Archive for the ‘WD 50’ Category

The Flavor of Color

Saturday, April 5th, 2008

It is a fact that color has a drastic effect on your perception of flavor. The information received from our eyes will lead us to anticipate a flavor based on the color of a food or beverage, and that initial assumption can over ride the information we receive from our taste buds and olfactory system.

At The Fat Duck Heston served a disk of gelee, orange on one side, maroon on the other. The diner was instructed to taste each side of the gelee individually without being told the flavor. This little bite stopped people in their tracks. They were tasting orange and beets, but the red side was blood orange, and the orange side was golden beet. The recognition of the two familiar flavors opposing their expected colors teased the diner a bit, forcing them to recognize how strongly we associate a particular flavor with a color.

In Elementary school, our teacher gave us an experiment; blindfold our partner and give them two small cups, one filled with seven-up, the other filled with coca-cola. They were required to tell us which was which based simply on taste. In our youthful arrogance we laughed, positive we could tell. I mean come on, cola is like, so obviously a different flavor than lemon-lime. Duh. We tasted away, and our crumbling confidence became a new source of amusement as child after child was stumped. Without the dark color telling us what cola was, we couldn’t distinguish the sodas from each other.

Last week I was working on a bubble gum ice cream base for a dish coming out this spring. Not only am I flavoring the ice cream like bubble gum, but I am coloring it pink as well. As I had the cooks taste the nameless pink cream and tell me what flavor it was, all but one agreed it tasted just like they remembered bubble gum tasting. Ironically no one had tasted bubble gum in years, myself included.

Brian however, looked pained when I gave him a spoon of the pink fluid. He asked why I was giving him pepto bismol. After a little prodding and a promise that is was indeed something I made he put the spoon in his mouth.

He grimaced and said, “Yup, that tastes just like pepto bismol. It is, isn’t it. Why did you make me eat that.”

As soon as we stopped laughing and told him it was bubble gum, he relaxed his face and said, “Oh yeah, it is bubble gum.” His initial assumption that the spoonful was going to taste like the chalky pink fluid, based solely on color, was so strong that his olfactory gave in and agreed. It didn’t matter how strong the bubble gum flavor was, his eyes told him pepto bismol and that was that.

I will admit that the sauce was too brightly colored. A little color goes a looonnnnggg way. When diners do see my bubble gum ice cream, on a plate with strawberry covered bananas and a vanilla cream filled sponge cake, it will be shades lighter than what I was feeding my cooks. We wouldn’t want anyone tasting pepto bismol ice cream.

It sparked a conversation about the preconception of flavor based simply on color, and I told them about my own experiment I did earlier last year.

I made a fresh sour cherry sauce that while stunning in flavor, was an off brown color. I split the sauce into two batches, and colored one with a bit of red food coloring. Two drops changed the dull brown color into a bright, vibrant red, much the color of the unprocessed cherries themselves. I had the cooks I worked with taste both and tell me which one tasted better, citing a difference in method as the reason for the color variation.

Cook after cook named the bright red cherry sauce as the better of the two. Way better, hands down above and beyond, they all said in their own words. To them, the bright red was an indicator of real cherry flavor, a better product, better handling, thus the sauce tasted better.

This brings up a deeper question. If the two sauces were identical in flavor, one only varying by the addition of two drops of color, then could one possibly taste better than the other? In fact the sauces were the same composition of flavor and texture, but in perception they were different, so which one is true?

At WD-50 I was surprised to find bottles of coloring mixed in with the dry stores. But Alex’s argument was that people will perceive something to taste better if it is colored they way they expect it to be. Case in point was the sweet avocado sauce served with the soft chocolate dish. As the sauce was processed, it would begin to brown a bit, straying from our concept that avocados are green. One drop of color helped this sauce, made daily from fresh avocados, retain it’s identity as fresh avocado. No matter how fresh the sauce actually was, the faded color would lead the diner to assume it was passing it’s prime, and that information would change their perception of the flavor.

It’s a very strong argument for using coloring in your food, a practice that once seemed blasphemous. Color won’t hide the fact that your food doesn’t taste good, but it can help you ensure that your diners are perceiving the flavors in your dishes as you intended them to be.

Today’s Secret Ingredient…. Heat

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2008

I wish with everything in my little cooks heart that Harold McGee wrote for the NY Times every Wednesday.

This week we are treated to an introduction to an ingredient every cook uses every day with very little understanding. In this weeks article, he talks about heat.

Having been in the kitchens I have been in,  I have been exposed a bit to the thought of better using heat to cook foods.  Take sous vide, a word that we hear thrown around with trendy modern food is actually an exercise in the most efficient manner to apply heat to food.  Yes, the method of putting food in vacuum sealed bags and cooking it in water has been used for a few decades now.  However it’s the more recent study into how the energy of heat changes and effects the molecules in our food that resurrected this method from the depths of reheating catered dinners, introduced perfectly controlled thermobaths from laboratories, and brought it to the forefront of haute cuisine.

While much of the study of heats effects on food relate to meat cookery, where our use of the energy is at it’s most inefficient, the application I found most interesting was for potatoes.

Almost every restaurant has mashed potatoes on their menu.  It seems to be a game of chasing the white rabbit, that of making the perfect, fluffiest, creamiest, mashed potatoes.  We as cooks hear legend of different kitchens and their ethereal potatoes, like Joel Robechons, “passed through the tammis 5 times!  Mounted with twice their weight in butter!”  Every kitchen has their spin on making theirs better.

At WD-50 I saw something done to the potatoes that makes a cook scream, “yes!” A method of cooking the potatoes with an explanation using true understanding of the molecules inside the potatoes and the effects of heat on them.

The potatoes are peeled, sliced, and cooked in a water bath at 65 degrees celsius for 30 minutes.  The potatoes are transferred to an ice bath to cool completely.  At this point the potatoes are still crisp, seemingly unchanged.  Once cooled, the potatoes are cooked just as you would have had you just peeled them.  If the potatoes are seemingly unchanged, you might ask what on earth did they just do?

Well, working with a method used by the commercial mashed-potatoes-in-a-box companies, they use just enough heat to cause the starch granules inside the potatoes to swell.  Think of these granules as little sacks of starch molecules.  They absorb water, and the starches inside grow.  If they are mishandled, or bounced around by too much energy, say that of boiling water, these little bags break open freeing all those starch molecules.  These rouge starches are now free to retrograde, recrystallize and cross-link forming long gummy chains.  This is not good.

So, after cooking the potatoes in gentle heat, just long enough to make these starch bags swell, the potatoes are then cooled in an ice bath.  The starch in the potatoes are allowed to recrystallize, or retrograde.

Wait, didn’t we just say that was bad?  Well, it’s bad when the starches aren’t contained.  Because of the gentle application of moderate heat those little starch sacks are intact with swollen starches inside.  The ice bath forces these starches to retrograde, gel, set, what every you may, inside their sack.  Retrograde is permanent.  The starches are now cemented into place safely inside their granules, and you can now cook the potatoes with a more aggressive heat, and break apart the starch sacks by mashing and passing through a tammis, processing the potato.  You can manipulate these particles into a nice smooth, even mashed potato with out risk of releasing the starches from their containment.  No gummy paste, no stringy gluey mashed potatoes.

And the best part?  You can cool the mashed potatoes, and reheat them for service with no change in texture.

Pretty cool, huh?

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???

Controlling Water

Monday, October 22nd, 2007

A little birdy once told me that all these modern techniques boil down to the simple act of controlling water molecules. Well, it wasn’t really a little birdy, it was Alex Stupak, but he dropped this bombshell in my ear with the casual effect of a little bird chirping their daily song.

With no prompt, he said simply, “You know, it’s really just about controlling water,” and walked away.

This simple phrase had the power of a plot changing hollywood one liner, too few words with more effect than realistically possible, delivered at a turning point at which you can see the characters shift indelibly. These words have shifted me.

These “magic white powders” that are given to modern technique, xanthan gum, gellan gum, agar agar, and various modified starches, are simply put, controlling water. And by controlling water, we are controlling texture.

While this fact was a revelation to me, what was even more thought provoking, was how much of my pastry work up to this point was based off controlling water. And it’s not just me folks, it’s you too.

Cornstarch, something familiar to every pantry is the modern staple in a long line of water controlling white powders used by home cooks for hundreds of years. Before that, home cooks were familiar with dry powdered potato starch and arrowroot starch as well. We use these starches to thicken things like gravy, and pudding. What we are doing is introducing little round starch molecules that when heated, absorb water and swell. These chubby little starches begin to crowd each other and move around lazily, much slower than the tiny swift water molecules. The end result is a thickening, or a specific change in texture do to the controlling of water molecules.

Gelatin, another ingredient familiar to professionals and home cooks alike is a simple act of controlling water. A vast web of gelatin protiens traps water, thus stiffening it. Pectin again is used to jell fruit juices to make jelly, a process that encourages the sugar chains to fold and entrap water. Even without additional pectin, we have learned to take fruits naturally high in the substance and cook them until jellied. From french cooking we have learned to cook butter and flour together to make roux, a thickening substance we rely on for so many traditional sauces. We even control water by simply eliminating it through reduction.

Most recognizable is controlling water by freezing it. Every home has a freezer, and we use it extensively for preservation. But countless times have I seen cooks throw something in the freezer before they cut it, a simple act of hardening the water making it more manageable. The entire process of ice cream, gelato, sorbet and granita is attributed to slowly creating ice crystals while agitating them, gaining a specific texture. Popsicles, even simpler, are a favorite treat made by temporarily solidifying the water in a fruit juice through freezing.

Where would our thanksgiving table be without jellied cranberries and gravy? Who hasn’t curbed their hunger with a little snack of jell-o or pudding? What freezer has never seen ice cream?

It’s clear our desire to control the water in our foods runs deep through professional and home kitchens, and back through time. Thus it’s easy to see that this fundamental fact of modern cuisine, controlling water and texture, is a core fact in all cooking. Whether you are using new white powders unfamiliar to most outside the commercial food industry, or old ones that you first saw in your grandma’s pantry, it’s a fact of the kitchen. As long as there is water to control, we will do just that.

Modern Roots

Tuesday, August 14th, 2007

While looking for a new position and spending countless hours talking to various people, I am beginning to feel a bit like a broken record. The same questions are pressed to me at each stop, the same words string from my mouth in answer.

Hearing something for the third time, I realized how ingrained into my philosophy this truth was. I was describing my experiences interning in two very modern kitchens, The Fat Duck and WD-50, and this conclusion.

Modern cuisine is as rooted in classic cuisine as any other kitchen. I feel like the attention grabbing modern methods and techniques are simply the tip of the iceberg. The top peeking out of a massive structure of very grounded classic cooking.

Heston made the point of perception, saying that something modern will look much more so when seen next to something traditional, and vice versa. The tradition of a dish shines when playfully paired with something highly modern.

I used one of my favorite dishes at WD-50 to make my example. The dish was a bowl filled with a crystal clear steaming broth with 3 white orbs bobbing about at the bottom. The orbs contained a warm liquid encapsulated in a thin and tender pectin membrane that burst in the mouth with a little pressure from the tongue to the mouths roof. A wafer thin toast cracker rested on the rim of the bowl holding another capsule and creating a visual aesthetic in the vain of ikea’s minimalistic clean lines.

But the flavors were that of french onion soup, as classic as it comes. The broth, a roasted onion consume was rooted in traditional flavor and made with a classic raft, albeit I seem to remember the protein of the traditional egg white was traded for something from the shelf, meat glue perhaps? The orbs contained intense bursts of roasted Gruyere, and the wafer thin toasts represented the toasted bread that usually sogs above the soup. The modern presentation needed to be set over a deep understanding of the classic dish, just as modern cooking comes from chefs who have a deep understanding of cuisine as a whole.

I often think starting my awareness of this modern movement at The Fat Duck was a stroke of luck. I say this because their use of molecular gastronomy is so subtle that much of it goes unnoticed. Hestons cuisine showed his attachment to the traditions of British food as much as his research into molecular gastronomy.

His dish of bacon and egg ice cream certainly garnered media attention, but it’s placement in a dessert replicating a plate of full English, the traditional British breakfast of bacon, eggs, beans, and tomatoes grounded it and gave the odd flavored ice cream context. The bacon and egg ice cream may have been the media darling of this dish, but it sat aside an outstanding baton of “pain perdu” or french toast. This traditional element to the dish was made from a piece of brioche soaked in a traditional custard and cooked in a series of classic techniques. It was this traditional component, along with a roasted tomato jam, candied bacon bits, and dots of maple syrup that rooted the unusually modern bacon and egg ice cream in place.

It seems to me that modern kitchens are often dismissed as only that. But honestly, they seem just as, if not more grounded in tradition than many kitchens claiming to be traditional. My conclusion and the words that have been stringing again and again from my mouth are that tradition holds modern cuisine in context, therefor its just as important to me to look back as it is to look forward.

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.

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.