Harvard SEAS lecture, 10/3/11, Grant Achatz and Craig Schoettler

Technically, tonight’s lecture was about texture and mouth feel, but really it was about the cocktails at Grant Achatz’s bar/lounge in Chicago. And since, it’s Grant Achatz we’re talking about, he doesn’t like limiting himself to the ordinary. “Why must cocktails be served in glass? Do cocktails need to be liquids?” You get the idea. And when cocktails have re-emerged as the new hip thing, how does one go about setting themselves apart? How does one go about making this about the experience overall?

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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

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