Would you eat soup made from crickets?
Bugs in a kitchen are usually something to be squashed or swatted. But at Le Cordon Bleu, the French cooking school, chefs and food scientists spent a week simmering, sauteing and grilling insects. The chefs wanted to extract innovative flavors. They say it could open a new frontier for eating.
As a finale to their research, the school's Bangkok branch held a seminar. It was called "Edible Insects in a Gastronomic Context." It was booked up weeks in advance. The event in Thailand included lectures and a tasting menu for 60 open-minded participants. They were a mix of student chefs, scientists, professors and insect farmers.
First came a vial of ant-infused gin. That was followed by a shot glass of warm cricket consomme. Next came an hors d'oeuvre of cockchafer butter and herb crisp. A cockchafer could be mistaken for a water bug but is in fact a giant beetle.
The insects were not visible in the final products but artfully hidden. The bugs were pureed into batters, their juices extracted for essence.
"We didn't want to just put a bug on a salad and say, 'Voila!' We wanted to know, can we extract interesting flavors, new textures, aromas and turn it into something delicious?" said Christophe Mercier. He helped organize the event in the Thai capital.
Before anyone else could crack a joke about bugs in fine French food, the chefs made their own.
"This is the first time that insects have been granted access to the Cordon Bleu," Mercier said with a smile. He added that the 120-year-old Paris-based school had never to his knowledge held a workshop quite like this.
At the school's entrance, a welcome table was decorated with tropical flowers and bowls of bugs. There were crickets, silk worms, bamboo worms and live water bugs as big as a toddler's hand.
The idea for the event was inspired by local eating habits in Southeast Asia. In Thailand and neighboring countries, many people eat fried insects as snacks. That led Mercier and colleagues to wonder if they could learn from the locals.
It was the gin that helped win over the chefs.
"Some things were very impressive, and some things were very bizarre," said Fabrice Danniel, master chef at Bangkok's Cordon Bleu. "The taste of the alcohol was amazing. It's more than alcohol. The taste was unique."
A Cordon Bleu chef, Christian May, admitted that he was initially repulsed by the intense aroma of the grilled crickets for the broth. He encouraged his colleagues not to demonstrate for the seminar how the consomme was made. Just serve it elegantly on trays, which they did.
"It tasted good. You just have to remove the image of the insect from your mind," he said.
He noted that this will be the biggest challenge if and when insects go mainstream in Western cuisine. Before that happens, more research is needed. It's not clear if serving insects is legal in all Western countries. Proper hygiene needs to be ensured at insect farms. There are also safety concerns.
According to the U.N., insects have long been part of human diets in nearly 100 countries. It's particularly true in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
In Thailand alone, there are 200 species of insects eaten as food, said Patrick Durst. He is a senior official with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. He co-authored a study on Thailand's edible insect industry.
To people who frown on eating bugs, he says this: "Take a look at shrimp. What an ugly creature. Is it any more attractive than a grasshopper?"
After the seminar, the chefs congratulated themselves on a good start.
"This is not the end of the story," said Danniel, the master chef. "We want to develop more recipes."
"And maybe even write a cookbook."
Critical thinking challenge: Why did Christian May discourage colleagues from demonstrating how the bug-based consomme was made?