Considering that we had spent the morning listening to industry officials moan about how no one could care less about asparagus tongs and leg-of-lamb grippers anymore, it was a little embarrassing that at an evening-long tasting workshop exploring Hervé This's gastronomie moléculaire, the school managed to get an item as prosaic as spoons wrong: the utensils were too big to reach inside our first-course sea urchins. This, an excitable physiochemist from the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique, collaborated with Cordon Bleu chefs on a high-wire retake on royale, a classic garnish for clear soups. To make royale, says the 1938 Larousse Gastronomique, a mixture of five ounces of consommé and one egg plus two yolks is cooked in cylindrical molds, then diced. According to This, all that egg is not only unnecessary but a flavor-suck.
"The question is, What is the minimum amount of coagulable proteins you need to make a gel?" This explains. "Using simple arithmetic, we know that you can gelify almost twenty-four ounces of water with one egg. What's wonderful is that by reducing the protein content you also promote the liberation of flavors, because you avoid the supramolecular associations in the gel."
The toques were less amused by some of the tasks set them by Alberto Capatti, program director of the University of Gastronomic Sciences, in a comparison between French and Italian home cooking. When Capatti asked a chef to overcook the tagliatelle that would be served with only butter, the chef complained that he was trying to make the French look bad. "No, I want everyone to look bad!" Capatti roared. His next orders were to burn garlic in some olive oil, then pour it over al dente spaghetti—the Italians' favorite way of destroying pasta.
"Alberto believes that what we eat are symbols," food historian Philip Hyman says. "An exercise like this is supposed to make you question what gives a dish its national identity. What are the characteristics that give it its emblematic and mythical value?"
Hyman and his enchanting wife, Mary, are unchallenged authorities on the history of French cookbooks and regional food products. The irony of their also being American is lost on no one. Unlike so many French foodocrats, IHEGGAT's brass are unburdened by chauvinism: no jokes about McDo's or Pepsi with the cheese course, dieu merci.
Nouvelle cuisine was hardly a uniquely 20th-century phenomenon, the Hymans revealed to an engrossed assembly at their dinner devoted to the "new cooking" of 18th-century France, held in an off-site banquet room. The term was coined in 1742 to describe a reform movement that abandoned gluey sauces and promoted a higher level of technical skill. Doesn't that sound like 1972 and Michel Guérard and company all over again?
The astonishing thing about the meal was how modern it was: If you didn't know the dishes were 250-plus years old you'd have no reason to suspect it. It was thrilling to learn how components had discreetly evolved, and how designations had slyly changed meaning. The béchamel napping the turbot was a thinner, more velouté-like forerunner of the sauce we know today. Cailles au gratin was a crisp hash of chicken livers, scallions, and mushrooms that served as a bed for quail. Nowadays, of course, the idea's been literally overturned: it's the top of a gratin that's crisp.
Since the Hymans, who also gave a talk on preserving, wear their scholarship lightly, it was a little cruel to be asked to abruptly transition to Ducasse, Gagnaire, and Bras, but I survived. The chefs' guest appearances at Le Cordon Bleu might just as well have been called the Battle of the Egos and False Modesty. Ducasse said he founded his own imprint because he was tired of publishing books with the same recipes, as if he, the (ostensible) author (or his troops) weren't responsible for the recycling. Gagnaire tore out his tripe, as the French say, confessing, "Every day I ask myself if I am worthy of my clients' time and money." It was a little much for nine in the morning. Bras said his dining tables, which look like ironing boards, were inspired by the plateau d'Aubrac outside his restaurant's windows. Bras famously hates the city and, to make this point, wore a T-shirt and jeans. But it was impossible to find him insulting, because he looked so silly.
Still, who's an American to talk?We have our Pinks and our Ashantis. And if they're free Tuesday, I hope they'll come to dinner.
IHEGGAT, B.P. 183, Reims, France; 33-3/26-91-88-18; www.iheggat.com.