Behind the Scenes at a Lab Dinner, Part 1 - Modernist Cuisine

Behind the Scenes at a Lab Dinner, Part 1

MCDecember 2, 2011

There are no two ways about it: 33 courses is a lot. The amount of effort the team at The Cooking Lab puts into one of our dinner events is astounding. Though we invited only 16 guests to our dinner on November 6—mainly chefs, writers, and food critics—preparations by the culinary research team consumed more than a week. I usually stick to my office and stay away from the lab during the week leading up to a dinner, so as not to get in the way. But this time, Maxime Bilet, Modernist Cuisine coauthor and head chef, invited me to tag along and witness the controlled chaos. This is the first installment in a three-part series that chronicles my time behind the scenes.

Shopping for 16 guests

and 33 courses

The dinner was scheduled for a Sunday evening, and the intensity started revving up the week before. Phone calls and emails were flying around fast; I could tell the team had their hands full. So I waited until the Saturday before the dinner to dive into the fray. I accompanied Max to the University District Farmers’ Market in Seattle to buy fresh ingredients. The U-District market runs every Saturday, year-round, and is Max’s favorite place to buy fresh produce. Tyson Stole, our videographer and photographer for this event, met up with us shortly after the market opened at 9 a.m.

While Max picked out some Savoy cabbages, Romanesco broccoli, and delicate mustard flowers from Nash’s, I asked him what he planned on using these for. “I don’t know yet,” he said. Given the amount of prep work the team had been doing the last few days, I was more than a little surprised.

“You mean, you don’t have a shopping list?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “I’m just seeing what looks good.” Finding inspiration in fresh produce is a fundamental part of great cuisine, of course, but I wondered aloud how the team would respond to last-minute changes. “It’s going to drive them crazy,” he grinned.

Next, we were on to Max’s friends at Mair Farm-Taki, where we picked up a variety of fruits and vegetables, including Concord grapes, turnips, and the freshest ginger I’ve ever seen (I bought some myself). This is Max’s go-to vendor, so we paused for a photo, too. Katsumi Taki runs an organic farm in Wapato, WA, which has supplied our team with fresh vegetables for years. In fact, Max estimates that probably half the vegetables photographed in MC came from Taki.

At that point, with both of our hands full, we split up, and Max headed back to his car to drop off his purchases. The market is big enough that one can easily get distracted, and it was a few minutes before we found each other again. “Did you see the foraged watercress?” I asked. In response, Max held up a bag filled with Foraged & Found’s watercress and a variety of foraged mushrooms.

After several more trips to Max’s car to unload raw milk, colorful root vegetables, greens, and more, Max finally had everything he wanted and took off for the Lab, where prep work would be going strong all day. I bought myself some pluots (and ate them all that day) and goat chops and went home looking forward to helping in the research kitchen the next day.

Meanwhile, the cooking team kept at it. That night, after more than 12 hours at work, the team went out for a late dinner to Monsoon East (where culinary research assistant Johnny Zhu had worked as executive chef before joining The Cooking Lab).

Next week in part 2: the cooking frenzy begins