There are always stories behind food, whether it’s a quintessentially Modernist dish, spheres and all, or a beloved recipe handed down over generations. Mistakes are made, learned from, and then ideas are refined through trial and error. You can taste the labor, the love, and the inspiration in sublime flavors and intriguing textures. In the same manner, thoughtful food creates memories. Flavors comfort and transport us with dishes that surprise and delight us.
There are many memories wrapped up in the experience of cooking for Ferran Adrià. Here are a few of the stories behind a handful of the fifty dishes we prepared that afternoon.
Head Chef Francisco Migoya: Rye Levain Noodles
I own many of the elBulli books, and I’ve certainly tried many of the recipes. But the influence of elBulli goes beyond simply producing their recipes; their work changes your way of looking at food and what it can be. Cooking is about seeing the potential that lies beyond the obvious by looking at food from a different perspective.
The idea for the rye levain noodles came to me shortly before I joined the team. With our upcoming book on breads in mind, I was thinking about pasta, which traditionally doesn’t have yeast. I couldn’t find any recipes that added yeast to a pasta dough, which got me thinking: why are there no yeast-leavened pasta doughs? As commercial yeast has little flavor, it occurred to me, conceptually, that a levain would be more flavorful. And in the realm of levains, a rye levain would be even more flavorful.
To make the pasta, I replaced some of the water and flour in a rye pasta recipe with a fully ripened rye levain. Getting the sour taste right was one of the most challenging things about the course. The lactic acid produced by lactobacillus in a levain preferment has a very characteristic taste and is what makes sourdoughs taste sour. If it doesn’t have the right degree of ripeness, the sour flavor will not come through, and the concept is lost. Timing the levain preferment just right is the key.
We served the rye pasta with sauerkraut beurre blanc and toasted nigella seeds. This dish preceded the pastrami dish (one of my favorites) because it ties into the Jewish-deli classic of pastrami and rye, with the rye in this instance being rye levain noodles.
Cooking for Ferran Adrià was an honor. It was nerve-racking at the same time, especially since I had joined the team as head chef just prior to his visit. It was my first dinner at the lab, so I saw it as a tremendous challenge with a responsibility to succeed. In the end, the team performed at a very high level—we had one of the smoothest services ever.
Research and Development Sous Chef Sam Fahey-Burke: Onion Soft Serve Ice Cream
It’s really impossible to measure the influence of elBulli on my work as a chef. The work that was done there pretty much established the Modernist movement, and I’ve spent my entire career cooking that type of food. If it hadn’t been for the work of Adrià and his team, I would still be a cook, but every day would have been completely different.
I’m always a little nervous right before a long tasting, and with 50 courses (and chef Adrià in attendance) I was probably a little more on edge than usual. But once we got into the service routine, the nervousness faded and I started to enjoy it. We normally serve our dishes in a traditional progression, but we switched it up for chef Adrià. We added courses we had never served before, including Onion Soft Serve, which kept us on our toes.
The Onion Tart recipe in Volume 5 of Modernist Cuisine is one of my favorites. It’s a great example of fundamentally Modernist cooking—it’s the evolution of a technique, as opposed to a technique that exists for the sake of adding obscure gelling agents or emulsifiers to a dish.
A champion of the tart, I’m always trying to convince Nathan Myhrvold to serve different versions of it at our tastings, which is where the idea for Onion Soft Serve originated. Fortunately, Chef Migoya and I are both experienced ice-cream makers, so we succeeded on our first try. To get the texture right, we processed the ice cream in a Pacojet for about 10 minutes before serving time and then put the mixture in the freezer (in piping bags) on a frozen Baking Steel. To keep the dish cold for service, we gave the cones, handmade by head chef Migoya, a quick dip in liquid nitrogen before adding the ice cream.
The idea of onion-flavored ice cream might seem alarming to some, but it’s sweetened just like traditional ice cream. The onion purée creates more depth, adding an incredibly savory element to the base. And the crunchy cone adds a nice textural contrast to the ice cream. We’ve done this course at two lab dinners now, and each time the diners seemed to be taken by unexpected enjoyment.
Research and Development Chef Johnny Zhu: Binchotan
When the first translation of the elBulli books came to the U.S., I was a young cook in New York. I remember at the time that it cost about $350, which was the most expensive cookbook I had ever heard of. I was still determined, however, to save up and get it. I remember finally getting my copy and rushing home on the subway, like I was smuggling some kind of treasure. When I opened the book, I was simply blown away. Everything I knew about food had been completely reimagined in those pages. It taught me that food is never static but always evolving.
The inspiration for the Chicken Liver Binchotan is trickery, a play on the theme of trompe l’oeil (culinary deception), a theme perfected at elBulli and a common element of Modernist cooking. The dish is served with points of toasted brioche on a binchotan grill; inside, the actual binchotan coals are charred just to the point of smoking. Coal-shaped chicken livers are then placed in front of the diners, who are still drawn to the hibachi grill in front of them. For just a moment, the diners think, “What is this, a spare piece of charcoal?” The illusion subsides quickly, but the aroma, aesthetic, and interplay of smoke and liver mimics the look of binchotan exactly, and, when diners dig into it, it spreads like butter.
The Chicken Liver Binchotan recipe started with a sous vide version of chicken liver mousse. If you look at most recipes for chicken liver mousse, they are pretty vague. You’re supposed to cook chicken livers to what you think is medium rare and then purée them with aromatics and butter. But the livers can be easily undercooked or overcooked, so the texture can range from gloppy to gritty. When cooking the chicken livers sous vide, however, they are medium rare every time, and the texture is incredibly smooth. Such consistency is a testament to cooking sous vide.
Chef Migoya introduced us to silicone mold making and suggested that we try a few shapes. We tried shapes that we had lying around, one of which happened to be a Japanese binchotan charcoal. When we cast the chicken liver mousse into the molds, the effect was striking. The mousse captured every nook and cranny of the wood, resulting in a realistic imitation. To complete the effect, we dusted the mousse with edible dietary ash.
The evolution of this dish was so natural that all we had to do was pair the tasty mousse with toast points, but presenting the dish was tricky. Excited about the trompe l’oeil, we enthusiastically (and artistically) piled the binchotan grill with toast points; getting the binchotan grill onto the table and in front of chef Adrià without dumping the toast-topped grill in his lap was nerve-racking. Even he looked a bit nervous as we made our way over.
Cooking for Ferran Adrià was an incredible honor, being both exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. Preparing a meal for one of my idols is an experience I will never forget.
Research and Development Chef Anjana Shanker: Caviar Service
Cooking for the world’s greatest chef was a dream come true. It was an opportunity I had been hoping to have for a very long time. Ferran Adrià’s visit turned out to be incredibly humbling—when you meet him you realize that he is remarkable and simple at the same time.
Chef Adrià and the elBulli team played an important role in my culinary career, inspiring me to value creativity and to better understand the connection between food and science. Their work influenced how I approach deconstructing a dish—how I will transform all of its elements or modify its texture and taste so that it appears fully Modernist, while retaining the dish’s original essence.
Our caviar service was inspired by a course at elBulli. The dish appeared to be a traditional pile of caviar—decadent, salty, and delicious. Even the first bite confirms its appearance: this is good caviar. The caviar, however, was actually mustard seeds.
It took me a great deal of work to perfect this recipe before chef Adrià’s visit. Caviar has a distinct flavor and texture, so developing the faux version was a scientific process. I researched, experimented, documented, and analyzed many variations of it, but the trickiest part was replicating the mouthfeel—getting the mustard to gently pop like caviar with each bite. We also had to figure out how to reproduce the buttery, oceanic, and delicate tastes that are reminiscent of traditional caviar.
We soaked yellow mustard seeds, pressure-cooked them with a neutral oil, and then centrifuged with the mixture with anchovies. Olive oil and squid ink were added to disguise the seeds. We then served the seeds on a blini to mimic traditional service.
Because Ferran Adrià’s work and research has been such an inspiration to me, it was a tremendous feeling when I read The New York Times’s coverage of his response to the dish. He declared it “Fantastico,” which is an incredible honor.
Research and Development Chef Aaron Verzosa: Cryoblanched Lobster
Cooking for chef Adrià was like painting to impress Picasso—why would you do that? You’re making food for a man who has seen it all, broken all the rules, and written the language that we at Modernist Cuisine have chosen as our industry dialect. In fact, it was slightly terrifying. Hours before the dinner, to my amazement, chef Adrià walked through the kitchen by himself, taking in the atmosphere. What was I doing when we first met? Making spheres, of course—a technique synonymous with his name.
Despite the anxiety and fear that accompanies such a moment, and after months of preparation, the dinner finally started. The first course went out, then the second, and finally the 50th. When you’re in the moment, it’s easy to be swept up in the details of each dish and the intensity of service. You hardly have a moment to realize that within 50 courses, the man, Adrià, had asked for seconds of many of our dishes.
One of my courses was a spoonful of delicate, cryoblanched lobster. We dipped the lobster in liquid nitrogen for 10 seconds (not long enough to freeze the meat), and then submerged it in cold water. The temperature differential between the liquid nitrogen and water is enough to completely release the meat from the shell. Classically, to remove a lobster from its shell, you blanch it in boiling water, but the problem therein is that the lobster and its shell are then partially cooked. By cryoblanching we are able to cook an entire piece of claw or tail to an exact temperature; the pieces are cooked all the way through without overcooking the outer portion of meat. The Coconut Lobster Sauce, made from lobster shells, is also more intense because the flavor is never lost to the boiling water, an artifact of classic blanching.
The concept behind this technique evolved from a method I learned in Paris. We would put the lobsters in the freezer from 45 minutes to one hour, then place it into the fridge for about an hour or two—the result was similar to cryoblanching. In Paris, we didn’t have liquid nitrogen, so, when I came back to Modernist Cuisine, it was the first thing I tried. Getting the timing right was difficult. If you keep the meat submerged in liquid nitrogen too long, it freezes. If you defrost the meat too quickly, the texture is compromised—the result is mushy lobster. Aside from producing incredible results, liquid nitrogen drastically reduces prep time—hours can be shaved down to minutes.
Being able to serve Ferran Adrià a dish that was born out of my own culinary explorations was amazing. Through the momentous challenge of preparing and executing our most ambitious meal to date, to see chef Adrià eat our food with curiosity, intrigue, and a childlike delight was undoubtedly the single greatest moment in my career.
ElBulli and the concept of elBulli Taller have probably influenced me in more ways than I realize. It was certainly the first establishment that got me interested in Modernist cooking. I suppose then that it was the reason I was so enamored of the possibility of joining the Modernist Cuisine team. But more so than any one technique, the philosophy and mindset of elBulli—to be ever dedicated to curiosity, innovation, and purity of flavor—is what has truly influenced me as a chef.
Director of Applied Research Scott Heimendinger: Laser-Etched Tortilla
The Virgin Mary has made hundreds of appearances on toast, grilled-cheese sandwiches, and quesadillas. Far fewer people, however, have witnessed the visage of legendary Spanish chef Ferran Adrià on the surface of their tortilla.
As part of the epic, 50-course tasting, we decided to have some fun with the presentation of our Milagro al Pastor. Before the course arrived, servers littered the tabletop with English- and Spanish-language newspaper articles touting miraculous appearances of the Virgin Mary in various griddled foods. As our guests curiously pored through the flyers, the dish arrived: alternating layers of pork and beef, laminated and cut into perfect cubes, which sat atop an avocado purée embroidered with dots of fiery red achiote sauce. The dish was a richly flavored and technically exquisite interpretation of tacos al pastor, but it was also the setup for the punchline that followed. Head chef Francisco Migoya rounded the table inauspiciously, offering corn tortillas to accompany the course. When chef Adrià pulled a warm tortilla from the top of the stack, he was more than a little surprised to see that his own face adorned the surface.
How did we create this eBay-worthy tortilla? In the days leading up to the dinner, we worked to perfect the technique of transferring black-and-white images onto the surface of tortillas using a laser engraver in our machine shop. Although designed for cutting and etching plastic, wood, and thin metals, the engraver happens to be remarkably useful for toasting the faces of unwitting guests onto flat foods. You might remember the time we etched Jimmy Kimmel’s face onto an omelet for Nathan’s appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live. This time we had much more control of the joke, including the rather elaborate setup leading to the final unveiling.
Why, you might ask, go to all this trouble? The dish would have been just as delicious in the absence of Adrià’s face. The joke demonstrates one of the hallmarks of Modernist cooking—the desire to extend the dining experience beyond our five senses—in this case, to include humor. Many Modernist chefs, including honoree Ferran Adrià, punctuate their tasting menus with moments of levity: welcome reminders, amidst a marathon meal, that the point is to enjoy yourself.
Making humor part of the menu is a gamble in the same way you might wrestle with using a joke to begin a speech. Will the joke fall flat? Is this as funny as we think it is? We anxiously held our breath before the reveal. When chef Adrià recognized his likeness on that corn tortilla, he heartily laughed out loud, smiling ear-to-ear with genuine exuberance. He even tucked an extra tortilla into his notepad to show his brother, Albert, who is opening a Mexican restaurant later this year.
It was one of many incredible moments that night. We’re thrilled that our joke paid off and honored to have shared it with a chef whom we so admire. Only time will tell if laser-etched faces will be the next big trend in Modernist cooking, but, for now, we’ll keep inspecting our tortillas for signs from above.
Read more about how chef Adrià and experiences at elBuilli inspired Nathan and the idea behind Modernist Cuisine.