Last night, an exclusive gathering of Sydney’s social flotsam congregated in the Great Hall at Sydney Uni for ‘an explosive night of molecular gastronomy’ as part of the International Year of Chemistry.
Professor Hervé This, a French chemist whose interest is the science of culinary phenomena, was the keynote speaker, assisted by chef Martin Benn of Sepia restaurant.
Benn came across as a thoughtful kind of bloke while the Prof was Inspector Clouseau on speed.
Benn didn’t stand a chance. Ignored; talked over; his demo and background to the process for making his famous ‘Japanese stones’ dessert hijacked. But it wasn’t in a bad way – the Prof’s high-octane passion and enthusiasm for his subject was uncontainable, his excitement steamrollering joyfully through and over everything.
We careered haphazardly through the pack of 127 powerpoint slides, ate a Japanese pebble and some ‘moss’ and had a demo of the wonders of liquid nitrogen.
After the 90th slide featuring a chemical equation, Neil started sniggering at the look of confusion on my face (he’s the scientist in the family). I suddenly realised how bizarre the whole set up was – the Hogwarts venue, the mad professor with his chemistry set laid out on the bench, the whole concept of eating Japanese pebbles, plus Martin Benn’s by now stoic presence which quietly emanated ‘physically I’m present, but mentally I’ve nipped out round the back for a quick fag’.
And then the sight of the Sydney foodie faithful, still doggedly hanging onto the Prof’s every mangled Franglais utterance after 2 hours. I started giggling; I couldn’t stop. It got worse. I ended up crying with smothered laughter. I started to calm down and get a grip but the next words I heard were ‘arn zees ees wut coostar (custard) luke lerk unner zee meekroskop’. I lost it again.
The end of the evening arrived like a motorway pile up. As the MC edged across the stage in an effort to signal a polite ‘shut up toot sweet, mate’, the Prof began hurtling through his remaining slides at warp factor 9. He started cramming in frenzied orders: ‘YOU MUZ DO ZIS’ and ‘YOU MUZ NOT DO ZAT’, his articulation becoming ever more incoherent and confusing.
While the audience tried to translate the verbal onslaught, Martin Benn stood impassively at the back of the stage; arms folded, oblivious, in some cheffy zen state, focussing a Mogadon stare out over the audience.
The talk was followed by demonstrations outside in the quadrangle, including chocolate and blue cheese ice cream (yummy with an interesting mental twist eg ‘will it stay down, because it tastes a bit like vomit smells’) and making sherbet with sugar and other chemicals.