From the blog January 13, 2012 Judy

Behind the Scenes at a Lab Dinner, Part 4

Maxime Bilet, Jeffry Steingarten, Oswaldo Oliva, and Charles ZnatyJust as Nathan Myhrvold set out to write a 600-page book on cooking sous vide and wound up with the 2,438-page Modernist Cuisine, I started out with the simple idea of writing a blog post about what it takes to put on one of our dinner events at The Cooking Lab. I realized early on that one post would never do and adjusted my plan to allow for three separate posts, detailing shopping at the farmers’ market, prepping, and finally, the dinner. All went according to plan until I started writing about the dinner itself. It turns out that 33 courses is not only a lot to make and eat, but also a lot to write about. So here is, at last, the fourth (and final) installment in my three-part series chronicling the lab dinner we held last November.

The guests’ enjoyment is always the best part

The tasting menu paired the 33 courses with six wines from the Pacific Northwest (click the menu at right to enlarge it),
not counting the champagne that started off the evening during Nathan’s presentation. Needless to say, with the wine flowing and the food seeming to go on forever, guests were in good spirits. The look of utter shock on Johnny Iuzzini’s face when he ate the Raw Quail Egg–described on the menu as simply “a touch of protein to invigorate the appetite”–was a highlight. He was the last at his table to try it, so the other guests already knew that it was not actually an egg, but a trompe l’oeil made from passion fruit. Johnny laughed so hard, his head sank to the table.

Yet another surprise followed. The Polenta Marinara is a recipe found in Modernist Cuisine, but it’s titled in the book a little more descriptively as Strawberry Marinara. Another recipe straight from MC was the Mushroom Omelet, which was a great hit, as always. If you have a whipping siphon, it’s worth trying at least the siphoned egg foam that is used to fill the omelet. It is wonderfully creamy in texture but still intensely eggy in flavor. Nathan took a break from his work in the kitchen to explain to the guests the method we use to create perfectly even stripes in the omelet.

By this point in the dinner, some of the courses the team was plating up were filling enough to serve as entrees all by themselves. The Roast Chicken was delicious, but many guests had to put down their forks before they had polished off all of it. The pastrami was also challenging in its size and richness, but even the New Yorkers in the group said they hadn’t had pastrami this good; most of the guests gave it their all.

A we neared the end, the courses took a turn from savory to sweet. The Citrus Minestrone happily combined the two by pairing a quenelle of cucumber sorbet with vacuum-infused vegetables, all surrounded by a citrus consommé. I’ve never been a fan of cucumbers, but I enjoyed this immensely! And of course, I also enjoyed the pistachio gelato (as I mentioned in my last post, I never pass up a chance to eat it), which was served with macadamia and strawberry flavors. Max explained that they were serving far more desserts than they had at past events–part of the reason that this tasting dinner was the widest in scope yet attempted by our team. Pastry extraordinaires Pierre Hermé and Johnny Iuzzini were attending, and we wanted to show them that the Modernist Cuisine team can hold its own when it comes down to sweets.

It was around this time–10:30 PM, and the guests had been eating for about four hours–that MC coauthor Chris Young walked in, like a prospective father showing up at the end of a baby shower. Wearing jeans and a hoodie, he had come straight from the airport, hoping to catch the tail end of the dinner and greet the guests. As Max later explained to me, it was actually a treat for the team to watch people eat. It’s not something we get to do a lot. He said, “Because most of our food is communicated through language and imagery, it’s a very unique–and I think important–moment in our process for us to share the message of Modernist Cuisine through taste.”

The dinners also offer us a great opportunity to see people who, owing to busy schedules and geographic separation, we don’t get to see often enough. Oddly enough, Max and Nathan had just met with Pierre Hermé in Europe the week before, but due to projects of his own, Chris wasn’t able to make the trip.

The dinner ended with delicate snowflakes of violet sugar cut with a laser, Gruyère caramels, and olive oil gummy worms.

All 16 guests stood to give the culinary team an ovation after the meal. This was especially considerate considering that the act of standing probably required real effort at this point. Nathan thanked them for the applause and introduced each member of the team, from the chefs to Amy, our PR guru, to our photographers Melissa and Tyson, and even me, the blogger. It takes a lot of people to deliver a 33-course MC dinner.

After the dinner had ended, I asked Nathan and Max to sign my menu. Max asked me which dish was my favorite. After a moment’s thought, I said “France in a Bowl.” At the time, in the beginning of November, the team was developing my crazy idea of a Thanksgiving Stew, which Nathan had referred to as “Modernist cuisine in a bowl.” So, it was my hope that perhaps the “in a bowl” concept was catching on. There are, I thought, endless possibilities. But I also liked it because the base of the dish was a foie gras custard with hoisin sauce. The historical ties between France and Vietnam, and therefore the inclusion of hoisin along with the quintessentially French snails, frog legs, and chanterelle mushrooms, proved in my mind that cuisine is indeed always changing–even French cuisine. The outside influences from other ethnicities, the discovery of new ingredients, the development of new technology, and scientific breakthroughs all propel food forward, just as they affect so much else in human culture. Cuisine evolves, and it is exciting to witness the transformations that are underway.

I then turned the table on Max and asked him what he would point to as a highlight of the evening. He said, “It was amazing to share our food with some of our favorite chefs in the world, and to try to give back to them as much as they have given us through their inspiration and contribution to Modernist cuisine.”

While exciting, that aspect was also a bit daunting. Max had been especially thrilled to serve Andoni Luis Anduriz, a ground-breaking chef who flew all the way from San Sebastian, Spain. He also felt a little trepidation about cooking for old friends like Johnny Iuzzini, Jeffrey Steingarten, and Scott Boswell. But he needn’t have feared; everything went wonderfully. “I am extremely proud of the team,” Max said. “They came together after weeks of testing and prepping, and the effort they invested into each detail was apparent in all of the dishes we served tonight.”

Of course, just because the meal was done did not mean the night was yet over. Johnny Iuzzuni rounded up many of the chefs and guests to hit the town. I, however, helped clean up, matched coats with guests, and went home to a welcoming bed after a very long day.

Discussion

  1. susan lankford January 19, 2012 Reply

    Would love to do this Cooking Lab in downtown San Diego. Any interest? We have the location.

    • Nsrkanni February 21, 2012 Reply

      Great stuff jrhteo, I have develope a passion for molecular gastronomy, I’m currently attending the Iowa culinary institute (ICI) in Des Moines and plan to attend UNL for food science.

  2. Patrick Floyd January 20, 2012 Reply

    Is there any possibility of pursuing a Stage @ The Cooking Lab?

    • Judy January 20, 2012 Reply

      Hi Patrick,

      While we don’t have any openings at the moment, we do often need extra help when we put on one of these lab dinners. Please send your resume to info@modernistcuisine.com and we’ll pass it on to the kitchen team. They’ll let you know if they ever need any help.

  3. sel aromatisé March 3, 2012 Reply

    I have deve­l­ope a pas­sion for mol­e­c­u­lar gas­tron­omy too. I’d like to open a restaurant in bordeaux, in France, next year. Thanks for the story.
    Kiss,

    Laura

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