I went to an Herve This seminar on cooking with additives, colorants, and aromas yesterday. It was billed as a "Seminaire Extraordinaire" - an Extraordinary Seminar - but what it actually turned out to be was an Ultimate Fighting Championship of the food science world. It was a no-holds barred free-for all of about 150 participants that ranged from scruffy students - of food and science - to chefs, chemists, industrial food reps, doctors, journalists, and sweet-looking little white-haired French ladies who knocked the big boys flat on their theoretical backs. Herve acted as ringleader and ringmaster - goading us to question everyone and everything. He treated all of us - including the three-star chefs and government scientists - like undergrad freshmen - but in a gleefully conspiratorial way. We started with a demo by Herve himself - making a mock red wine sauce. He took a small saucepan, placed it over heat, and then haphazardly added water, red food colouring, tartaric acid, glucose, and salt - while explaining that these are the known elements found in a red wine sauce - but not in the correct proportions of course. By extrapolation, the finished product looked looked reasonably like a red wine reduction. He said that this was a simple demo of what's being done in industrial food labs. But what should we call it? A chef suggested "virtual red wine sauce" - but he was shouted down - that would be wrong to call it that because it has no red wine - and that the wine industry would be up in arms. Herve beamed - it had begun. We saw other demos - including the infamous sodium alginate/calcium chloride reaction - this time with a cucumber solution - but with Herve emphatically insisting that they be called pearls and not caviar - saying there could be serious protests from the caviar industry in the future. I guess not from the pearl industry since they're not a food industry. Next was a chef doing a demo with Mycryo - the Cacao Barry product which is basically powdered cacao butter to be used as a new alternative form of fat - use fat like bread crumbs instead of liquid or solid. He coated some quartered some quartered white mushrooms and thick slices of foie gras with the Mycryo and pan fried them up. He held up the pan to show how little moisture was lost from the mushrooms and how little fat from the foie gras. But when he started talking about losing a significantly lower percentage of fat from the foie gras, that's when Herve jumped him. How did he measure that? What was his protocol? The guy tried to be cocky at first but when the rabid scientists smelled the blood, his cocky smile was soon gone. We broke for lunch - the standard French seminar two-hour lunch - with lots of wine. I sat between the director of the Aromas Division from the Spanish company cosmos, who's working with Ferran, Albert, and Oriol at the Taller, and a Spanish PhD student who's working with Herve. Behind us was his fellow doctoral candidate - but she's leaving in two weeks to work with Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck. After lunch, it was colourants and flavourings up next. This is where it got really ugly. I think the crowd could handle the concept of using new and/or unfamiliar products in both industrial, restaurant, and home applications, but the idea of messing with food with artificial colour and flavourings is something we've believed to be so bad for so long that there was no mercy. One of the scruffy culinary school kids got up and made a statement so impassioned about how cooking should only be according to the seasons and with respect to the natural state of ingredients that he got the day's only round of applause. But he was quietly countered by a silver-haired guy - who'd by then taken off his jacket and tie - asking him a simple question "What about vanilla beans?" The kid was stumped for a minute and sat down to think about it while the discussions swirled around him - and then jumped back up with a rambling response that was more youthful ideology than realistic response - and then slumped back down to stew it longer. Throughout all the food science talk was the very French concern about semantics - "What do we call it - and do we have the right to call it that?" There were also questions about the responsibilities of restaurant chefs - should our menus read like industrial food ingredient labels? Afterward, I walked out into the most beautiful evening in Paris this year - an almost summery dusk - and called my sister - distraught - still reeling from the event. I told her that I felt stoopid. But then I told her about the day laughed. I wondered - how many of the world-renowned professionals I'd just shared the room with today - faced with the same global questions - felt the same way too.