Category Archives: Modernism

NYPL: Achatz And Myhrvold

Sadly, I had this post mostly written for the better part of a year. I finally sat down, listened to the audio again and finished the post. It is important to note that this reflects my understanding and take on their conversation, and I am may have unintentionally misrepresented them.

As mentioned previously, I had the privilege of attending “WIRED & LIVE present GRANT ACHATZ & NATHAN MYHRVOLD Moderated by Mark McClusky The Cutting Edge: Tales from the Culinary Frontier” way back in october. Of all the events I have attended recently, this was the only one with really good moderation. In attendance, I saw Jeffrey Steingarten, Tim Zagat, Alex and Aki from IDEAS IN FOOD, and even one of the teachers from cooking school. Best part of all of this is: you can listen to it yourself. Don’t want to listen to it? Here were my take-aways:

On The Beast That Shall Not Be Named

Mark was pretty relentless in trying to get Grant and Nathan to discuss the labeling of this style of food. Molecular Gastronomy, Modernism, Techno Emotional Cuisine… call it what you will. They managed to avoid putting a label on it, citing how different the cuisine is between the chefs that play in this sandbox. However, Nathan described the Modernism/Molecular Gastronomy as a movement instead of a style, comparing it to art and architecture. I really liked this analogy. A lot.

Some of defining characteristics of this movement:

  1. breaking rules and making the diner think.
  2. drawing inspiration from science.
  3. novelty, originality and invention.

He went on to say:


A lot of this kind of food doesnt necessarily have to be delicious. […] great poems aren’t always fun to read, they aren’t always happy.

Where is it ok to make someone think, to give a dish that may not be conventionally delicious but as part of the dialogue with the diner evokes thoughts or emotions versus just saying every single thing has to be finger looking good. Making profound food is not the same as making totally delicious food. […]

A lot of the food that is done in this new style, like a poem, plays on an earlier theme, has the equivalent of a literary reference, makes a culinary joke or counterpoint.

While Grant didn’t really reply, I have to believe that his goal is to do both. I think one of the most challenging things about being a chef is that their art has to be delicious. A restaurant has to survive long enough for someone to be able to look back on it and remember its genius. Another thing that makes this period of time exciting for me is that restaurant culture (for all of its downsides), has given more and more diners the language to understand these references and emotional touchstones. As a result, chefs can produce more challenging food, and still succeed.

On Alinea, Chicago and Spain

In Grant’s intro he described his background, in which he dropped this little gem:


… manipulating and controlling a period of time in people lives, to try to evoke emotion. Doing this through food, through service, through ambiance was very exciting to me.

This quote really put my dinner at Alinea into perspective. My meal at Alinea literally challenged me from every direction. Now I think the meal was over four hours long, but I was more intellectually exhausted by the end of my meal.

They also delved into the fact that this kind of cuisine is being driven out of Chicago more than any other city. In fact, Nathan actually said:

ny is a backward hick kind of place when it comes to this type of modern food

They both gave huge credit to Charlie Trotter and the alumni of his kitchen (and others) for opening Chicagoan’s minds. Grant and Nathan both basically stated that Spain is the new France.

Leading me to tweet:

france : spain :: new york : chicago

Sous Vide

Sous-vide was a thread that ran through the conversation. There were questions about botulism, the NYC health department and whether or not sous-vide would enter the home.

Turns out the number of US botulism fatalities in a year is unbelievably small (and by small I mean 2-3), with a disproportionate number of cases coming from Alaska. That doesn’t mean we should throw caution to the wind, but the concerns are overblown.

The NYC health department has draconian requirements that are more strict than both US FDA and EU standards. The result is that it discourages restaurants from utilizing the technique. As of August 2008, 19 restaurants were approved by the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Nathan didn’t think it would be as common as the microwave, but Grant countered that there is “level of convenience that hasnt been explored” with sous-vide. gachatz went on to talk about prepackaged food designed for SV and that PolyScience working on a kitchen sink that doubles as an immersion circulator.

nathanm had a great response to the concerns that sous-vide will take the soul out of cooking:

What you want to be a thermostat for a living?

I can’t actually write any more. I have listened to bits and pieces of this talk a bazillion times. You owe it to yourself (and me) to listen to it once.

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Spherification and Molecular Gastronomy

A lot people involved in Molecular Gastronomy (the modern cooking revolution, Modernism, Molecular Cooking, Techo-Emoti{ve,onal} Cooking) use the term spherification to describe the technique of forming food into spheres. Some folks hate the term Molecular Gastronomy (for many reasons, some good, some bad) and rail against its use to describe a style of cooking. A lot of energy is expended debating the term, or attempting to change this part of the culinary zeitgeist.

While it rails against one word, it invents another. That’s right. Spherification is not a word. The closest Merriam Webster provides (in Mar. 2009) is:

sphere
Function: transitive verb
Inflected Form(s): sphered; spher·ing
Date: 1602
1 : to place in a sphere or among the spheres : ensphere
2 : to form into a sphere

Do I really care about this? No, I actually like that language is fluid and that made up words can become real words.

Up next, actual spherification sphering.

Keller And Ruhlman: Under Pressure

I went to see Michael Ruhlman and Thomas Keller converse about sous vide at the Astor Center. I think it was worth going to if you didn’t know much about the subject. I have become far more literate on the subject than I had thought.

The space and facilities at Astor Center continue to make for the best venue to attend food related events in New York City. Ruhlman and Keller were fun to watch, even if Ruhlman did occaisionally sound like the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer from Saturday Night Live:

“Mr. Keller, you mean to tell me that you seal food in plastic bags and put them in hot water? Won’t we die of botulism or PVC poisoning? Your modern cooking techniques frighten and confuse me. Which demons did you sell your soul to in order to remove all of the oxygen from that bag.”

Yes, I know, this was a softball so that Keller could hit a home run on the safety answer for a crowd that probably does think like The Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer. It was still entertaining.

Usually I think of sous vide as a temperature precise poach utilizing vaccuum sealed product. Keller’s definition of sous-vide was broader than that, and slightly more focused on ‘things you can do with vacuum sealing’:


  1. Storage. Everyone is familiar with this. Vacuum sealing is common in food that we buy in grocery stores.
  2. Compression. Utilizing professional vacuum sealers to break down food by putting it under even amounts of pressure. You cannot achieve this with food savers/seal-a-meals.
  3. Marination. Utilizing a vacuum sealed environment to increase the effectiveness and reduce the amount of time of marination.
  4. Cooking. The classic sous-vide definition (see above, or see this post).

Keller is not a fan of seal a meal or foodsaver. Not enough of a seal and can’t handle liquid. He doesn’t recommend them. Of course, he is Thomas-fucking-Keller.

Keller did say that he thinks sous vide for the home will be available in applianceform within 5 years. Which is something I totally agree with. Of course, he has the advantage of having spoken to Kenmore and Viking about the subject.

The book is beautiful, and I am sure I am going to learn a lot when I read the whole thing. At first glance, it isn’t particularly useful for the home chef, even the ones forward thinking enough to own an immersion circulator or a PID controller like Auberins or Fresh Meals Solutions products.

Why? Because the book also makes heavy use of compression, a technique that requires a chamber vacuum sealer, which costs about $2000 and also takes up a fair amount of space. Which is kind of weird, because I am going to guess that about 10% of the audience has a shot of using this cook book. I doubt you are going to see Carol start a ‘Carol Under Pressure’ blog… Drats.

The fact that Keller and Ruhlman wrote this book makes one thing abundantly clear:

Sous vide cookery is simply an idea whose time has come.

Liquid Nitrogen or “I’m Going To Go Thaw This In The Freezer”

UPDATE: This post is available on my new blog, located at http://blog.medellitin.com.

I have vague memories of the first time I saw liquid nitrogen in use. I think I was in my junior high school auditorium and there was some speaker they brought in to try and get us excited about science. He was a typical science pitch-man. His lab coat partially concealing a plaid shirt and cheap slacks, thick glasses elevated by a sense of humor that came in two forms: the pun and the science joke. His routine, somewhere between David Copperfield and a birthday clown, climaxes when he attempts to bounce a rubber ball that was frozen in liquid nitrogen. You could hear the ball shatter like glass.

I didn’t really think much about liquid nitrogen again. Puberty happened, and then I had to get a job. Having finally recovered from the realization that I will not be getting any taller and that I will likely have to work until I die, I found myself at the Astor Center, attending “Cold Cooking with Liquid Nitrogen” with Ideas In Food chefs Aki Kamozawa and H. Alexander Talbot.

They are talented chefs, writers and photographers, but they are also pretty darned good presenters.

The Experience

It was a great class. They gave us booze, did some lecture, performed a bunch of demonstrations. Alex and Aki are crazy smart, but totally approachable. As a teaching duo, they were very much themselves, and didn’t try to be teaching robots. For example:

INT. ASTOR CENTER – EVENING

AKI and ALEX are giving a cooking demonstration. ALEX is demonstrating the use of acetate sheets to create cylinders out of egg yolks that have been cooked via sous-vide and then mixed with rendered prosciutto fat.

ALEX

Now, before you apply the egg yolk to the sheet make sure you use spray on some PAM release.

ALEX looks around, not seeing any PAM release.

ALEX (CONT’D)

Do you have the PAM release?

Without even waiting for the answer, Alex wisely leaves the room in search of PAM release.

AKI

So. While Alex gets that, I am going to continue with another demonstration. First, I’m going to have to refill the styrofoam chest with LNO.

AKI moves towards the LN dewar, carrying the styrofoam chest. It is on a tall table, making it a little awkward to refill the chest.

AKI

Alex hates it when I do this.

AKI completes the refill and proceeds with the demo. Alex enters victoriously with the PAM release.

ALEX

Found it!

ALEX furrows his brow.

ALEX (CONT’D)

Did you refill the LN?

What Can We Do With It

What follows are what I can recreate from my notes:

First and foremost, LN can be both a technique and an ingredient. It brings extreme cold to the party. Which in and of itself is pretty nifty because we don’t really think about cold as much as we think about the use of heat in cooking. What can we use it for:

  1. Ice cream. There are two incredibly related reasons to use LN to make ice cream. The first reason is speed. LN is fucking cold. So cold it burns. So cold, you don’t have to wait long for it to freeze things. Instant ice cream. Quicker you make it, the sooner it is enjoyed. Also, you are reducing the amountsize of ice crystals that form. Ice crystals are not your friend, just ask this guy. Nitro-Freezing ice cream creates a better mouth-feel.
  2. Shards. When you LN freeze vegetables, they become brittle. You can shatter them, like the aforementioned ball. For example, here is a picture of some shards of beet: (Credit: Josh Smith)

    Shards of Beet

    Shards of Beet

  3. Powders. Powder the unpowderable. Also, powder without the application of heat. Flavors will be raw. Instead of dehydrating then grinding ingredients, we can nitrofreeze then grind. Caramel powder. Raw Shrimp Powder (They added it to grits). I also have a note about powdering frozen spice blends, but I don’t remember the value [Because it preserves volatile oils –Ed.] because of:
  4. Clouds. a.k.a. Frozen foams. For many of the fooderati, foams have jumped the shark. But do not fear the mighty foam. Freeze it instead. Aki and Alex made a mezcal cocktail with a yuzu cloud. My notes said: “frozen yuzu foam is ridiculous.” (in a good way)
  5. Cryo-Blanching Vegetables. Nitrofreeze and thaw. They made nitro blanched beets and carrots with a green olive powder. The result is a texture between cooked and raw, with bright and clean flavors.

Tips and Tricks

  • LN tells you when it’s done. Drop something into LN and it makes noise, like a bizarro-world fry-o-later. When it stops, it’s frozen. Or for another analogy, it’s like microwave popcorn. Speaking of fry-o-later, someone in the class suggested making a basket that could withstand the LN instead of having to fish out the food.
  • Food Grade. General consensus from the class is that food grade LN is bunk, and that all LN is food grade.
  • Powders. Make powders in smaller batches or you will get an inconsistent grind.
  • Respect the LN. LN isn’t all that different than hot oil. It can burn you. So can the stuff you prepare in it. Be especially careful if you are freezing alcohols.
  • Allergies may apply. If you freeze an allergen in an LNO bath, you might want to be careful about reusing the bath. Even if not using allergens, it’s a good idea to strain regularly.
  • It ain’t cheap. There is a startup cost that will make it unpalatable to the home chef. A 35L dewar can cost 800$. The nozzle can cost an additional 400$. Then to fill it can cost $2 a liter.
  • Store and operate in a well ventilated space. Don’t die.

The title of this blog post is a paraphrased quote from Alex. It melted my head.

Raw vs. Molecular Gastronomy

Yah, I know. Two things wrong with the title. First, most people who fall under the category MG, hate the phrase. Second, isn’t it oxymoronic? I mean, Raw Veganism is hippie rabbit food. A diet already restricted by veganism compounded with the inability to heat anything past 104 °F (40 °C) to 115 °F (46 °C). Salads and juices, oh my!

Grant Achatz Juliano

Contrast that with the Modernists, Molecular Chefs, Molecular Gastronomers, what ever they want to be called often cook with ingredients whose usage was pioneered in the industrial food industry. Kitchens like laboratories. Ingredients like Hydrocolloids, Transglutaminase, Tapioca Maltodextrin, and Xanthan Gum.

And first glance these forms of cuisine seem to have nothing in common. New Age Hippies vs. the Avante Garde. Let’s dig into some similarities:

  1. Creativity. I think creativity comes from two places: constriction or freedom. Modernism frees you. New textures, new techniques, new, new new. Raw constricts you. Trying to consistently prepare interesting meals when you can’t use meat, dairy, and, oh I dunno… your fucking oven, is hard. That constriction led to a lot of innovation. I could go on all day about them, but what you should really do is pick up a copy of Charlie Trotter’s and Roxanne Klein’s Raw, and have your mind twisted.
  2. Polarizing. Both styles of cooking took a lot of heat for being different and bucking mainstream traditions. Don’t get me wrong, I do think that Modernism will absolutely have a bigger impact on the culinary world than raw will. But, people definitely try to throw the baby out with the bathwater on both.
  3. Equipment. Pop quiz time: Is this following a raw or modernist kitchen:

    The kitchen at _______ is filled with high-tech gadgets like dehydrators, carefully calibrated warming ovens, frothers, high-speed Vita-Mix blenders, finely honed slicers and $3,000 Pacojet frozen-food churners. There’s an industrial hydraulic juicer that presses fruits and vegetables without breaking the cell walls, as juicers usually do; the extracted juices never separate.

    Turns out it’s a raw kitchen. Coming from a vegetarian perspective, I had the strangest sense of deja vous when I was researching MG for the first time. Champion juicers, Excalibur Dehydrators, and Vita-Prep Vita-Mix high speed blenders are likely to be found in both kitchens.

  4. Hydrocolloids. This one will melt your head. Raw foods desserts occasionally contain Chia Seeds (Ch-ch-ch-chia!) or utilize the natural pectin in blueberries to gel desserts. Modernists obviously use hydrocolloids like Gellan, Xanthan Gum, Methyl Cellulose and Pectin.
  5. Patents! It is pretty well-known that Homaro Cantu has filed a number of patents.
    One Of Moto's Patent Pending Courses

    One Of Moto's Patent Pending Courses

    While researching this blog post I found a raw foods patent that covers:


    A method of agglutinating a raw food selected from the group consisting of fruits, vegetables, sprouted grains, unsprouted grains, sweet syrups, honey, and vegetable powders, said method being carried out in a preparation area with a predetermined relative humidity, which method
    comprises…

Obviously there are plenty of differences. But those aren’t important to me today.

Don’t forget to vote.

Old and Busted v. New Hotness: Sous Vide Cookery

Old Me ** Old-Me has joined the chat room “SousVide:TheNewNotTooHotness”
mario_galaxy_reduced.jpg ** Future-Me has joined the chat room “SousVide:TheNewNotTooHotness”
Old Me Hey… look who it is… Me… again. So glad that in the future the only person I talk to is myself. What the heck is Sous Vide?
mario_galaxy_reduced.jpg No time for shenanigans. You need to know this. Sous-vide, French for totally delicious, or possibly under vacuum. It is a cooking technique where food is vacuum sealed in plastic bags and “poached” in a temperature controlled water bath. Originally developed in the 70s as a way of reducing the loss of weight in foie gras during traditional cooking techniques, sous-vide has had widespread applications ranging from industrial food preparation to use in some of the most highly regarded restaurants in the world.There are several benefits for cooking with sous-vide: 

1. Consistency. Sous-vide takes a lot of the guesswork out of knowing when a food is done cooking. Imagine a world where everytime you cook a steak it comes out exactly the way you want it, with zero chance of overcooking it. That world you are imagining… it’s where I live.

2. Control. An egg is not made out of egg molecules. It is made up of a number of different compounds, including more than one protein. Since different proteins will denature at different temperatures, a chef can use sous-vide to prepare an egg with a unique texture. And a small change in cooking temperature, say a degree or two, can produce drastically different results. Sound delicious?

Old Me No… it sounds like future-me doesn’t have a girlfriend either… How does it work?
mario_galaxy_reduced.jpg By placing vacuum sealed food into temperature controlled water, one can bring up the internal temperature of food to the exact temperature of the water. The result will be an evenly cooked piece of whatever-it-is. By perfect, I mean, the edge of the product will be the exact same consistency as the center of it.
Old Me Really? Vaccuum sealing? You actually own a vaccuum sealer? What on Earth for?
mario_galaxy_reduced.jpg Mainly, the absence of air speeds up heat transfer. Also, it prevents the bag from floating. Finally, I think it decreases the amount of moisture loss in the final product.
Old Me Well, wait, if the food is cooked when the internal temperature of the food reaches the temperature of the water bath, why do some recipes require 36+ hours?
mario_galaxy_reduced.jpg Good catch! Glad you are paying attention. So, the concept of doneness is about raising the internal temperature to a given temperature. However, there is more to cooking than temperature. There are temperatures, that when maintained for an extended period of time, will break down certain fats. For example, collagen, which is found in less desirable cuts such as brisket or short rib, will dissolve into gelatin when it is heated to 55-60F for an extended period of time. In general, collagen is tough and bad, and gelatin is unctuous and delicious.Just be careful about what you put in the bag. It is going to be tempting to use wine to add some extra yumminess.
Old Me Why can’t I put wine or other alcohols into the SV bag?
mario_galaxy_reduced.jpg The reason you don’t want to pour alcohol directly into a SV bag is that you will marinate your food in alcohol. The temperature isn’t high enough to cook off the alcohol, and even if it could, there is no where for it to go. You can use alcohol marinades by cooking off the alcohol on the range and then cooling it down.
Old Me Wait a second! Anaerobic environments at temperatures in the danger zone… this sounds like salmon in botulism sauce. How on earth is this safe?
mario_galaxy_reduced.jpg It isn’t. Thomas Keller has secretly been attempting to kill his patrons for years using this technique. The truth is, there have been close to zero cases of botulism or food poisoning due to sous vide. That being said, there are definitely precautions you should take. For home chefs, you should really just cook and serve. There are also charts available that help you determine how long you should leave a given protein in the water bath to make sure it is cooked to the appropriate temperature. Generally speaking, you use the type of protein combined with its thickness to determine how long you would cook something for.For cook and hold situations, you will have to do a lot more research.
Old Me Hrm, what about recipes that say to cook something for X period of time at Y temperature. For example, Wylie DuFresne has a 15 minute egg @ 70-C.
mario_galaxy_reduced.jpg Yah, so that is sorta cheating. What he is really doing is more like a traditional poach where the temperature of the water is higher than you ever expect the internal temperature of the egg will be. However, since the variables (the egg and the temperature of the water) are generally pretty consistent, the results will also be consistent.Finally, don’t trust Wylie. When your back is turned, he will turn you into a powder and sprinkle you on top of a cube of molten lava tempura, which is neither molten, lava, tempura nor a cube.
Old Me So, I’ve been googling while you have been answering these questions, and I found an article that contradicts you. Future-Me, explain yourself!
mario_galaxy_reduced.jpg I really hate that you use google to fact check yourself. But did these writer use the information superhighway to collect their information? Did they use the same bits of technology that brought you 2girls1cup to source their information? Of course, a lot of my information also comes from people who actively research this and also have a vested interest in NOT KILLING THEIR CUSTOMERS.
Old Me What’s 2girls1cup?
mario_galaxy_reduced.jpg ** Future-ME signed off.