Alchemy - Definition from Dictionary.com
1. a form of chemistry and speculative philosophy practiced inthe Middle Ages and the Renaissance
and concerned principally with discovering methods for transmuting baser metals into gold and
with finding a universal solvent and an elixir of life.
2. any magical power or process of transmuting a common substance, usually of little value, into a
substance of great value.
The Dinner at The Alchemy of Taste and Smell event at The Astor Center clearly did not live up to the first definition above. Try as many have, those goals remain elusive. Definition 2, however, is another story. Though the substances used to prepare the dishes assembled for the lucky 45 diners assembled were not of particularly little value in and of themselves, they were transformed by the magical powers of the chefs, mixologists and natural perfumer, Mandy Aftel, into a dinner of value well beyond the sum of its parts. It was a very special evening of food, drink, wine and extraordinary culinary camaraderie that was the culmination of two days programs examining and exploring the art of combining elements of taste and smell by some of the very best in the business.
The guest list at dinner included some heavy hitters. Harold McGee, who lectured earlier in the day on "Thinking About Flavor" sat between the illustrious Jeffrey Steingarten and Jeffrey's lovely wife, Dr. Caron Smith. Ruth Reichl, Kate Krader, Steven Shaw, Francis Lam, Andrew Knowlton and Anya von Bremzen were a few of the other media elite I recognized. As exciting as it was to be dining amongst them, the real stars of the evening were in the kitchen and all around us, cooking, plating and serving their dishes.
The purposee of the evening was the pairing of food with scents created specifically for the dishes by Mandy Aftel of Aftelier Perfumes, a perfumer who uses only natural ingredients in her work. The idea was that dishes can be elevated by associated scents.The scents could be and were delivered in a number of ways, as had been illustrated throughout the day as well as the prior evening in the demonstrations.
The first to serve was the event's guiding light and principal organizer, Chef Daniel Patterson of San Francisco's Coi and Il Cane Rosso and Oakland's Plum. Patterson has developed a reputation working with natural scents and essential oils. He's delivered demonstrations on these topics at Madrid Fusión and Starchefs ICC. Patterson did two dishes in conjunction with Aftel. He was very ably assisted by Jason Edwards in the kitchen.
His first dish, "Oyster, Seaweed, Coastal Grasses, Aroma of Seaweed & Tarragon" incorporated a squid ink panna cotta, rice wine vinegar and seaweed consommé.. Patterson used six different varieties of seaweed taken from Monterey Bay including kombu and giant kelp amongst others. All the seaweeds but two had been cooked and all had been washed and soaked in fresh water to remove some of their slimier characteristics. Seaweeds are naturally rich in the thickener carageenan. Patterson's consommé was made with seaweed and water only. He had let it sit overnight with occasional agitation. Some of the grasses included New Zealand spinach, sea beans, wild radish and another "weird" succulent he couldn't name. The sauce was a mixture of the seaweed consommé and oyster juice. To the side of the bowl, the plate was sprayed with a mixture of the scents of seaweed and tarragon. The oyster dish was paired with a cocktail by Audrey Saunders. She and Kenta Goto infused Absolut Vodka with bay leaf and added equal parts of fino sherry and dry vermouth. The drink was garnished with a bay leaf scented with Mandy's cacao perfume, which had elements of chocolate and orange. The idea was to give a slightly sweet aroma, followed by a savory drink. Patterson's dish reminded me of Joan Roca's "Earth" oyster, in which he paired an oyster with a distillate of the earth from the woods near Can Roca in Gerona, Spain. Roca's dish, a play on surf and turf as well as a play on the classic wine pairing of Chablis with oysters, was an attempt (controversial, but successful to me) at taking the minerality that is the heart of a good Chablis and mixing it directly with the natural salinity of the oyster. Patterson's approach was clearly different, however, he achieved a similar sense of mixing the essence of the sea with a sublime earthiness. Whether it was the contribution of the tarragon scent or something else, the dish had a wonderful, mushroomy , umami-rich, funk to it.
Patterson's second dish was a dish of playful deception. Designed to look like a beef tartare, his "Beets Cooked in Hay, Fresh Cheese, Field Herbs and Flowers with Aroma of Hay & Flowers" was anything but. The summer-field conjuring aroma pairing of hay and flowers was delivered via a balm that was to be rubbed onto the diner's wrist and smelled as the food was being eaten. The scent had high notes from the flowers with bass notes provided by the hay. The container for the balm can be seen in the photo of the cocktail above.When Patterson introduced the dish, he acknowledged that some of the conceits they were using were "inherently silly" , but still pretty cool, nevertheless. He told us that it was "ok to giggle." The beets had been roasted in hay, half of which was burnt and half not. They provided an underlying sweetness, while there was a smokiness provided by the burnt hay The tartare had fresh goat and cow milk cheeses mixed in. The dish was garnished with local edible flowers including mustard flowers, nasturtium, wood sorrel, sheep sorrel, alyssum and wild radish. Saunders created a Reisling based cocktail with Clear Creek Eau de Vie de Poire, a touch of honey syrup, a little bit of orange, a dash of Peychaud's Bitters and a star anise.The dish was superb. Beets can have a tendency to be a bit too sweet, however, the sweetness of these, while sufficiently present, was muted by the hay and the cheese. Growing up, the maxim, "hay is for horses" was well known to me. I would never have figured it for an ingredient in haute cuisine, let alone the popular one it has become, but his dish was another example of the ingredient's usefulness and inherent deliciousness, when used intelligently. The cocktail was delicious, but not quite as successful a pairing as its predecessor.
With the next dish, the focus shifted from Daniel Patterson to Carlo Mirarchi of Brooklyn's Roberta's Pizza. Mirarchi served "Sea Urchin, Carrot, Vanilla." While the dish was delicate and subtle, the delivery of the supporting vanilla scent wasn't. That doesn't mean that it wasn't wonderful. It was. The vanilla was delivered by way of a bubble machine,with the sweet scent permeating the room. Fortunately, it wasn't an overpowering scent and served its purpose in supporting this wonderfully delicious dish.In addition to the sea urchin, the dish contained American caviar and carrot granita. It was paired with a very interesting wine, Channing Daughter's (NY) Ramato, a pinot grigio made in the style of a red wine.
Wylie Dufresne of WD-50 has been at the forefront of culinary creativity for some time. His dish, "Aerated Foie Gras with Pine and Lychee" showed that he remains at the forefront. The foie gras was spongy in appearance though not texture. It was ethereally light and delicious. The foie gras was accompanied by pine sprigs,a piece of WD-50 flatbread, lychee and a lychee, whiskey and nutmeg sauce. The aroma accent came from a smoldering cedar mat on the plate. Though the scent of the vanilla bubbles still lingered, the additional aroma actually blended well with the dish. I'm not sure of Dufresne's technique, but the aerated foie gras reminded me of elBulli's pistachio and sesame sponge cakes, which are prepared in a microwave oven.
Chopsticks - scented chopsticks. These were the scent carriers for the next dish, Ideas in Food's Alex Talbot & Aki Kamozawa's "Miso & Yuzu Kosho Casarecce with Crab." The chopsticks had been twice sprayed with a scent of coffee, black pepper and nutmeg. The combination of the perfectly ala-minute-cooked, bright tasting pasta, the lusciously rich crab and the pepper-rich scent made for a truly decadent dish. It was paired with a sauvignon blanc from Channing Daughters. I actually was able to score seconds of the pasta and would gladly have eaten much more.
Along with hay, fir, or pine, has become a flavor that some of the finest chefs in the world have become enchanted with and for good reason. The scent of pine has so many positive associations for so many people, how can it not be an awesome culinary accent? From Grant Achatz to Fabio Trabocchi (his lamb cooked over pine at The Four Seasons will be forever memorable to me. I've yet to have a more delicious lamb dish) to Rene Redzepi to Wylie Dufresne earlier in the evening, the scent of pine has become a significant flavor or aroma accent in fine dining. It was also a central aroma component in David Chang's marvelous "Matsutake Broth with Fir, Chestnut, Jerusalem Artichoke." The vehicle used to deliver the fir scent was an old-style hand fan, which had been infused with the scent. By opening the fan and fluttering it, the scent is delivered to the diner.Chang's broth was enhanced with a bit of seaweed essence, mirroring in reverse, Daniel Patterson's earlier seaweed dish that evoked a mushroomy essence. With both matsutake and maitake mushrooms, this brilliant dish contained mushroom chips and a mushroom "granola" in addition to pine nuts and a puree that consisted of lichen from Maine blended with chestnuts. I drained the bowl to the last umami-laden drop.
Bacalao is one of those foods that when it is done well, it is sublime. When not done with absolute expert technique or with high quality fish, it can be absolutely awful and inedible. George Mendes is a master of bacalao and his dish, "Bacalao with Black Forbidden Rice, Chorizo and Coriander" was a masterful expression of that noble fish. The scents of coriander, saffran and olive were directly incorporated into the rice broth via an essence created by Mandy Aftel. Other components of this absolutely delicious dish included chorizo, citrus powder, nasturtium, sorrel, dill and chervil.
Nils Noren served "Duck, Dill-Flavored Horseradish Puree, Black Pepper-Citrus Sauce". The duck, cured with kombu was cooked sous vide and finished in a pan to render the fat. Atop the duck was cucumber with brown butter and fried kombu. The horseradish in the pure was sweet and lacking pungency from having been cooked in a pressure cooker.The dill in the puree was an essence made by Mandy Aftel. The sauce was a sweet-sour sauce with essence of wild sweet orange and black pepper. In addition there was a blood orange reduction that was made without cooking. Dave Arnold distilled it in the rotovap at low temperature, leaving a wonderfully bright concentrated product.
I first tasted Bill Corbett's work at WD-50 when Corbett worked under Sam Mason. I tasted his own creations for the first time at the now-closed Donatella Arpaia/Michael Psilakis restaurant Dona, his first position as head Pastry Chef and I tasted it again in San Francisco when he was the Pastry Chef at Michael Mina. His work was excellent then. Now the Pastry Chef at Daniel Patterson's Coi, Corbett accompanied Patterson to NYC for this event. It was not a wasted trip as Bill Corbett's truffles and marshmallows at the cocktail party and his "Cinnamon Smoked Apple, Buttermilk, Hazelnut" dessert at this dinner totally rocked with the smoked cinnamon providing a wonderful accent to the dish. Corbett's inspiration was the burning scents of the fall. He used cinnamon and wood to smoke the caramelized apples. In addition he did a hazelnut-butterfinger crumble and a wonderful buttermilk mousse which toned down the harshness of the smoke. All lay on top of an apple-caramel sauce. This spectacular dessert was preceded by a palate cleanser drink from Audrey Saunders, a macintosh apple infused Dolin vermouth that was very fresh and satisfying and accompanied by a Hojari frankincense tea composed by Mandy Aftel. The frankincense had been processed by Aftel and sprayed onto the tea leaves. She also provided a perfume, which she called "Memento" to accompany the dessert. With frankincense on the brain, the evening was finished with frankincense cognac (Martell) prepared by Dave Arnold the night before using the rotovap to create a brandy with all the flavor and none of the harshness.
While some of the devices used to convey scent at this dinner project the aura of gimmickry, the fact of the matter was that the dinner was both delicious and fun. The scents were conveyed and they did enhance the dishes. Nothing was literally transformed into gold, but it was truly a golden evening.