Harvard SEAS lecture, 10/11/10, Grant Achatz, part 2 of 2

Continuing with texture…

Grant wondered at the audience “How do we manipulate ingredients?”

For example, temperature contrast. One of the dishes served at Alinea starts with a bowl of paraffin wax made in the kitchen. Cold potato (or was it pea?) soup and hot potato gnocchi-like but spherical dumplings are prepared separately. A pin is inserted to the wall of the wax bowl and until the beginning of the pin has gone through the wall completely. The cold soup fills the wax bowl; some soup ingredients are skewered on the pin; and the hot potato dumpling is suspended at the end of the pin. Upon serving, the guest is instructed to pull the pin out so that all ingredients drop into the bowl and then slurp the whole thing back. The point? It’s a way to serve something cold and something hot at the exact same instant.

Then, we got to play with the brown flaky substance that came in our take-out box. What was it? Dry caramel! Grant and his assistant demonstrated this live. You place caramel, which is normally sticky and chewy, in a food processor with tapioca maltodextrin and give it a whirl. When you’re done, the caramel has become a powder, light and fluffy, the complete textural opposite of normal caramel. Upon getting rehydrated (ie saliva in our mouth), the caramel turns back into its original form.

Grant does the same texture play with salad. Traditionally, salad is meant to be a palette cleanser after a meal and before dessert. But salad requires a lot of chewing and Grant thinks a palette cleanser should disappear in our mouths. So, his kitchen juices salad greens, seasons with salt and pepper, and freezes it. The salad is then forked up like a granita and served. And like granita, it melts in your mouth until it disappears.

Chocolate! omg I want a bite of this particular Alinea presentation. A silicone table cloth is put over the guests’ table so that the chefs can plate dessert directly onto the table. It starts with milk chocolate mousse put into something like a foam dispenser. With the help of some liquid nitrogen, the mousse is frozen as it is shot out of the dispenser in its foamy state. By the time, the mousse is fully frozen, the table has been plated with various chocolates and sauces. The mousse is them chipped in front of the guests. The texture is crispy and crunchy. As the guests eat, the mousse slowly melts back into its original state and enjoyed that way too. Watching the video clip on this? It was like a dance, a work of art. The setting of the table has been timed to the mousse, and there was nary a pause from the hands of the chefs’ to the point where it was mesmerizing. I wish I could see this action in person.

There was a clip about [1] making raspberry glass (cook down with sugar, add pectin, spread thinly on a sheet, dehydrate, cut out your shapes, dehydrate again, and the final product is quite brittle), [2] making pineapple/bacon lozenges (I think it was bacon infused cream, treated with tapioca maltodextrin, and shaped into a tablet – the tablet was wrapped in a pineapple sheet made in a similar manner as the raspberry glass. When the guest bites into it, the crispy pineapple gives way to the bacon center which becomes creamy again upon contact with saliva), and [3] huckleberry/candy cane/cranberry “gum” (ingredients are frozen until they reach a chewy state much like gum – the guest chews it like gum but it eventually melts back into a liquid in the mouth).

What else can you find at Alinea? Unconventional ingredients. The first example is pine tree as an ingredient. The essence of pine is captured via rotary evaporator and then used in making something like a sorbet. This pine tree sorbet is served with matsutake mushroom (apparently matsutake has a symbiotic relationship with pine trees), or maybe served with mango.

The second example is hay. Grant claims that hay when toasted smells a lot like hazelnuts. So at Alinea, they infused the toasted hay into cream and made a crème brulee (which they have cheekily named “hay brulee”).

Same thing with tobacco. Infuse tobacco leaves into cream for a custard. You can serve the custard with peppercorn, blackberry, and mint.

But why stop there? Grant has made a stock of apple wood boiled in water.

This led the presentation into cocktails. At The Aviary (Alinea’s chef-driven cocktail lounge), they’ve been experimenting with a superchiller would be an alcohol that has been chilled below its freezing point in liquid form, and it becomes slushy has the bottle is tipped out into your glass. There’s a gin+tonic idea that looks an awful lot like bubble tea, but the idea is that the bubbles could be a completely different encapsulated drink to give you a drink within a drink. They’ve been playing with gin+tonic powders and alcoholic pudding. In a nutshell, Alinea sees no reason why cocktails need to be a drink in liquid form.

When the cocktail portion was over, Grant talked about color. Does color influence flavor? Will food look more appetizing if it’s plated against complementary colors? One could go as far as to make the service staff change the color of their jackets depending on what is being served. It was a visual idea that I never thought much about.

That was pretty much the end of the lecture. The Q&A portion had some pretty interesting questions from the audience. The question I liked best was “You’ve named a lot of thicking agents… What three ingredients should I add to my pantry if I want to start experimenting [with molecular gastronomy]?” Grant’s answer was xanthum gum, carrageenans, and agar agar.

During the Q&A, Grant also expressed that sometimes we over-think creativity. Someone asked what aroma he failed at capturing. He said the smell of a fire burning in the fireplace. Eventually, he simplified it the idea completely… and just sent a burning log out into the serving room. (^_^)

After the lecture, Grant was available for book signings. As much as I would like to buy the Alinea cookbook and have him sign it, I’m going to be spending a lot of money in January for my first trip to Europe *cough*tostudyfashionrelatedstuff*cough* so I didn’t plunk down the $43 to buy the book at the signing table. I was of hoping that it would be another lottery system to win the books but, alas and alack, it was not. Oh well.

However, I definitely want a chance to dine at Alinea now. Anyone want to buy me a round-trip plane ticket? 😉

~ Mikan

part 1 here