always considered "gourmand" to be roughly equivalent to the increasingly popular "foodie". And "gourmet" to be more focused on "fine dining" or "haute cuisine". (In this definition, I'm more gourmand than gourmet since I love eating cheap crappy food like KFC and Spaghetti-O's as well as Michelin-rated restaurants.)

All of the definitions seem relatively consistent - so I'm not crazy thinking the "wine" footnote was weird.

On March 05, 2009 at 02:05 AM, grantmasterflash said...
Subject: dilemma
Concerning your choice not to review things that aren't bad.....

I had the same dilemma with my site until I realized that avoiding something bad is something good. I now review things I think others should try and things I think others should avoid. Anything in between that's so-so I avoid.

On February 02, 2017 at 07:08 AM, Manuela (guest) said...
Subject: Hervé This
I bought this book in its English version, although I am a French/English bilingual. From the very beginning, I was extremely irritated at the bad translation, Gladding very often simply translates words, but not meaning. This explains the confusion that anyone not fluent in French experiences when reading the text. The only way to understand many passages is to retranslate them back into French and then they begin to make sense. Gladding also uses the strangest words for terms which any person familiar with cookery books should know: e.g. Glucides for sugars or odour for smell or fragrance. She talks about grape leaves when it should clearly say vine leaves, grapes do not have leaves if I remember correctly. Very often she uses the word "fluids" when the term "liquids" is appropriate. And so on, and so on.
A very annoying book indeed, both because of the author's shortcomings and even more as a result of the atrocious translation which any professional translator should be ashamed of.

On February 14, 2017 at 01:09 AM, Michael Chu said...
Subject: Re: Hervé This
Manuela wrote:
A very annoying book indeed, both because of the author's shortcomings and even more as a result of the atrocious translation which any professional translator should be ashamed of.

That explains a lot! I wonder if the translation was handled that way on purpose to make the book seem more exotic / sound more authoritative (due to the use of uncommon words or phrases)?