In an alternate universe much like ours, every chef not only stands in their kitchen cooking every single dish we order, but spends each morning shopping for each piece of food that sits on those plates that are lovingly and painstakingly crafted just for us. They test each ingredient, knowing where to find the best of everything so nothing sub perfect comes within a mile of our food.
The fact of our own universe here, is that this kind of attention takes time. The kind of time that cuts into personal lives, takes away from a chef’s family, friends, sanity, physical well being. Most restaurants order from a few purveyors, taking what ever those companies deemed satisfactory. And often, those companies choices are dictated by price and easy availability. So what ever is carried in the door on the hand truck is what ends up on your plate.
This same factor is much of what holds superior restaurants apart from the median. That time one could be sipping coffee is spent tracking things down, taking them into their kitchen and testing their quality. Working in kitchens where chefs have put in the time sourcing the best ingredients for their cuisine, a girl could become very spoiled. When reaching for flour at Lampreia, I might not even notice that the farina shipped from Italy is what makes our cakes and pasta’s taste that much better. While at The Fat Duck, it could slip by me that the reason the chef isn’t in the kitchen that morning is because he’s in the lab testing the starch content of 10 varieties of potatoes to find the best one for his chips.
It’s not enough to be a talented chef, to develop a stand out menu, and train your team to reproduce it. You have to log the hours finding your food.
I am currently hunting for a product called Agar. A hydrocolloid derived from seaweed, this gelling agent is a staple in Asian cuisine and has been adopted by vegans and vegetarians alike. Rather than the soft melt in your mouth set of gelatin which we are used to, Agar sets up stiff and brittle. At low levels, this gel will crumble in your mouth pleasantly. At high levels, it’s a solid brick. I learned at The Fat Duck, to take this solid brick of gelled (and tasty) liquid, place it in a blender, and puree it. The gel doesn’t release any liquid, but the molecules break apart to the point that it takes on the fluid quality of a liquid. Thus, we make a fluid-gel.
The beauty of using this method is that you can take any liquid you want and create a soft sauce-like texture for plating. Imagine I want to include the flavor of brown sugar in a peach and yogurt dish. I can make a brown sugar creme anglaise and sauce my plate with that, but I am adding the additional flavors of the egg and cream. However, if I make a fluid gel, I could simply dilute the brown sugar with water to achieve the precise flavor I want, set that with agar agar, then puree it. In doing this, I have the advantage of presenting just the flavor of brown sugar, clean and free of anything else.
My problem has come in the fact that the Agar I have been testing tastes like seaweed. My “clean and free” flavors have all been tasting a bit briny. Gross, you might think, and you are right. It is gross. I’ll admit I was spoiled while staging at WD-50. I simply opened a jar and tasteless, neutral flavored agar came out.
My first Agar purchase was from the company L’Epicerie. This has by far been the worst of the lot, emitting a strong odor as the package is opened. I was so taken back by the foulness of this particular agar that I called the company. I was told repeatedly, “well, it comes from seaweed, what did you expect?” Then I was informed that they only sell to the finest restaurants and purchase the finest ingredients. Clearly the agar was fine, it was me that was a bit off.
Since then I have tried various sources, many asian markets in the international district, and various health food stores. One of our specialty purveyors was helping us source this product, and bought an entire case of the first stuff they found. Unfortunately, it tastes like seaweed. It’s a tough call. They sourced it and bought it at our request, but they fell into that trap of mediocrity mentioned above. They took the first thing that came through their door. No matter how guilty I feel, I can’t do the same thing and let it into mine.