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Whiffing in D.C., Whaffing in Paris

The idea sounded more than curious. It seemed, frankly, a bit preposterous: inhalable chocolate, dubbed Le Whif, direct from Paris. Among other locations, the inventors were hosting “whiffing parties” at Cannes. For the body-, style-, and trend-conscious international party crowd, it seemed, this was a chance to get the taste of chocolate without the calories, or even the mastication.

We ordered some – for a pretty penny, once shipping was counted – and tried it in the office. (See the video above.) After we figured out the right way to operate these little plastic cigar-like things (puff on the brown end, and not too hard!), the consensus sounded like a Peggy Lee lyric: Is that all there is, to Le Whif? It seemed like nothing more than a mouthful of cocoa powder, perhaps superfine (Okay, perhaps microscopically superfine), but still.

Once I got the man behind the novelty on the phone, though, it all started to sound less like a gimmick and more like what it is: the product of a fascinating marriage of science and art taking place on an unassuming little street near the Louvre. David Edwards, a Harvard University professor, has created Le Laboratoire, where he and his research team are doing a lot more than just inhaling chocolate.

“We want to create a space where artists and designers can think more like scientists and scientists can think more like artists and designers,” Edwards told me. “But it always starts with the artist.”

Food research is just part of what they’re up to, and even in that segment Le Whif is just the beginning. Edwards told me about Le Whaf, which he described as a cloud of flavor: micro-droplets of liquid that hang in the air, can fill a glass and be breathed in for tasting. I had such a hard time imagining what it actually looks and tastes like that, because I was headed to Paris on vacation, I asked to come experience it for myself.

That’s how my friend Rachel and I found ourselves stepping into Le Laboratoire on a recent Monday evening to meet the professor and his food team, including the Michelin-starred chef Thierry Marx, his protégé Thierry Martin, Harvard student Josh Allen and Jose Sanchez, president of LaboGroup.

LaboGroup is the commercial arm of Le Laboratoire, meant to find ways to support the work of avant-garde artists of all types. Before we headed into the FoodLab, Rachel and I immersed ourselves in “While I Sleep,” a mysterious set of installations by Indian artist Shilpa Gupta that touch on issues of consciousness, race, fear, perception and terrorism.

Rachel tries Le Whaf. (Joe Yonan -- The Washington Post)

In the FoodLab, Josh Allen, a fresh-faced 20-something with dreams of working in restaurants, turned on one of the Le Whaf machines, which looks like something you might use for a facial: An oblong glass bulb started to sputter a little liquid on the inside, then fill with, yes, a cloud. Edwards turned a spigot on one side, held a wine glass up to it, and took away a little serving of … what, exactly? We took turns breathing in through tubes, and our mouths filled with the tastes of a gin martini from the first globe, then a ginger-lime drink from the second, then tomato water from the tube.

Maybe I was taken in by the Paris setting, maybe I was seduced by Edwards’s conversation (“Are we inventing the new fork?”), maybe I’m highly suggestible. Or maybe, just maybe, this was actually incredibly cool. As each taste flooded my mouth and then dissipated, I didn’t think so much about what it is or how it works, but what else might be whaffable. Bacon? Turns out that fat inhibits the encapsulation. Chili peppers? So far, they’ve been too intense and have caused unpleasant coughing. But herbs, spices, juices and alcohols all show promise, which brought to mind the pairing possibilities Le Whaf might present for mixologists.

Edwards plans to invite some of the world’s preeminent molecular-minded chefs to invent flavor combinations for Le Whaf. I immediately imagined something a Grant Achatz or Heston Blumenthal or Jose Andres or Ferran Adria might do. Could Jose riff on his famous liquid olive oil and instead encapsulate a cloud of olive flavor? I bet he could.

All you nabobs of negativism about molecular gastronomy, I know what you’re thinking: Will clouds of flavor ever replace, say, the perfection of a local, ripe, in-season tomato? Should we even bother to try? I would say: No, and yes.

On the sea bass are the smallest pieces of citrus possible before you get a burst of juice. (Rachel Alabiso)

Consider our experience when we returned to FoodLab for a four-course lunch made by Thierry Martin. The group offers the meals twice a week or so primarily to members and patrons of Le Laboratoire and, for only 34 euros, to the few members of the public who happen to find out about it. The delicious dishes had touches of molecular gastronomy throughout, with a sous-vide quail egg here and a cardamom foam there. But it was on a sea bass dish that I found my favorite use of high-tech cooking.

Scattered over the fish were the individual cells of grapefruit and orange: the tiniest elements of citrus possible before you get to juice. How on earth did they create those without breaking them? Josh explained that they froze citrus segments in liquid nitrogen and then could easily separate them.

The result was spectacular in a way, because each little piece bursts juice in the mouth, and yet on the plate it was the most natural thing in the world.

Our waiter demonstrates Le Whif, inhalable chocolate. (Rachel Alabiso)

After dinner, we had coffee -- and Le Whif. Our waiter instructed us on how to use it; I didn't have the heart to tell her that I had already tried it, because she was so delightful in her description, especially in cautioning that when we took a puff, it should be small, "like a kiss." I thought in such a setting the inhalable chocolate might make a little more sense, but Rachel's reaction was pretty much identical to that of my colleagues who had tried it back in Washington: Is that all there is?

-- Joe Yonan

By Joe Yonan  |  June 22, 2009; 10:30 AM ET
 | Tags: Joe Yonan, Paris, chocolate, molecular gastronomy  
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