Unfortunately, I couldn't make it to every workshop or demo at the 4th Annual Starchefs International Chefs Congress. That is essentially impossible to do, as much as I would like to. As such, I had to pick and choose and picked those subjects that I am most interested in. If you have read this blog for any length of time, you would know that my culinary interests are quite varied, ranging from traditional ethnic street foods to the epitome of creative cuisine. So long as it is good, clean & fair, I will respect it and eat it. I must, however, confess to a particular fascination with creativity and particularly enjoy the way science or more precisely the spirit of technological experimentation and the wonder of discovery have infiltrated into the culinary arts. I appreciate the thought and reason behind many of today's recipes, but that thought and reason must be accompanied by art and especially taste. Ultimately the business of the chef is to make food that is pleasurable to eat. In my world that is the necessary ingredient, however, when that ingredient is supplemented by art and creativity so that I shake my head in wonder and amazement, the heights of the culinary world are reached.
Dave Arnold and Nils Noren have developed quite a reputation as intensely creative and entertaining chefs. They are both on the faculty of The French Culinary Institute and were amongst the opening workshops. There were other worthy workshops and seminars, but theirs was my must-see intro to this year's ICC. Before I go any further, I must give credit to my son, L.J. Sconzo, who attended Starchefs for the second year as my assistant and note-taker extraordinaire. Unfortunately, he had to miss Tuesday's demos to get back to start classes at Dartmouth.
The object of the workshop was essentially to show off all sorts of neat new toys for the modern chef to play with. Arnold and Noren are masters at adapting technology to the kitchen and are currently amongst the foremost in the world in doing so. There are very few who possess a wider range of experience with and the ability to apply technology in novel, creative and ultimately successful ways. In this workshop they explained and demonstrated some of the things that they have been having fun with as well as showing off samples of some of the products that they have come up with.
Nils Noren started out by slicing and grilling tuna tendons that had been vacuum sealed with soy, yuzu and mirin, a technique borrowed from Masa, saving what would ordinarily be disposed of and doing something good with an otherwise inexpensive product. They served the tuna sinew later in the workshop along with a shot of Beef/Tomato vodka that had been distilled the day before. The combination served to show off some of their techniques and more importantly to demonstrate culinary synergy with each product elevating the other.
Dave Arnold started talking about ways of separating flavor and components of various products. One instrument they introduced was the rotary evaporator or Rotavap, in essence a high tech distiller, which is basically an "illegal" (secondary to providing the ability to distill alcohol) way of making legal and culinarily very interesting products. Throughout the workshop Arnold made the point that for a variety of reasons including finances and space, instruments like the Rotavap or a centrifuge, are not likely destined for typical restaurant kitchens anytime in the near future. The potential, however, is incredible.
From the Rotavap, which was having technical difficulties, Arnold moved over to the centrifuge, an instrument I have been personally quite familiar with from my undergraduate biology major days and running hematocrits in Med School. The centrifuge is used to separate components by density with the most dense elements winding up at the bottom of the tube. The Rotavap, on the other hand, separates components by volatility.
Once the evaporator was back up to speed, Arnold combined beef and "Aunt Rubys" green tomatoes, blended them with vodka and put the resulting paste through the rotary evaporator,to come out with beef + tomato vodka. An advantage of the distiller is that the chef can taste flavors as they separate out. They will find that the flavors will not have a "cooked" flavor as they separate. They will instead be pure component flavors that can then be manipulated. The beef/tomato vodka was horrible tasting right out of the evaporator, but the re-addition of the the acid, sugar and salt that was evaporated out rounded the flavor out, returning it to a fine palatability. Ultimately, the Beef/tomato-vodka shot was surprisingly subtle and very unique, with a strong green tomato aftertaste. The tuna sinew was nice and beefy with the shot. Dave Arnold described their approach here:
"We blended 35 dollars worth of Aunt Rubies with a couple of pounds of roasted beef and 2 liters of vodka. We took the pulpy mess and ran it through our rotary evaporator to obtain clear beef and tomato hooch. I’d be lying if I said people liked it. But those people had no vision. Nils and I had faith, and knew what to do. The liquor didn’t taste right because the sugars, acids, and salts needed to balance it hadn’t distilled—they weren’t volatile. Once we added those back to the liquor it was, to our taste, pretty cool. I wouldn’t serve it as a sipping drink or in mixed cocktails, but it served admirably as a short-shot accompaniment to our vacuum infused tuna sinew cooked a la plancha. Oh yeah."
Noren and Arnold are currently using their centrifuge to make their own nut oils. They do a lot of work with pecans because pecan oil is difficult to get commercially. They place pureed pecans and other nuts within containers in the centrifuge. As it stopped spinning, the light pecan oil rose to the top, pecan butter settled in the middle and on the bottom lay a paste of dense, bitter, skins and such. Depending on the product at hand and the desired endpoint, adjustments can be made to arrive at a desired final product. For example, if the flavor is off (too bitter, etc.) simple syrup can be added to taste. For certain applications, the cost of the centrifuge may actually be reasonable.Samples of their nut butters were passed around. The pecan butter was amazingly smooth, while the pistachio oil contained the absolute essence of pistachio.
Another technique explored was the use of vacuum sealing to effect texture. They prepared Kombu wrapped Duck Breast with Fried Japanese Eggplant. I can not describe what they did better than they themselves did in their blog, Cooking Issues:
"Each duck breast was wrapped in kombu , rolled up into a tube (Nils and tubes are like peas and carrots), then vacuumed down to infuse overnight. The next day, he sous-vided the duck for an hour at 57°C, then chilled it. At the demo, the skin on the duck breasts was seared to a perfect golden brown and served with a salad of the cooked kombu from the duck and frisée. Oh, and we just happened to have some of our roto-vapped port syrup lying around, so everyone got to enjoy a little with their duck—it basically ruined regular duck breast with a port sauce for the audience forever. The spongy Japanese eggplant were salted and vacuumed down to compress out all of the air so that when we fried it, it wouldn’t soak up its weight in oil. Breaded, deep-fried, and salted, these tender little bites tasted like delicious eggplant, didn’t ooze hot oil when you bit into them, and weren’t soggy at all. Cooks compress eggplant between sheets of paper towels using weights all the time, but using a vacuum is much easier and is done in a fraction of the time."
Gelatin clarification was another technique covered with credits going to Alex Talbot and Aki Kamozawa of Ideas in Food for leading the way. If you add gelatin to a product, freeze it and let it thaw, it will leak flavorful, clear liquid. Fairly simple, flavor is good and yield is good but it takes days to do and is not vegetarian. Alex Talbot said you can clarify by breaking an agar gel with a compression via vacuum sealing. Dave Arnold reduced the process by another step, removing the vacuum sealer. He found that in simply whisking an agar gel, it will leak clarified fluid and he did so at the workshop with orange juice.
Dave and Nils worked towards the end of their workshop explaining elements of carbonation, uses of liquid nitrogen and other techniques, all the while working with and for the audience to build samples of dishes to taste and experience.
Some notes from L.J.:
corn is nice because it rehydrates very well, with any liquid you want
(chowder base, or in this case clarified OJ) – base for pistachio
- Issue with the rotovap is that it loses flavor at a rate of about 90-95% while the flavor sits in the beaker, which is why their pump system is so important.
- Dave thinks the distillation law is very absurd – reason why he keeps mentioning the illegality of the process.
- The duck with reconstituted wine was fantastic – the duck tender, and the wine syrup melded wonderfully with the flavors.
- The pistachio sorbet will be nearly impossible to identify as a sorbet – the mouth feel is much more similar to that of ice cream.
- Lucked out with yuzu – making a gin and yuzu tonic instead of lime clarification.
- To make your own tonic with quinine sulfate, be extremely careful. Maximum amt of quinine is 83 ppm
– want half a gram of q and dissolve in a liter of water. Be careful,
and don’t steep quinine bark in water – use quinine sulfate. He likes
to choose b/w CO2 and NOS, CO2 has harsher, fizzy bubbles while the NOS
bubbles are much more creamy. Carbonation was stolen from home brewers,
like many tricks in a modern kitchen are stolen from labs. To
carbonate, take a bottle and a carbonation cap from any home brew
supply shop, squeeze out air (enemy of carbonation). He has it at 100%
CO2 at 40 psi, and shake to increase surface area while operating the
cap. Then, blast of the nucleation site so that you do not foam over.
- Liquid nitrogen is the best way to chill a glass by far, but don’t dip the glass – it will likely either shatter or freeze to the customer’s mouth.
- The pistachio sorbet was fantastically rich, especially for a sorbet.
- Dave and Nils did not lie nor did they disappoint.
- The orange-rehydrated corn was interesting, but my least favorite treat of the presentation.
- The fig was a fig – nothing more, nothing less.