Archive for the ‘Industry’ Category

Best Of

Monday, December 31st, 2007

It seems every publication is all lists this time of year. What to gifts buy for this person or that, what to wear for holiday gatherings here or there, and finally, the “best of” lists.

We all have them, and personally, I love talking about them. Do you agree, disagree, what would you add or detract. Can you guess what kind of “best of” lists most cooks discuss?

If you said food you are a bit off. That comes second. First and foremost we discuss music.

Then we talk about food. Today Jonathan Kauffman’s “best dishes” list was on the top of our minds at Veil, mostly because one of our own dishes was in the honorable mention section. A prawn dish with caramelized chard, a honey gastrique, and a sunflower seed/bacon condiment. This “best dishes” list gave us all an excuse to discuss the best things we had tasted this year. Just us, cook to cook, in our own kitchen where the influence of “the scene” doesn’t penetrate.

I was very very lucky this year to make a few rare trips out of the kitchen to New York, Chicago, San Fransisco, and Colorado. Along the way I tasted some pretty amazing things. Seattle’s provided a few herself, and this list is going to contain a taboo for me. I am going to include a dish I would normally NEVER put on my own list.

Dana’s ten best bites of 2007

1. Paprika Punch cocktail, Tailor, NYC.

Hands down this is the best thing I have tasted this entire year. The cocktail was made from red bell pepper infused vodka, was mixed with something sweet and sour, and if I remember correctly was muddled with jalapeno. My friend Rosio and I lost all manners and asked for “refills”, which we were given 3 times. I think about this drink at random at least once a day, cravings attached.

2. Ssam, Momofuku, NYC.

I only made it to the ssam bar, and only ever had the berkshire pork ssam. But I went back to have it multiple times both trips this last year, and will do exactly that next time I am in Manhattan. The Ssam is a kind of Asian burrito, this one made with braised Berkshire pork wrapped in a rice pancake with kim-chee puree, grilled onions, pickled mushrooms, chili sauce, rice, and edamame. This dish was so amazingly delicious that it makes me wish for a momofuku in Seattle so I could eat it all the time. Even though I know franchising would destroy what makes momofuku so delicious, I want it.

3. Yuzu curd with spruce yogurt, pistachio, liquid sablee, WD-50, NYC.

This was the first of Stupak’s desserts that I tasted, and still the most memorable. The pastry sous Rosio plated me the tiniest cutest version of the dish out of scraps while I watched the cooks in service. Yuzu is quite possibly the most amazing citrus flavor as is, but paired with the bitter greek yogurt and the essence of spruce it was transcendent.

4. Pork Belly with Miso Butterscotch, Tailor NYC.

Butterscotch never had it so good as it does in Sam Mason’s hands. What is for me one fiddle flavor, butterscotch becomes the entire band here with the simple addition of miso. Perhaps it’s because miso is actually alive. Perhaps the sugary sweet combination of caramelized sugar is the perfect platform for deep earthy flavors. What ever it is, the combination of miso and butterscotch was a revelation for me. The fact that it bathed pork belly didn’t hurt either.

5.  Meyer Lemons picked from my Uncle Tom’s tree, Santa Cruz, CA.

I feel ashamed that in this sustainable day and age, where we should be connected to the source of our food, I could be so shocked by something growing in my uncle’s yard. But the lemons I had always known were there blew me away. Warm from the sun, ripened on the tree, these yellow orbs turned out to be Meyer lemons rather than the standard variety. It was as much a taste revelation as a that of connection, this act of reaching my own hand, grasping the dimpled flesh and plucking fruit so rare to me in Seattle. Lemon-aid never tasted so good as it did that day.

6. Cauliflower soup, white chocolate foam, curried cauliflower puree, dark chocolate, Schwa, Chicago, IL

I scheduled a one day layover in Chicago to eat at this restaurant. I was very eager to see the restaurant with no front of the house staff, where clad in whites, cooks come out to your table, take your order, open the “bring your own bottle” of wine, and run the food. I was excited to taste the food I had heard so much about from cooks I knew in the city, pictures I had seen in Art Culinaire. So when I rushed from the airport, took my seat alone, I was bubbling with excitement, visibly so. I ordered the larger of the two set menu’s and was treated like a, well, like another cook! The third dish that came was this, creamy warm cauliflower soup with a sweetish white chocolate foam on top in a tiny mug, reminiscent of a winter cup of cocoa. The plate was scattered with random patches of deliciousness, furthering the combination of chocolate and cauliflower.  This flavor combination seems wacky, but comes out of Heston Blumenthal’s kitchen, a place the chef Michael Carlson had spent time as well.  I used to shave cauliflower stems for their chocolate and cauliflower risotto, and darn it they really did smell like chocolate.

7. Fried Mayonnaise, Pickled Tongue, onion strussell, romaine, WD-50, NYC.

This dish, one of Wylie’s most notorious, was familiar to me by way of media and word of mouth long before I entered the restaurant. I saw it go out the kitchen, I didn’t think much about it, and then I ate it. My first immediate thought was, “this tastes EXACTLY like a hamburger!” Exactly, folks, like a delicious perfect hamburger. It hadn’t occurred to me that this dish had such a gripping context. I was floored by the amazing texture of the warm fritter filled with thick “mayo.”, by the perfect texture of the pickled tongue, by the precise ratio of brunoised romaine hearts and onion strussell which made every bite into the american classic in your mouth. But the apparent thought that went into making this dish perfect was what stood out most. This dish isn’t something someone stumbled upon, it’s a labor of love, and I thank Wylie for every long hour he put into making it perfect.

8. Lemon Cucumbers, Sitka and Spruce, Seattle, WA

Finally, something in Seattle, right? This dish couldn’t be more opposite from that at number 7. Lemon Cucumbers, picked up by Matt Dillon at the farmers market a few hours before his restaurant opened, sliced and briefly cooked with fresh dill and trempeti olive oil. Served all by themselves, on a plate his roommate picked up for him at the goodwill, in the tiny restaurant habitating a stripmall storefront. These lemon cukes were tenderly selected from their source, and with as much respect as the farmer grew them with, this chef cooked them. It may have been the only day they were on Matt’s Chalkboard menu which changes as rapidly as the farmers markets, but lucky me for stumbling in. It was a dish I’ll never forget.

9. Moroccan spiced Lamb Burgers, Veil, Seattle, WA.

Sliders have been more than trendy these past years, but Shannon’s version made as a bar snack for his cocktail lounge standout from the pack. Made with fresh lamb shoulder ground with garam masalla, they are topped with a rich cows milk feta and balsamic pickled shallots. Sandwiched between little brioche buns dressed with a house made harissa aoili, I could eat these all day. The flavor combination adds up to much more than the sum of it’s parts. I often find myself or another cook making little meatless sandwiches out of the feta, pickled onions, and harissa aioli for a quick pick me up snack durring service.

10. Mixed Citrus Creamsicle, Veil, Seattle, WA.

This is the dish I said was way out of bounds for me, because it’s one of my own. Normally I would NEVER put something of mine on a list like this. It goes against all humility I strive for, and breaks the deep criticism I view everything I make with. But this dessert is amazing. It’s everything I want all my desserts to be, and it’s the only dessert I have made that I want to sit down and eat. A uber light and airy tahitian vanilla bean bavarian, is made with an italian meringue rather than the usual custard base. By cutting out the rich custard base and substituting something very lean, the floral nuances of the tahitian vanilla bean really shine. It sits aside a mandarin sorbet, puckery, icy, and paired with the bavarian makes the orange/vanilla base for a creamsicle. Under these two components is this amazing bitter, acidic, fragrant passionfruit yogurt sauce pooled in a swoosh of brioche pudding. The broiche pudding, similar to a stovetop pudding rather than a baked bread pudding is a dense texture completely unexpected, and the yeasty rich butteriness is surprisingly delicious with the dessert. Little candied kumquats and confited meyer lemon add to the plate, which has received the same unsolicited compliment from nearly everyone I have fed it to, “this is one of the best things I have ever tasted.” And for once I can whole heartedly agree with them. This dessert is one of the best things I too have tasted, and every time I do I am stunned that it came out of me.

Enough about me, what are your favorite tastes this year???

How a cook spends thanksgiving

Wednesday, November 21st, 2007

With all the menu’s posted online documenting the extensive tables bloggers are setting for thanksgiving, I thought I’d share how most cooks will spend the holiday.

They will most likely spend the time working a grueling shift wednesday to acomodate all the people with extra family and friends in town, and go in early friday to do the same thing.

This leaves us with thanksgiving off usually. If any of us have family or friends close by, we drag our tired butts over for dinner, hopefully with enough time to enjoy ourselves. Maybe even with enough time and energy to shop for ingredients and cook a little something. The rest hang out with eachother and a few bottles of wine.

Much of my family requires a 6 hour drive, so like so many years in a row, I am taking the little time I have, rushing as fast as one can in thanksgiving traffic. Often I am late, or just in time for dinner. I eat, and then I pass out cold. I visit a little, and get back in the car to make it home for my next shift.

I am not saying this because I want pity, or anything like that. It comes after hearing countless comments like, “ooh, I wish I was at your thanksgiving, I’ll bet the food is so amazing.” Or even, “your family must get so many great desserts.”

The truth is, my family barely gets me. And it goes for most cooks. We work when you play, which means evenings, weekends, and holidays.

I dream of all the pies I would make for my family. The huge table I would set with room for my family and friends. The days I would prepare to make an amazing meal. The turkey I would brine, the side dishes familiar and new, the ooh’s and ahh’s and smiles I would give. Then the kitchen timer goes off, unrelenting in it’s reality, and I am pulled back into my daily schedule of cooking for customers instead.


Breaking down at night

Monday, November 12th, 2007

After every service comes to an end, and the cooks have been there for at least 8 hours, one thing is certain; they want to leave.What ever they want to do, have a beer, go home to their cat, go see their partner, go out for the night, they definitely don’t want to be in the kitchen any more. So putting everything away, packing up, or as we say, “breaking down a station” can be the only thing between you and what ever else it is you want.

Too often, this process is rushed, things are put away as quickly as possible. I was told very early, that it is a mark of you as a cook how well you break down your station. It takes more time to do it right, and giving up the extra time, showing restraint and not rushing to get out of the kitchen marks a better cook.

This means…

Make sure everything is wrapped, covered, encased in some way. The refrigerator is food’s enemy. It destroys it. However, if wrapped, covered, encased, the refrigerator preserves food.

Dont’ store ANYTHING in pots and pans.

Change out every container, putting food in clean vessels for storage overnight.

Rewrap anything that is stored covered in plastic wrap. Do not leave dirty plastic wrap covering anything. Dirty plastic wrap is garbage. Don’t leave a piece of garbage on your food.

Wipe down everything. Inside the fridge, outside the fridge, the walls behind your counter, the front of the stove, the handle to anything. Use hot soapy water, not just a wet side towel.

Throw away any bits of food you aren’t going to use. Don’t leave scraps of a cake you cut with the cake. Don’t leave a portion of meat you aren’t going to use with the meat you are going to use. Again, if you aren’t going to sell it, it’s garbage. Don’t leave garbage with your prep.

Inventory everything, and make your prep list the night before. You don’t want to set your station up before service the next day and say, “uh, I think I need hazelnuts.” It’s too late to do something about it before service. Make it a habit to do it as you break down.

Organize everything in the walk in, the freezer, your shelves, the low boy you keep your station set up in. Make it look like a grocery store.

Label things. Don’t leave until every container is properly marked as to what is inside it, and when you made it.

Live with this. If you are conscious of a better way to do it, and you aren’t doing it, then you aren’t doing it right. You are cutting corners, and the great chef’s out there don’t get there by cutting corners.

I know it takes more time than you want. I’ve been there. But if you truly want to excel in a kitchen, want to be an awesome cook, a great chef, then break your station down as best you can. It will mark you as a better cook, and show everyone around that you have a great respect for your station, the food, and your craft.

Dine Around Seattle

Monday, November 5th, 2007

It’s that time of year again, folks. Sure, time for holidays, nesting, hot cocoa, and all kinds of cold weather behavior. But it’s time again for Seattle’s biggest restaurant promotion. You knew it last march as “25 for 25″, but things have changed a bit.

For starters, the promotion is now being referred to by the public relations company that hosts it as “dine around Seattle”. (It may take me a while to stop saying 25 for 25). But the spirit of the promotion is the same, a cheap 3 course menu in Seattle’s favorite restaurants.

The numbers now total to 30 restaurants, and the 3 course menu is now 30 dollars, making it “30 for 30.” In addition to last years restaurants diners can now enjoy this promotion with the “bold original kitchen artistry” at BOKA in downtown Seattle, the Andean cuisine of Mixtura on the Eastside, old world Italian at Barolo, neighborhood dining at the 35th street bistro in Fremont, and visit little old me Veil.

The best change for me is their independent website. Now fully managed by the PR firm that runs it, I can fianlly use more than 50 characters to describe my desserts, and have the capability of changing them online during the month long event. In the past, a truncated description was given 3 months before the event. With no flexibility, the online menu often didn’t reflect what we were actually serving, as we changed things seasonally or according to our own whims.

You can guess that much of the kitchen banter has centered around this promotion. One topic has been Seattle’s “dine around” being born of Manhattan’s “restaurant week.” Our chef de cuisine spent 4 years with Jean George, and participated in the promotion there. Much like here, it becomes a balancing act of cost effective but delicious and impressive cuisine. Each dish must be quick to cook and plate to accommodate the high volume of orders, but look polished and beautiful as though the kitchen is cooking just for you. Each customer must be given extensive service, but not so much that it denies the very full dining room any attention. They must stay long enough to have a completely enjoyable meal, but finish and leave in time for the two other parties that have booked the table later in the evening. It’s a true exercise in efficiency. While many restaurants experience this kind of volume year round, it brings a flood of business to the rest of us on traditionally slow nights, sunday through thursday.

The irony, we all joked, is that this is the only time of the year when the cooks can actually afford to eat in many of these restaurants. Let me remind you that well paid cooks made about twelve dollars an hour, the starting wage is nine. If you are making fifteen dollars an hour you are either in a large corporate chain, or in a position of management, (or very lucky.) So the cooks at a fine dining establishment, where the average diner spends one hundred and fifty dollars per person for food and wine, simply can’t afford to eat there. After taxes, a meal at the restaurant we work at will cost us roughly two days pay. So you can bet we take advantage of this sweet deal.

Last year I had a meal at Nishino, a japanese restaurant way out of my price range, and at Yarrow Bay Grill, where the entire promotional menu was less expensive than a single entre from their dinner menu. This year I am planning on checking out Cascadia, a high priced establishment in Belltown that I have been curious about for some time now.

There has been some controversy over this promotion, voiced publicly by local restaurateur and chef Ethan Stowell. While the promotion brings large crowds to the participating restaurants during otherwise slow months, it leaves those restaurants not participating even slower. While I have seen some restaurants not officially participating in the event offer the same menu at the same price, they don’t benefit from any of the p.r. efforts which direct would be diners to those featured in printed and online publicity.

Veil is participating for the first time this year, and we have been tweaking the menu all month. I have just finished the development of a rosemary marshmallow enriched with brown butter for our celery root soup, and finally set my warm almond soup, a dish I had been struggling with as it was not born of my own conception.

Our menu offerings for the first 2 weeks follow. In two weeks time we will likely change things a bit, offering a few new dishes. In particular, a butternut chiffon will be entering the dessert menu. A chic version of pumpkin pie, a butternut custard is lightened with whipped cream, and set over a chocoalte hazelnut crust. It’s light and creamy, and lacks the slight bitterness I associate with pumpkin itself.

Celery Root Soup, sage marshmallow and balsamic vinegar
Roasted Beet Salad, hazelnut, herbs, and grapefruit confit
Hard Shell Squash Risotto, mascarpone and parmesan cheeses, chive oil

Drake Duck Confit , root vegetable hash, sherry vinegar and caramelized vegetable sauce
Ruby Trout, roasted yams, green apple, bacon, apple cider puree
Roasted Abalone Mushroom, curry potato pave and wild mushroom puree

Salted Peanut Butter Ice Cream, cocoa nib crunch, milk chocolate cremeux
Chocolate Fondant Cake, bittersweet caramel truffle, Cracker Jack
Warm Cream of Almond Soup, ceylon cinnamon, roasted pears, orange blossom cream

Creating within restrictions

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2007

When I came back from my long trip, walked into my kitchen prepared to return to work, I saw something that had me a little, well, miffed. The chef had submitted the menu items for a November promotion we are participating, desserts and all. Only he hadn’t asked me for my dessert submissions.

So what I saw on the menu had me a little ruffled. I expected to see two of them there, one an inherited dessert that will never leave my menu, salted peanut butter ice cream, and another of my own creation that has been on the menu for quite a while. But the third dessert, Warm Almond and Carnoli Rice Soup with Ceylon Cinnamon and Orange Blossom, was new. And all I could think was sneer and think, “That’s not my dessert.”

My snit didn’t last long, just until the chef explained he didn’t want to disturb my trip and just put something up there. Our chef, you see, is probably the most considerate person I have met, and it’s hard to be a snoot when he had your best intentions in mind.

As he was talking to me, I remembered how much I love to create with tight restrictions. This was something I loved about school, art classes in highschool, photography in college, and everything in culinary school.

You are given an assignment with boundries, and forced to find yourself within them. I always loved seeing the finished projects lined up next to eachother, seeing how vastly different each one was. Even within the tightest restrictions, everything reflected the individuality of the creator.

So after rereading the dessert that was not mine, I put my ego in check, and began to treat it like an assignment. How would I make an almond and rice soup? How will I incorporate the ceylon cinnamon and orange blossom flavors? And as the wheels started spinning, confined and restricted, I began to love this dessert.

It was something I wouldn’t have come to on my own. My desserts are deep in americana, nostalgic, heartfelt, playful and modern. Shannon’s desserts are classic with much french influence, comforting, ellegant, and simple.

I began testing variations on the almond soup, which in description is much like an almond horchata. In my research I have found a traditional Polish soup taking body from the almonds and rice, and a bit of acid from golden raisins. The addition of fruit makes me ask, can I add body with subtle roasted pears?

Questions still remain, do we toast the almonds or leave them raw? Will the flavor of raw almonds be as distinct warm as they are cold? How thick, viscous, dense do I want this soup to be, and what do I use to achieve that?

We have tested warm rice puddings to garnish the bowl before the warm soup is poured table side, deciding on one flavored with caramelized ceylon cinnamon sticks. Most exciting for me is the venture into the world of poached and steamed meringues. I have only read about them really. The recipes promise a soft, tender meringue much like a delicate marshmallow. Classically presented in a dish called Îles flottantes, or Floating Islands, these pillowy meringues float in a pool of vanilla creme anglaise. Because I am who I am, I spend more time diving into american classics than french, and I may never have pushed myself to make these on my own accord.

Now we are working on including the aroma of cinnamon, either from smoldering cinnamon sticks hidden between the soup bowl and it’s liner, or in an aromatic fog released by dry ice. Either way, a subtle cinnamon should tease your nose as you enjoy the warm soup.

The moral of this story is easy to see. I could have lost out on a chance to grow and expand due to a stubborn ego. It would have been an easy road to take. But it’s a nice reminder to myself that looking around the kitchen, everyone is unique, and each has something to offer that you wouldn’t have seen on your own.

Sourcing For You

Friday, September 7th, 2007

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.


Saturday, August 25th, 2007

veil outside

A lack of posting on my part can only mean one thing. I am working my butt off in a kitchen far away from computers and the internet. Yes folks, I have found a new home in a small, intimate fine dining restaurant in Seattle called Veil.

I ate at the restaurant durring its first few months of operation in december 2005, and found myself quite taken with the restaurant. The dinner was polished, well thought out, refined, beautiful, and everything tasted perfect. The dining room is one of the most beautiful I had ever seen. It quickly became my dream restaurant, with an aesthetic close to my own, and a type of cuisine to aspire to.

When I put things into perspective, that I was leaving a job because I was unhappy and didn’t want to feel that sting again any time soon, that I was not leaving Seattle anytime soon, and that I wanted to build off the inspiration found at WD-50 and recreate the environment of passion I thrived in at Lampreia, my path was clear. I wanted Veil.

When I use the fact that I am arriving at 8 in the morning and staying until late in the evening as evidence of my pure joy, you might think I am a bit crazy. But to have a place you can pour your heart out to, that inspires and drives you to give 100 percent, well that’s my dream.

I have been working on new desserts, plating them with the chef and then tearing them down. Again, you might think I am crazy to find joy in someone tearing my work apart daily. But each day I go back in, and work on making the dish stronger.

Which is where I am going right now, back into the fire to try a few things again, to recreate a few that I have found success in, and to work my butt off.

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.