Behind the Scenes at a Lab Dinner, Part 3

In the third part of this series, we finally delve into what it’s like to both serve and eat 33 courses at a Cooking Lab dinner. Part 1 chronicled the shopping trip to the Farmers’ Market, and part 2 detailed the amount of prep work such a dinner takes.

Small Portions Add Up

This dinner cannot be fully appreciated without first looking at the epic size of its menu (click each page to enlarge):

This menu could very well be an entire restaurant’s menu, but each guest would be served each course as a small “tasting.” While the prospect was daunting, our guests were excited to begin.

I actually think I went about this the right way. I didn’t sample everything and stood most of the time, which burns more calories than sitting does. With the exception of the pistachio gelato (which I will eat whenever presented to me), I stayed away from dishes I had already tried, such as the elot√©, the Modernist version of the classic Mexican street food. It begins with a dab of spicy mayo and is layered with butter powder, made from mixing melted butter with N-Zorbit, which swells the butter with so much starch that it becomes powdery, and topped with freeze-dried corn kernels and ash. It’s like a Pixy Stix for grown-ups, and, just like with the candy, it is important not to inhale as you put the spoon in your mouth.

corn butterI was most looking forward to finally trying the famous pea butter, which is made from centrifuging frozen peas so that they separate into three distinct layers: juice, starch, and a rich, creamy substance that can only be likened to butter. This, as I had imagined, and as many guests have written, was what the Platonic ideal of peas might be. Served along with corn butter (which, sadly, I didn’t get to try) and ham butter, Nathan took the opportunity to show off the centrifuge to our guests. Rather than asking them to get up and look at what really does look like a washing machine, he’d taken the rotor out, along with a few bottles of layered peas and corn, and brought them tableside.

Serving the ultrasonic fries as one fry atop a cup of bone marrow mousseline, was, in my opinion, a bad move. The pairing was terrific, the fry is a must-have for anyone visiting the Lab, but who can eat just one French fry, especially when it’s the best French fry anyone has ever had? Yet, there were 29 courses to go, so one fry it was.

Each of these dishes was assembled at rapid speed, since as much prep work as possible had already been done. Yet the chefs used pairs of long tweezers to carefully place each piece of food on the plate. Because the MC team has a lot of pride in their presentation, when a mound of geoduck noodles fell over (not on the floor, mind you, but just sliding over into the bowl) on the way from the counter to the table, it was brought back. Shouts of “Refire! Refire! Refire!” exploded from the kitchen as the chefs scrambled to concoct a new plate-up, and I happily snagged the flubbed shellfish for myself. A few extra seconds were not remiss during this course, as Nathan once again visited his guests, this time bringing out a whole geoduck (pronounced “gooey” duck). Most guests had never seen one, even though they are so common in the Pacific Northwest that they have actually become over-fished. Nathan explained that we get ours from “Oyster Bill,” as he’s known in the Seattle restaurant community, who represents local fish farms. This particular geoduck was grown on a sustainable farm called Taylor Shellfish.

Taki, whom I’d met the day before at the farmers’ market, would have been proud of the beautiful arrangement of vegetables in the Spring in Autumn Stew, which started off a series of soup courses. When I say “soup courses,” I use that term loosely. The Noble Root course served root vegetables on a plate with an espresso cup filled with our Caramelized Carrot Soup on the side. I had been absent the day they’d shot the photos for our Rare Beef Jus recipe, so I grabbed a spoonful when the stew was served. It was saltier than I’d imagined, despite the fact that no salt had been added to it. When I saw the little cups of what looked like Guinness (a dark liquid with a large dose of creamy white foam) come back only half eaten, I wondered aloud if the Mushroom Cappuccino had not gone over well. No, one of our veteran servers told me. This was the time in the dinner when people started to get full and took only tastes of each small portion.

This is also about the time in writing this post when I realize that to do it justice, I must stop and pick it up again next week. There are just too many good courses, too many interesting details, and too many fun guests to write about.

geoduck

What Would You Like to See from Us in 2012?

As we announced last week, Scott Heimendinger, from Seattle Food Geek, will be joining the MC team as our Business Developer… and Modernist Cuisine Evangelist! And yes, that does mean that we have future plans, which may or may not already be in the works (sorry for the secrecy, but we promise that we’ll announce anything here first!).

We want to know what YOU would like to see from us in the New Year.

  • Products?
  • Recipes?
  • Books?
  • Videos?
  • Events?
  • Prints?
  • Apps?
  • Translations?

The more you tell us what you want, the more likely it is that you’ll get it! Comment below, on Facebook, on the Cooks Forum, on eGullet, Twitter, or use info@modernistcuisine.com to email us.

The one thing we can say for sure is, we can’t do it without you!

Perhaps you would like to see new original recipes like our Carbonated Cranberries.

Coffee: Because, Damn It, We’re from Seattle

Nathan Myhrvold on coffee at Seattle Town Hall from Modernist Cuisine on Vimeo.

When Nathan Myhrvold recently spoke at Seattle’s Town Hall, he made sure to dedicate at least a few minutes of his speech to the topic of coffee. This was for the same reason there’s a whole chapter of MC dedicated to the subject: “Because, damn it, we’re from Seattle!” he exclaimed. Watch the video, and you might learn a thing or two…even if you’re a Seattleite, born and raised.

New Recipes: Buckeyes & Eggnog

These buckeyes are gluten-free and require no baking!

Move over milk and cookies, we’ll be leaving our Popping Buckeyes and Eggnog Foam Cocktails out for Santa this year. If, that is, we don’t devour them ourselves! We give our buckeyes a kick with pastry rocks (similar to Pop Rocks candy) and literally whip up some infused cream and eggs to top off tea and coffee for our Modernist take on eggnog.

You can find the recipes, as well as a video, tips, and photos, in our Recipe Library!

If you are looking for a main course for your Christmas dinner, check out Max’s post from last December, featuring a holiday ham and more!

Scott from Seattle Food Geek Is Joining the MC Team!

Photo courtesy of Scott Heimendinger.

I’m overjoyed to announce that, starting in January, I’ll be joining the Modernist Cuisine team full-time as the Business Development Manager and MC Evangelist! If you’ve been following the blog (or if you’ve ever had a 5-minute conversation with me), you know that I’ve been a huge fan of Modernist Cuisine since I first heard about the project. From my first interview with Nathan Myhrvold in May 2010, to my recent experience of interning with the kitchen team, it has been my dream to join this team. Now, I’ll have the tremendous pleasure of helping Modernist Cuisine grow in new and exciting ways and spreading our message to a much broader audience.

We are fortunate to be witnessing a worldwide culinary revolution. In much the same way that Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire forever changed cooking in the early twentieth century, Modernist Cuisine enables contemporary ideas, tools, and cooking techniques to spread more widely than any other book before it. In fact, I’ve been infamously quoted as saying “Escoffier would crap his pants” at the sight of the five gorgeous, comprehensive volumes. However, with the U.S. book launch completed and foreign editions now broadly available, our work is far from done.

More than ever, we are excited about the huge potential we see on the road ahead. We’ll be exploring ways for The Cooking Lab to contribute to the Modernist revolution, not only through our books but also through new services and products that we hope to develop ourselves and in collaboration with a wide range of other companies, from food and equipment manufacturers to chefs and restaurant owners, to publishers and producers. We’ve got a list of great ideas to turn into realities, and we also want to know what you’d like to see from us. If you have an idea, a request, or a partnership opportunity, we’d love to hear your thoughts. Contact us online or email info@modernistcuisine.com.

I’m incredibly excited about the future of Modernist Cuisine, and I’m honored by the privilege of helping to shape it!

Behind the Scenes at a Lab Dinner, Part 2

This is the second installment in a three-part series providing an inside view of how the MC culinary team prepares one of its famous, 33-course VIP dinners. The previous post described the hunt for the freshest and most interesting ingredients.

Prep as much as humanly possible

A few months ago, Anjana Shanker, a staff chef at The Cooking Lab, suggested that by helping prepare a lab dinner, I could see many of the techniques found in Modernist Cuisine in action. That first-hand experience would help me answer readers’ questions.

“But Anjana,” I said. “I don’t know what I can do. I saw you chop those shallots the other day. I don’t chop my shallots as tiny as you do.”

“Oh no,” she said. “You wouldn’t chop things. You would peel things!”

When I arrived at the lab around noon, however, all of the peeling had already been done. Maxime had brought in local chefs from Crush and Sur La Table to help out with details, like making sure all of the quail eggshells were the same height, and cutting little circles out of thinly sliced beets. Seeing how these professional chefs we charged with what may seem like easy tasks, it’s quite reasonable that I was, well, not.

Mostly I tried to stay out of the way. Unfortunately, it seemed like Sam Fahey-Burke (another staff chef and, like Max and coauthor Chris Young, an alumnus of The Fat Duck) always needed to move to the exact spot at which I happened to be standing. “Judy, can you please go stand over there?” he asked more than once, although I got pretty good at doing a waltz-like dance with Johnny Zhu (step, step, slide. Step, step slide…).

The only other time I got scolded was when I was delighting in the cloud of fog rising from a Dewar of liquid nitrogen. Anjana shooed me away, pointing at my shoes. I had come prepared, wearing ugly chef shoes, but looking down at them I realized that they were made of absorbant suede and fabric rather than liquid-repellent leather; not what you want to wear when working with a liquid that is hundreds of degrees below zero. But I was particularly curious to find out why Anjana was dunking oysters in the liquid nitrogen. “We’re cryoshucking them,” she told me. When LN is drizzled on their hinges, the bivalves pop open (for more on cryo-shucking, see page 2¬∑458 in MC).

I was also particularly excited to see spherification, a technique I had read about but have yet to master in my own kitchen. Aaron Verzosa, who is interning in the research kitchen, was given the task of making dozens of teaspoon-size spheres of sour cream. He dropped a few at a time into an alginate bath to spherify and then transferred them from one water bath to another. The process is pretty amazing, but also time-consuming.

Some techniques or pieces of equipment, however, were so “normal” that it was almost shocking, as when someone walked by carrying a salad spinner. The same was true of kitchen crises. There were no explosions or floods or liquid nitrogen spills. Once, liquid in a tray in the refrigerator leaked down into an uncovered tray below. Max, still making last-minute changes to the menu, deemed one dish too salty and, having no extra ingredients to rectify the seasoning, crossed the dish off the list altogether. During a run-through of Nathan’s PowerPoint presentation, the program stopped working on slide 84. There was a debate on whether we should put the cutaway microwave in the conference room or in the photo studio. And it fell to me to go pick up the burritos we’d ordered for the team’s dinner. At last, a chance for me to be helpful!

When the chefs changed into their white coats, the pace picked up. People started walking faster, yet less seemed to be going on. It was like being in the eye of the storm. As much prep work had been done as humanly possible. Little beakers were filled with Earl Grey and lemon curd posset. Baby root vegetables and hon shimeji mushrooms were arranged in covered dishes, waiting for rare beef jus to be poured over them at table-side. Sauces were kept warm on a very crowded stove, each pot handle labeled in black Sharpie on blue painter tape. The menus were printed off at last, and the chefs taped them to their stations like guitarists taping a song list to the stage floor before their set.

And in came the guests.

 

Next week: Dinner is served. And the crowd goes wild.

Maxime in Europe; Named One of 30 Under 30 in Forbes

We are very excited to announce that Modernist Cuisine coauthor Maxime Bilet has been named to Forbes magazine’s 30 Under 30 List in the category of Food & Wine! At 29 years old, Max just makes the cut, joining other “movers and shakers” as Forbes puts it, such as Gilt Taste editor Jennifer Pelka; Lena Kwak, the inventor behind Thomas Keller’s gluten-free flour C4C (Cup for Cup); Top Chef alumnus Kevin Gillespie; and many more talented 20-somethings.

Unfortunately, Max isn’t around The Cooking Lab today to celebrate. He’s busy promoting the foreign editions of MC in Europe. You can see him in Paris tomorrow (December 20) at 6 PM at TASCHEN’s bookstore in Paris and on Thursday (December 22) at 6 PM at TASCHEN’s London store.

What to Buy a Foodie for the Holidays

We think that many chefs will be surprised by a 52-pound box beneath their tree this year because Modernist Cuisine is high on people’s lists. But beyond MC, gift options are plenty: we’ve put together a gift guide to help you find the perfect present for every foodie in your life. Each member of the MC team has come up with his or her favorite suggestions. Many of them are much easier to lift! These are all things that we personally have, wish we had, or would give as a gift. For other great ideas, see Eater.com’s and Seattle Food Geek’s gift guides, as well as our equipment page.


Vitamix
$378 5.99
Available at Amazon, Sur La Table
Recommended by Sam Fahey-Burke, Culinary Research Assistant

Cuisinart Stick Blender
$19.73
Available at Amazon, Sur La Table
Recommended by Judy Wilson, Editorial Assistant

Aroma Kit
Cost varies by size and brand
Available at various online retailers
Recommended by Maxime Bilet, Coauthor


Excaliber Food Dehydrator
$105 – 2.19
Available at Amazon
Recommended by Johnny Zhu, Culinary Research Assistant


Inventing Cuisine DVDs
$19. – 22
Available at Amazon
Recommended by Aaron Verzosa, Culinary Research Intern

Uni Opener
Approx. $128
Available at various online retailers
Recommended by Nathan Myhrvold, Coauthor


Lucky Peach issue or subscription
$9. 28
Available at McSweeney’s, Amazon
Recommended by Chris Young, Coauthor

Benriner Japanese Mandoline
$26. – 64
Available at Amazon, Sur La Table
Recommended by Anjana Shanker, Culinary Reasearch Assistant

FoodSaver Vacuum Sealer
$66 – 1.48
Available at Amazon
Recommended by Wayt Gibbs, Editor-in-Chief

Liquid Nitrogen
Approx. $2/gallon
Available at welding supply stores
Recommended by Aaron Verzosa, Culinary Research Intern

Pacojet
$3,998
Available at Pacojet
Recommended by Nathan Myhrvold, Coauthor


Heston Blumenthal at Home
$37
Available at Amazon
Recommended by Chris Young, Coauthor


Deni or Kuhn Rikon Pressure Cooker
$66 1.49 (Deni brand), $95 – 259 (Kuhn Rikon brand)
Deni available at Amazon
Kuhn Rikon available at Amazon, Sur La Table
Recommended by Mark Clemens, Art Director (Deni); Mark Pearson, Business Development (Kuhn Rikon)

Microplane
$8. – 17
Available at Amazon, Sur La Table
Recommended by Anjana Shanker, Culinary Reasearch Assistant

SousVide Supreme
$299 3.99
Available at Amazon, Sur La Table
Recommended by Daniel McCoy, Editorial Assistant


Thermapen
$89
Available at Amazon
Recommended by Wayt Gibbs, Editor-in-Chief

Kopi Luwak Coffee
$50 and up
Available at various online retailers
Recommended by Mark Clemens, Art Director


Artistre Experimental Kit
$59
Available at Amazon
Recommended by Judy Wilson, Editorial Assistant

1800 Watt Induction Burner
$66 4.15
Available at Amazon
Recommended by Johnny Zhu, Culinary Research Assistant

New Recipes in the Library: Risottos

The carrot juice in the Pressure-Cooked Vegetable Risotto adds a dose of vibrancy to your meal.

Whether you’re searching for the perfect dish to bring to your next holiday potluck or the right accompaniment for your Christmas goose (or lamb, or ham, or turkey), risottos have just made the top of your list. Using our techniques, making risotto is a breeze — and it can be prepared a week in advance. In the newest edition to our Recipe Library, we’ve included a parametric recipe for cooking risottos from a variety of ingredients, including quinoa and forbidden rice, as well as Nathan’s recipe for Pressure-Cooked Vegetable Risotto. There’s also a special offer from Sous Vide Supreme!

Physics World Names MC in 2011 Top 10 List!

The British science magazine Physics World has named Modernist Cuisine one of the top 10 books of 2011. Other books on their list include Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos by Brian Greene; The 4% Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality by Richard Panek; and Quantum Man: Richard Feyman’s Life in Science by Lawrence Krauss.

While we love hearing that foodies (and Amazon) have included Modernist Cuisine on their “Best of 2011” lists, knowing that the scientific community regards us as one of this year’s major contributions really gets us excited. When Nathan Myhrvold first envisioned MC, he wanted to make a book that not only explains how to cook sous vide but also why it works, including easy-to-follow explanations of air pressure, the movement of heat, and the properties of water. As the book expanded in scope, so did its coverage of the science of food and cooking. Sublimation, microbiology, the health effects of various foods, and more are all treated in a deep yet approachable way.

To read the Physics World article and listen to the podcast, click here. A free account is required to access the feature.