By Brian Fencil

Photos courtesy of Eric Gormand.

Although hookahs (also narghiles) and hookah lounges are immensely popular, they have been limited to a few scenes: lounges with torn sofas and menus that consist of the full gambit of Hot Pockets, and places that are an uncomfortable mix between bar and cafe and vaguely dressed up to look Persian.

However, Eric Gormand, founder of French narghiles company Airdiem, recently realized that the sickly-artificial flavored tobaccos used in hookahs can be replaced with high-end flavors such as foie gras. This vision, called Aroma-Vapology, is earning hookahs spots in fashionable restaurants and hotels, and creating a new tool for chefs in molecular gastronomy.

Though the term ‘molecular gastronomy’ is a vague one that annoys many chefs because it “makes what they do sound like scientific party tricks,” but generally means making “the most delicious, technically exquisite food.”

The movement’s start is often accredited to renowned Catalonian chef, Ferran Adria, whose revolutionary El Bulli restaurant earned five World’s Best Restaurant titles, and about 800,000 reservation requests a year. Dishes like Air of Honey with Flowers and Pistachio Nuts, and martinis which were made from reconstituted olives placed on the tongue and followed by a spritz of atomized gin and vermouth, drew foodies from all over the world.

Many molecular gastronomy chefs have kitchens that are filled with hot infusion siphons, edible film sealers, and liquid nitrogen, which make them look less like a kitchen and more like the lab of a mad scientist. And even with all of their equipment, they are constantly tinkering, and looking how to further modern cooking.

Gormand, however, was looking in a different direction when he invented Aroma-Vapology. Instead of trying to stun people with an innovation, he was looking to use the narghile to give people a mini vacation through the fine art of flavoring vapor.

The narghile came to mean a lot of things for Gormand while he was an officer in the French military academy: “relaxation after action, a well deserved break, comfort, [and] the pleasure of being alive,” Gormand says on his company’s website.

For many years, Gormand wanted to give people these tiny vacations but without using tobacco in the narghile. Finally, the breakthrough came 10 months ago. By using volcanic stones, called zeolites, instead of tobacco, the narghile burns a natural and flavorless vapor. Then, any essential culinary oils, soups, stock, smoothies, or salts could be added to the bowl of the narghile, coloring the vapor with a hint of flavor.

The lack of tobacco and the flavored vapors make Airdiem’s narghiles unique. They are “not hookahs, they are not an electronic cigarette,” Gormand details. “They are much more like when you enter a kitchen and smell a slow cooked meal.”

So far 10 hotels and restaurants are experimenting with Aroma-Vapology, and are using the vapors as essential ingredients for their dishes. Ordering a creamy risotto, for example, but leaving the accompanying black truffle flavored narghile aside, would neglect not only a very important aspect of the dish, but of the experience.

“You cannot understand the meal without the vapors coming with,” Gormand tells BTR.

Gormand also tells BTR that the subtle flavors in Aroma-Vapology are allowing chefs to pair ingredients they never could before, like pairing his current favorite vapor, white truffle (which is normally overpowering), with delicately flavored fish. The subtle vapors are also introducing people to flavors they might otherwise be turned away from, something Chef Jullien Allano experimented with.

When Allano spoke with reporters about Aroma-Vapology, he paired oyster stock to go with rye bread and condiments. “You get the essence of the sea,” Allano said about the oyster flavored vapor, “without having the viscous texture which some people do not appreciate.”

There are many possibilities with pairing a narghile with food. Cardamom and apple vapors heighten fruit notes in blue or reblochon cheese, and ginger and absinthe bitters can be made into a vapor as its own fat-free snack.

“The story of Aroma-Vapology is very young,” Gormand tells BTR. There is no telling what will be thought of next.