Harvard SEAS lecture, 10/26/10, José Andrés

Overall impression of José Andrés? He is a wonderfully animated man and I really, really enjoyed his lecture.


Dave hosted the lecture last night.

I missed last week, but apparently the Recipe of the Week was aioli (last week’s theme was emulsions).

Tonight, the theme was “gelation and spherification” and the Recipe of the Week was spherification (I think the students will be working with pea soup as the liquid but I’m not totally sure).

José started with a slideshow of the history of gelation: the Egyptians used animal glue for building; the Irish have been using carragheen (aka carraghen) since the 14th century; the first recorded use of agar agar was in 1658 in Japan. Then we got into more modern examples of gelation: canning as a military discovery in France in 1810, gel caps for swallowing medicine in 1833 and, of course, finally Jell-O which was patented in 1845 but did not start to see success until starting in 1902 (talk about a study into marketing tactics).

José’s sense of humor was exhibited right off the bat. He started off by postulating that maybe Jesus walked on water by way of… agar agar. ^_^

But there are lots of different ingredients that you can use for gelation/spherification: pectin, methyl cellulose, gellan (made from bacteria!), carragheens like iota and kappa (seaweed), agar agar (seaweed again), and alginate. Once a chef comes up with a dish, he/she will have to test out different ingredients or combination of ingredients to find the best result.

After the slideshow, he showed short movies of recipes. The first was a clementine sorbet with pumpkin seed oil and clementine sauce. Clementines were blanched. Then they were cooked in syrup via sous-vide. Once done, you could carefully slice a small X into the bottom of the clementines and remove individual segments of fruit without disturbing the clementine skin any further. The clementine meat was eventually made into a sorbet and piped back into the skins while pumpkin seeds were caramelized twice. Plate and serve.

The next recipe movie was for strawberry mousse.

I noticed that José never used the term “molecular gastronomy” but instead called it “avant-garde cooking.” It wasn’t some strange voodoo cooking method as far as he was concerned.  Rather, why be content with gels at cold temperatures? Why can’t we have a hot gel? José’s interests in avant-garde cooking are centered around the guest’s reaction. Yes, he could serve you a traditional mousse but he was of the opinion that you can make that at home and he is in the business to wow you. Even during the clementine video, he was jokingly shouting out “LOOK HOW SEXY THAT IS!” But he also wants to you to think upon the food before eating. He recommended that we “go home. Take some Jell-O and put it in the microwave. Press 1 and see what happens.”

So, going back to the mousse, he pointed out that it’s made from 50% strawberries and heavy cream. Why only 50% strawberries? Why not 100%? Then he told us to promptly forget what he just asked us because his strawberry mousse video did utilize some heavy cream (if I understood correctly, the fat content is required for the liquid nitrogen he uses in this recipe). In the video, a strawberry puree mixed with syrup and cream was strained and then put into a CO2 canister. The resulting foam-ball was dusted with dried strawberry powder before dropped into liquid nitrogen. The result? The outside was frozen but the inside turned into a creamy mousse. It was hard not to laugh when José ended this portion of the lecture by saying “This is serious business!… Who chose this music? ah, I need to do everything… I know [the audience] is going to have a lot of questions… It’s good to pretend that you don’t understand [English].”

The third recipe video, I must admit, is one that I would love to try: coconut steam bun!
Methyl cellulose is added to water and brought to a boil. Meanwhile, some coconut is juiced. The coconut juice is mixed with sugar, the methyl cellulose base, and xanthan gum. Put the whole thing in a CO2 canister. The resulting foam is steamed for 90 seconds. When it’s done, you have coconut dish with a bread-like texture! (ooh, this would be perfect for my gluten-free brother-in-law.)

José took a short break from the videos to explain a bit about minibar, one of his restaurants. Like Grant Achatz’s Alinea, minibar serves many tasting dishes (I believe it’s 36 dishes) but José makes sure that each dish only focuses on one main ingredient. Whereas Alinea wants to provide a dining experience on all the senses, minibar has a more simplified approach.

The next video was feta ravioli with turkish tomatoes. Feta brine, water, gellan, and agar agar are boiled together. The mix is spread thinly on a tray with the excess mix poured off. When it’s cooled, it becomes a clear skin that is feta-flavored. This is cut out into precise rounds, filled with feta, and then folded to make our feta-raviloi. The Turkish tomatoes (which are small) are carmalized and served on the side of the ravioli.

Instead of a video, next José explained the image of his deconstructed white wine which was being displayed on the screens between videos. Wines are often described with images or flavors of other things. For example, to quote a random wine website, “Chardonnay wines are… with rich citrus (lemon, grapefruit) flavors. Fermenting in new oak barrels adds a buttery tone (vanilla, toast, coconut, toffee).” José picked out the edible flavors in the description of a white wine. He made a white wine gel and then top around the edge of the gel those edible flavor ingredients used to describe said white wine. So, maybe a chardonnay gel would have lemon zest, grapefruit zest, vanilla, toast, coconut and toffee carefully laid out. When served, you’d be instructed to eat a bit of gel with one ingredient at a time, and then move around like hands on a clock.

He showed us a video of cheese egg (looks like an egg but it’s an egg yolk surrounded by gelled Parmesan cheese water), followed by a video of lemon chicken (lemon syrup with agar agar is made into lemon caviar – the lemon caviar is then dressed with a chicken demi-glace sauce and served in a crispy chicken skin, topped with rosemary foam).

The last video was corn on the cob. Corn juice and agar agar are mixed and used to fill fat straws. In the meantime water and methyl cellulose are boiled together. Baby corn kernels are mixed into the methyl cellulose base, and spread thinly. This spread is used to fold over the corn juice core, and shaped into baby corns. Dress and serve. So, you get a baby corn that’s not quite the baby corn it started out as.

To end the lecture, José launched into a serious discussion on hunger issues (he is specializing in cooking methods against hunger). Recently, he’s been working with solar kitchens in Haiti. Food relief doesn’t just mean giving free food to those who need it. We need to be more self-conscious about giving because it can also mean the chance to support local farming and local business. The greater good would be to make sure that people are cooking the food they buy locally which in turn supports their community.  Food relief is connected to economic issues. It’s connected to environmental issues.  By finding other methods of cooking (removing charcoal as a cooking source and any other environmentally harming sources), we can help our society.

José is in the middle of developing black pressure cookers to be used in a solar kitchen (in his developing trials, he’s able to boil two gallons of water in 40 minutes) and, if all goes well, it sounds like they will be manufactured by Fagor (the leading appliance manufacturer in Spain). I wish him much luck in this endeavor.

All in all, the night was a fun, tantalizing, and thought-provoking. A huge thank you to José Andrés for coming to Harvard University to talk to us about cooking.