Harvard SEAS lecture, 10/11/10, Grant Achatz, part 1

Monday October 11, 2010

Reinventing Food Texture & Flavor
Speaker: Grant Achatz (Alinea)
Location: Science Center B

FYI – Grant Achatz had a lot of interesting things to say. So, I’m splitting up this lecture follow up in two or three parts for easier reading.

There was something really inspirational about watching clips of the meals that are made at Alinea.

Anyway, I knew that I did not want to miss Grant Achatz, founder and chef at Alinea, at last night’s SEAS lecture. Alinea (pronounced as ah-lin-ee-ah), located in Chicago, is some place that I would love, love, LOVE to have a chance to dine at. Like how I would love to dine at El Bulli. However, El Bulli is closed/is closing so that’s one food related destination that I won’t be able to fulfill ever. But dining at Alinea is a more reachable dream as a plane ticket to Chicago is going to be less painful on my savings account than a plane ticket to Spain.

I was there with my friend R*. I got to the Science Center first, and she was only a few minutes behind me, but I panicked for a bit there. I didn’t know how big lecture hall B was. R* was amazed at the attendance size. It was 6pm and there were already at least 100 people in line. It turned about the hall B was almost twice the size of hall D, so everyone was able to fit into the room comfortably. Upon entering, everyone got a Le Creuset magnet (Le Creuset is one of the sponsors of the class) and a little take-out box with a little container of some strange, flakey brown stuff and an envelope with some unknown pungent liquid.

Lecturer Mike started things off. The upcoming recipe of the week is homemade ricotta cheese. Students have not started this yet as they are studying for exams. The actual topic of the week is “Protein unfolding and coagulation.” Basically, “cooking” food via heat/acidity/salt concentration/sheer forces (whisking).

You can poach an egg in vinegar. The recipe example was http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Poached-Eggs-236720 (aside: you can try to strip all the ads and comments from the page for a Harvard slideshow but the template format of epicurious is pretty easy recognize if you’ve visited the site enough times). You can heavily salt an egg, let it sit underground, and let it “cook” to get a Century Egg (century eggs were something I could never get into growing up and still can’t).

In the end, Mike had some formula involving hydrophobicity, entropy, and electrostatics as our equation of the week to explain at what point the proteins of interest did their thing. (I never knew hydrophobicity was a word.)

Somewhere in there, Mike also showed us an image of Enric Rovira making a chocolate house for the lab students.

And onto Alinea and Grant Achatz!

In a phrase? Food pr0n! Seriously. The Alinea intro video was filled with lush images that made you sit up and take notice. As for the rest of the lecture, Grant had split his images into categories and sub-categories.

The first topic of discussion? Smell. Flavoring with aroma. Grant gave us visuals first: food skewered on a vanilla bean so that the customer inhales the scent of vanilla as they go to take a bit of food off the “skewer”; cinnamon smoking on a plate served with bison; rosemary which adorns the dining table is moved to a hot brick with lamb so the scent becomes more powerful with the hotter temperatures. As inventive as that all is, the audience quickly learned that Grant likes to go the extra step with his developments. Grant believes that memories can enhance flavor. Case in point – burning oak leaves is a childhood memory of Grant’s while growing up in Michigan. So on top of using fresh ingredients of the season, he might/will use seasonal smells to enhance his dishes. He took oak branches and served them with pheasant, roasted shallot, and apple cider gelee. The oak leaves are torched prior to being served.

Then he asked the audience if a tomato tastes more like a tomato in the summer. He expanded the thought with “if you blindfolded someone and served them an heirloom tomato and then a plain old beefsteak tomato with the scent of fresh cut grass, which one will taste better?” It was an interesting thought. We were allowed to pick up our envelope with the clear liquid out of the box and then asked to identify it. It turned out we had concentrated “freshly cut grass” – thank you, rotary evaporator. (The scent was so concentrated that it confused the noses on many audience members. Like another member, I thought it was “pear”… I was wrong but now I’m wondering if anyone has plated pear with freshly cut grass in some form.) At Alinea, there was a dish where the scent of grass was filled into a plastic pillow. The pillow was then punctured a few times with a syringe. When served, the plate of food (it was probably some kind of tomato dish) was placed on top of the pillow, and the weight of the plate slowly pushed the scent of grass out.

Next, Grant introduced us to some unusual flavor combinations: 1) Chamomile tea, honey, lemon and striped bass. He sees chamomile tea as an herb and not as a tea. 2) A dessert dish of olive oil ice cream, a pudding made from the brine of olives, an almond cookie, and orange sorbet. 3) Watermelon and aiyu. Aiyu is a Japanese fish and is also known as watermelon fish. Apparently this fish smells like watermelon. So, Grant went ahead and served the two together.

One of my favorite parts of the lecture was when Grant explained one of the exercises his kitchen does in order to come up with new dishes – flavor bouncing. Basically, you take your main ingredient, and make a laundry list of ingredients that pair well. You decide which support ingredients you want to use and then make sure that it pairs well with the other support ingredients you want to use. For example, Grant wrote “white beans” in the center of a piece of paper. White beans pairs well with “pancetta/bacon/ham”. What goes with pancetta/bacon/ham? Apples can. Can apples also combine well with white beans? Sure. Maple pairs well with apple, but it also pairs well with bacon and again with white beans. Beer? Ok. It can pair with white beans; it can pair with apple; it can pair with bacon. Maybe mackerel will pairs well with apple, but ham and mackerel, maybe not so leave it out. Eventually, Grant and his staff developed a dish that followed this picture. The main white bean dish was centered on a plate and supporting ingredients were place around like numbers on the face of a watch. You started eating your plate by dipping your spoon in the center and out push out to six o’clock for a supporting ingredient, and take a bite. Dip your spoon in the center and then push out to seven o’clock, and take a bite. Continue until you’ve eaten from all the different supporting ingredients.

Coming up next? Texture and unconventional ingredients!

part 2 here

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