Archive for July, 2007

The meaning of Molecular Gastronomy

Friday, July 27th, 2007

After my second week at WD-50, Rosio the pastry sous gave me a green light. She encouraged me to ask Alex questions, many of them, telling me that he wants stagiers to really get something out of there time here. Oh, that was music to my ears.
The next afternoon, while we were all sharing space in the downstairs pastry kitchen I began to freely ask the questions rolling around in my head. One question that just sort of came out, was, “Who else is doing this style of cooking?”

Alex furrowed his brow and looked at me, saying, “What, ‘Molecular Gastronomy?’ I don’t think that’s really the right question.”

“Are you asking who else is buying these ingredients? I don’t know, probably hundreds of people by now, that’s really beside the point.”

He then answered a question I hadn’t quite asked yet. “If you are asking who understands what their ingredients are doing, then the numbers are much smaller, maybe only a handful.”

The question he answered would have been, “What does ‘Molecular Gastronomy’ truly mean?”

Its a question that has been posed to me many, many times, and one that I have given a guarded answer to. The media has grasped this term, and used it freely to describe a new style of cooking emerging in restaurants like El Bulli, WD-50, The Fat Duck, and Alinea. A style of cooking that utilizes ingredients developed for industrial food production, molecular gastronomy meshes scientific research with cooking.

What the media has sent in shock waves across the globe is the futuristic, flashy aspect of the cuisine. Photos and descriptions of the most eye catching dishes, most drastic techniques, and most outlandish new textures have spread through industry rags, and eventually into mainstream magazines and television, leaving us with a skewed understanding.

But much like the Titanic, we are barely seeing the tip of the iceberg that the culinary world is crashing into. The “dog and pony” show, as one Seattle chef called it, is a fraction of what molecular gastronomy truly means.

As Alex put it simply, it means understanding what your ingredients are doing. The chefs at the helm of these modern restaurants are putting their efforts, often with dedicated laboratories, into researching and understanding what their ingredients are doing at a molecular level. They then use that information to build their cuisine in a more creative manner.

Heston Blumenthal will tell you his journey all started with a green bean, and the desire to understand how to blanch it better. His 3 michelin stars will tell you that that desire to better know his ingredients is a key to making superlative food. And his book, Family Food, should tell you that this knowledge has as much a place in the humble setting of your own home as it does in world class kitchens.

Molecular gastronomy can be as simple as understanding how gelatin works. How many chefs work with gelatin to make a solid texture out of a liquid? Almost every one. How many Americans are familiar with gelatin desserts? Hello, Jell-o. How many chefs understand how the protein in gelatin gives their liquids texture? Or an even better question, how many that care? To quote Alex again, “probably only a hand full.”

I was delighted to hear Alex use the gelatin metaphor, because gelatin was one of my first challenges. In my quest to create a panna cotta with the right texture, I began reading as much as I could about gelatin, gaining an understanding of how it works. I applied this information to my panna cotta, working over and over until I was satisfied. By definition then, this simple dessert, my panna cotta is a child of molecular gastronomy, born of a desire to understand what my ingredients were doing.

This molecular gastronomy panna cotta made many appearances on the menu at Eva, a restaurant like so many that is firmly opposed to the modern movement. However, I think if these opponents only knew what molecular gastronomy truly meant, understanding and knowledge, their outcries would be silenced.

It is this deep underside of the iceberg, that of knowledge, that is going to take a lasting hold on cuisine. With a growing amount of research and information available chefs can easily gain this knowledge. Thanks to Harold McGee, a “bible” of scientific information can sit in every kitchen. And with a growing number of professional chefs now coming out of learning institutions, schools that are beginning to offer classes on the whys and hows, this next generation of chefs will be asking different questions.

What once was lost….

Tuesday, July 17th, 2007

After my third day at WD-50, a strange thing happened.  I found something I thought I had lost; my reason for cooking.

Years ago, I worked for Seattle’s most talented chef, Scott Carsberg.  Don’t get me wrong, there are many very talented chefs in this city, doing very nice things in their restaurants.  But Carsberg has a spark, a rare gift that very few in the world have; an intuition for flavor, and the restraint to present it perfectly  He also runs a kitchen as tight as they come, setting the bar higher each day than the last, never letting standards for himself or his staff drop below that.  In this kitchen I was born as a chef, and in this kitchen I thrived.

When I tell people I worked for Scott for nearly 3 years, they look at me with hungry eyes.  He has a reputation for being a big personality, and they think I must have seen more than they can imagine, taken abuse like a soldier, witnessed bizarre and violent outbursts.

The truth is, it was a pretty quiet place.  Sure, he barked a bit, I’ll admit that.  But for the most part, he and I came in, did the best work we possibly could, put out the most perfect plates we knew how, and ended the night talking about how we could do it better the next day.  Nothing was forsaken if it made the food better, no matter how much extra work it made for us.  Conversation was left to a minimum while we focused on work, and no music was played lest it distract us.   So literally, it was a pretty quiet kitchen.

I went into work with a clear vision each day, to make the most beautiful food possible.  I took that to The Fat Duck, being enlivened even more.  But somehow, somewhere, I lost that without realizing what had happened.

But after my 3rd day in Alex’s pastry kitchen, I saw food created for the same reason I once knew.  It was after spending the later part of the evening watching the plates go out.  Each plate was created to be as perfect as possible, not to go out the window as fast as possible, not to get out of the way so you can work another ticket.  The food was not dumbed down so more of them could be made, nor was any plate any rushed, ignored, pampered, or given different treatment than the one before it.  Every plate was simply the most perfect dish it could be.

It hit me then and there, that there is nothing I can gain in my own life right now that fills me with satisfaction the way working to my fullest potential does.  There simply no reason for me not to be out creating desserts as beautiful and perfect as I know I can, each and every night.  I know what I can and want to do, so why am I holding back?

To work at WD-50 would have been a dream, likewise many of the great kitchens in that big city where you don’t have to argue to set standards.  To have stayed at The Fat Duck would have been heaven.  But for every choice we make in life, life makes one for us, and life has told me I live in the pacific northwest.

Thus, I am breaking free of The Rainier Club.  Not to say that there is anything lacking in this kitchen, but the kitchen runs on another chefs vision. Bill creates symphonies, grand dishes with a myriad of melodic flavors.  I am Scott Carsberg’s child, a minimalist through and through.  I am ready to express that, or work along side another with a vision to match.

Now comes the hardest part, finding that place again.

The Source

Sunday, July 15th, 2007

Within the culinary world, we feel a series of creative ripples. Depending on your place in this world, you feel them at various times, with various impacting strengths. You may taste something in a European restaurant, that eventually is seen in Seattle, which may make it’s way into a cooking magazine 5 years later, and finally is taught in a culinary school 10 years later. The more you expose yourself, the more you find yourself in the know, the earlier you can be made aware of these advancements in cuisine. But some how, some way, true creativity spreads to everyone.

Imagine dropping a stone in the middle of a lake. The ripples begin to spread, large at first, diminishing in power the further they travel from the source.

Now imagine this stone is a creative dessert, and it drops somewhere in Spain. In order for me or you, all the way across the globe in a city like Seattle, to feel the ripple effect of a dessert created in Spain, the strength and ingenuity of the dessert has to be strong enough that it can spread over vast distances and remain pertinent over long stretches of time.

In Seattle, all my inspiration has been drawn from these ripples. Deconstructing an American standard like s’mores? This ripple began in Yountville 10 years ago, and is still considered creative on Seattle menus. Presenting a flavor in an airy foam? This stone dropped in Spain about 10 years ago. Creating a sauce through reduction rather than thickening with a roux? This inovation came of the the Nouvelle movement in France during the 80′s. A technique so powerful, reductions have passed from being creative and innovative and become a standard technique and we may not realize this was ground breaking just a few short decades ago.

It’s rare that a chef can posses such a creative genius that the ripples made by their personal cuisine are felt across the globe, spanning the years it takes for them to reach all corners. It’s even rarer for a cook to stand at the source and witness these creative stones being dropped.

This is my daily experience along side Alex Stupak and Wylie Dufresne, watching them shape these stones, preparing to drop them on the culinary world. They are creating technique and method, not just interesting plates, that already those close to this source have begun to mimic.

If we see one or two chefs in our career that can make creative ripples that span the world and a decade, we are very lucky. The rest of us are simply applying our own spin on others creations, changing the flavors, the presentation, and the application. Our skill comes in recreating these dishes in a manner that is delicious and perfectly executed, and perhaps twisted just enough to show a little creativity of our own. I will take with me technique and method that has only been available through Alex’s creation for days, weeks, and months. This is my fortunate stance being so close to the source. I can’t hope to create with this magnitude, ever. That’s not my role in this culinary world. I can’t even hope to be a disciple , learning from this creator for years on end. All I can hope for is to take with me the good word, and apply what I learn to my own aesthetic, one that has been built riding the waves of other creative geniuses.

What am I taking with me, you may ask? To start, flavor combinations I wouldn’t have dreamed of like raspberry and caraway; Yuzu, pistachio, and spruce; chocolate and avocado. The plating styles, clean, minimalistic and breathtaking will certainly effect my own plating. And techniques will begin to show up in my dishes, techniques for liquid filled frozen capsules, fluid gels, ice creams with a pleasant “chew”, flexible chocolate, ultra soft sponge cake, and the sandiest crumb crust I have ever tasted. I’m not stealing recipes, and I am not going to try to recreate the desserts I have seen. I would never want to make someone else’s expression. Rather I hope to take with me a brief understanding of how to create in a similar manner, and a deeper knowledge of how my ingredients work.

Behind the scenes of a newspaper article

Wednesday, July 11th, 2007

Earlier this year, a couple of friends and I gathered to make soup. Not just any soup, but “smoking soup”.

You see, while my friends are varied and many, these two friends are a chef and a food writer. This soup was an early summer version of a dish my friend Becky Selengut collaborated on for an underground dinner. The theme for the dinner was, “Autumn Smoke”, each course featuring an element of this late season quality. The soup was rich creamy parsnip served with apple butter and crisp parsnip ribbons. The “smoke” in this dish was really a fog, rolling from under the soup itself, and carrying with it the aroma of cinnamon.

The soup bowl was set inside a larger bowl that was partially filled with a warm cinnamon “tea”, and just before serving, dry ice was dropped in. The steam, or fog, caused by the ultra cold frozen carbon dioxide boiling rapidly in the warm cinnamon tea enveloped you with the spicy scent while you ate the soup. A dramatic presentation with a functional role that impressed a friend dining with us, Matthew.

Matthew, a food writer, was so impressed not only with the dish, but with the complete accessibility of the reactionary ingredient. Dry ice is available readily at any grocery store fish counter, for a minimal cost.

The article here, Aroma Therapy, hit the stands this past Sunday, prompting me to share my own side of the creative process.

It was a day like most spent with friends. I was detained by Matthew’s darling daughter Iris, who introduced me to all her toy figures, many of whom live aboard a pirate ship. I spent time catching up with Laurie, Matthew’s wife. I joked with Becky, who’s pace quickens in the kitchen, along with her wit. And we sat at the table together, sharing the same meal, and chatting until we had polished off the block of cheese bought for the garnish.

The article features a spring adapted recipe including peas and panchetta, and envelopes you in the fresh aroma of mint. I urge everyone to use this impressive technique, and be creative. The liquid underneath can carry any water soluble aroma, corresponding with the soup, which can be chilled or hot.

WD 50; Day one

Monday, July 9th, 2007

June 26th, 2007

For nearly 12 hours today, I was in pastry heaven.

I have no pictures to share with you, and I don’t want to muck up the entire experience by putting it into long paragraphs full of words that can’t possibly describe what I saw, tasted, and learned.

But here is a little bit about what I found particularly remarkable.

5 minutes into my first day, I tasted something that elicited a reaction I have had very few times. My thoughts stopped, every bit of me took pause to enjoy the flavor entirely. This reaction came from a tiny unassuming brown puck, the mignardise. It contained the combination of the flavors raspberry, hazelnut, cocoa, and caraway. Yup, Caraway.

A flavor most often associated with light rye bread, I was stunned to find it fit so well in this one bite dessert. It was caraway alright, and it was clearly unusual. But it was absolutely right in every way. A streusel of hazelnuts, cocoa, and caraway were bound with an isomalt caramel (a sugar with a lower “sweet” factor) encasing a raspberry pate de fruites (a small jellied confection, like a very tender gum drop). I wonder if the inspiration was raspberry jam on rye toast, and I wonder if the pastry chef is just so smart that he can come up with things like this without stumbling upon them. Either way, the result was remarkable.

That evening I tasted popcorn sorbet. It was another shock. I looked at Justin, the pastry cook I was working with and said with much enthusiasm, “This is good.”

He laughed and said, “Yeah, we don’t make crappy food here.”

Indeed.

Now stop, and immediately shake that thought of the buttered popcorn jelly belly from your head. This sorbet is as far from that atrocious confection as I am from ever eating one again. Imagine the flavor of kettle corn, but the texture of a smooth icy sorbet. You’re conflicted, I can tell. But if only I could send little tastes through the computer screen, you’d believe. A sorbet that tastes exactly like freshly popped kettle corn.

Finally, I got a peek at something I was desperate to get a taste of. deep fried butterscotch pudding. I know the original recipe for this old fashioned flavor has nothing to do with Scotland’s namesake spirit, although I still insist that the flavor can be deepened in a very satisfactory manner by a shot of the stuff (or Rum, or Whisky) This presentation of the flavor butterscotch takes on an entirely different tie to the country of Scotland by embracing their love for deep frying all manner of desserts, case in point the deep fried mars bar. The pudding is set to the point of stiffness when cold, but when the panko breaded cubes hit the 350 degree oil, they are softened to the texture of a pudding, and oh so melty and delicious. I finally got my hands on a nugget, and upon consumption managed but two words, “Mmmmmm, butterscotchy.”

I’ll have to leave you with that.

I had a day off wednesday, which would have been a welcome chance to see some of the city. However, the scorching hot day was matched by over 90 percent humidity that made walking nearly intolerable, but what finally broke me was a power outage in Manhattan that stopped many of the subway trains, and the shift from 90 percent humidity to 100 percent. The skies opened, the rain hit fast and hard, and I ran to the nearest cab and ordered a ride home. I have been watching TV like it’s any old night in Seattle, two cats curled up on the couch with me, and the promise of a new episode of Top Chef making me very happy.

La Ratatouille, Paris, France

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2007

ratatouille.jpg

OK. I know we’re supposed to be discussing restaurants… the real kind, not the ones presented in fictional films. But Gasteau’s, the restaurant in the new Pixar film Ratatouille is simply too good not to mention. Anyone who is fond of the previous Pixar films should know that this second effort by Brad Bird (of the Incredibles) is one of their best films to date. Anyone who is not into seeing kids films should know that Bird’s films skew more towards adults and this one is particularly enjoyable.

Most importantly, the backdrop and texture of the film is provided by food, and specifically life at a high end French restaurant in Paris. Not only is Paris depicted in stunningly beautiful and accurate detail, but this same attention to detail is applied to the visualization of the kitchen, food, and goings on in a professional restaurant. I have no significant experience working in a professional kitchen, but the exposure I’ve had tells me that the details in this film ring very true. Even more importantly in a couple of small segments tackles the issue of describing how food tastes. As anyone who writes about food knows, writing about flavor is like dancing about architecture (to borrow a phrase). If you have visuals (as the film does in heaping amounts) then you can skimp on finding other ways to describe a dish. But not only does the movie spend time describing food beautifully, they came up with an abstract visual metaphor for flavor that does as good a job as anything I’ve seen explaining how to taste things to people who don’t usually take the time. And the film even acknowledges that not everyone will be able to taste their food that way.

There’s even a point in the movie where the fine art of reinterpreting a dish while respecting it is articulated with incredible detail and accuracy. I don’t know if it’s Bird himself, or someone else on the Ratatouille team, but somebody there had a deep understanding and appreciation for excellent food and the restaurant experience. They’ve expressed their perspective in loving and entertaining terms in the form of Pixar’s latest film. I’m thinking of seeing it again.