Interview with François Chartier

«You need to have an open mind to discover aromatic synergies»

Coral Martil

François Chartier, créateur d’harmonies, is one of the most outstanding sommeliers, an specialist of the flavor science of food and wine. Writer, researcher and chef, he is the only Canadian who has won the prestigious Grand Prix Sopexa International (Paris 1994), an award distinguishing the world’s best sommelier specialized in French wines and spirits.

Among his publications it is worth mentioning Papilles et Molécules (2009) –Taste buds and Molecules–, an international bestseller considered to be one of the most innovative books on wine and cuisine. This publication, who had win the Gourmand World Cookbook Award 2010 (Paris) as the World Best Innovative Food Book in the World, is seen as the starting point of what has been called molecular harmony and sommellerie.

After more than 20 years of wine flavors and marriage research and dissemination, how would you describe the term molecular sommellerie?

In 2004, I chose the term molecular sommellerie to explain the new aromatic science I had been working on since 2002 (and created in 2004), to shed a scientific light on food & wine matching. Before, there were no scientific explanations as to how and why food and wine harmonies are achieved. Then, in 2005, I completed this new designation by adding the word harmony, resulting in molecular harmony and sommellerie. It was clear at that stage that with a better understanding of the aromatic profiles of foods, not only was I able to explain and achieve perfect food & wine pairings, but also food harmonies, to help chefs in the creation of new recipes.

Which are the main features of the idea that your propose in your world best selling book Papilles et Molécules?

Firstly, it is the knowledge that aromatic molecules actually govern our sense of taste much more than we previously thought. Aromatic molecules have always been responsible for the harmony between ingredients in so many recipes from different cultures. Moreover, aromatic molecules are the fundamental factor in achieving excellent pairing between food & beverages (wine, xérès, beer, sake…). Take Lebanese tabouleh (couscous, mint, parsley…), for example. How many years did it take Lebanese home cooks to find out that mint and parsley were the best herbs to achieve harmony of taste in this simple salad? Today, with my science, I can explain why it is so delicious —mint and parsley share the same dominant aromatic molecules from the anise-flavored family—. But, I can also now change one of them, while staying in the same anise-flavored aromatic family, and give a new twist to this tabouleh with a duo like basil & parsley or tarragon & parsley… Finally, I’ve always served a sauvignon blanc wine with tabouleh, and now, I understand why! These grapes also share the same aromatic compounds found in mint and parsley. And today, I now know that the verdejo wine from Spain (Rueda region) also shares the same aromatic profile.

To which extend does your method complement Bernard Lahousse’s foodpairing concept?

I don’t know much about Bernard Lahousse’s concept, because when I took a look at it some years ago, I was surprised to find that it was not based on the synergy between «dominant» aromatic molecules. So, I didn’t pursue it any further.

The aromatic volatile compounds represent less than 0.05-1% of food’s molecular weight. What is the impact of these compounds in the marriages results?

Much more than we thought. The aromatic impact of thousands and thousands of molecules are much more fundamental in our taste recognition and appreciation. Just think when we have a cold! Everybody says: «I cannot taste anything today, I have a cold». But is it your mouth or your nose that is congested? Without your nose (try pinching it shut while you’re eating or drinking), you are unable to recognize what you’re drinking or eating, and therefore, cannot appreciated it.

How do wine compounds interact with each other?

When dominant molecules of the same family get together in food, or in foods and beverages (wine, xérès, beer, sake…), there occurs an aromatic synergy effect the result is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s like if they where a power of attraction between aromatic compounds from same family.

No one can doubt today about the relevance of wine and food marriage. Which are, in your opinion, the new tendencies that can we foresee to appear? Are we facing a revolution on that subject?

A better understanding of aromatic synergy! Just look at the success and countless international reviews of my conference at the Wine & Culinary International Forum in Barcelona, on September 30th, 2012. We now know that everyone is ready and has an open mind to have fun in the kitchen, as well as in their aromatic approach of food & wine harmony.

You have been working since 2008 with Ferran Adrià and his team on culinary R&D. What have you learnt from them, and how do you value your participation?

With Ferran Adrià and Juli Soler, and other teams of great chefs, especially Oriol Castro and Eduard Xatruch, and there sommelier Ferran Centelles, I’ve learned how to organize my research on food and how to keep an open mind. I’ve been reading about el Bulli since 1994, and this as completely changed my vision of my work as a sommelier, and it has increased my forays in the kitchen, where I was already… About my collaboration with Ferran, I worked with him on the creation of more than fifty dishes for the 2009-2010 el Bulli menus. Ferran and his team were working on many ingredients at el Bulli Taller in Barcelona. So, with my aromatic research on food, I was able to suggest different combinations, such as nori sea weed. Ferran was trying to find a way to use nori instead of eggs Italian pasta. I suggested raspberry, black tea and violet water. As a result, they created a Japanese Temaki filled with raspberry puree… Great aromatic synergy and funny creation!

Your book Papilles et Molécules is now considered a handbook and has established a before and after in the whole marriage strategy. Which is, in your opinion, the key of this success?

Firstly, the pleasure and freedom that it brings to chefs and sommeliers, and also, to everyone who enjoys wine and food at home; secondly, a new playground to create new recipes; and lastly, a scientific approach to subtract subjectivity from the equation of food with wine matching. Moreover, it is an easy way to get everybody out of their comfort zone, and to achieve, each and every time, very good and even surprisingly wonderful food & wine pairings.

Wine&Culinary International Forum

The Wine & Culinary International Forum was held in Barcelona on September 30th. It was the first international meeting on harmony and interactions between wine and cuisine, and about these elements complementarily in the gastronomic menus.

The event, sponsored by Bodegas Torres and addressed to professionals, was held in the ME Hotel in Barcelona. The conference program was gathered by a renowned Advising Committee composed by Josep Roca, François Chartier, Nick Lander and Víctor de la Serna.

You were one of the outstanding participants in the event. What do you think about this meeting?

Now, that was a historic day! It was the first time that specialists, chefs, sommeliers and wine & food critics got together in a matching food and wine event. There are many food shows that talk a bit about matching and there are many wine shows that talk a bit about matching, but there were no real matching food & wine events. Miguel Torres had the brilliant idea and the generosity to make it happen. Consequently, everyone who had been invited (like Alain Senderens, Gaston Acurio, Josep Roca, Ferran Centelles, Jancis Robinson, Victor de la Serna…) brought their best knowledge and shared it with the world in the wonderfully creative city that is Barcelona. It was a huge success, and it garnered world media coverage. So, watch out for the second edition!

Which should be the next steps in harmony and interactions among wine and cuisine research?

We are just beginning to play around with aromatic compounds... I have at least 30 or 40 years ahead of me to better understand there power of synergy and to discover the aromatic profiles of new ingredients and beverages.