Behind the Scenes at a Lab Dinner, Part 2

MCDecember 20, 2011

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 2ยท458 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.


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