Spotlight: Aaron Verzosa

We could never do what we do without the support of an incredible team of people. Over the years, numerous chefs, photographers, editors, researchers, and machinists have contributed to our endeavors at The Cooking Lab. They don’t always get the recognition they deserve for all of their hard work, so we’re starting a “Spotlight” series that allows members of The Cooking Lab to share what it’s like to work here, from their perspective. –Nathan Myhrvold

I went to the University of Washington for a degree in linguistics, but my track was actually premedicine. I worked in bioengineering research for about 2 1/2 years and was planning on getting an MD, or possibly going into an MD/PhD program. But then I took the summer off and enrolled in a few cooking classes. I wasn’t planning on going to culinary school full-time, but I did. I fell in love with the craft of cooking, with the very idea of it.

I had heard a little bit about Nathan Myhrvold and his Modernist Cuisine project before I even started culinary school, but at that time, it was still supposedly focused solely on sous vide. Then when MC came out, some of the team from The Cooking Lab came to my school. Max brought Johnny and some of the other staff chefs to do demonstrations, but they were also talking about their pedigrees and where they had worked. There just aren’t a lot of chefs in Seattle who can tout the same lineage of restaurants in which they have worked.

I really wanted to pursue that Modernist experience, but I wanted to do so locally, and there really weren’t a lot of restaurants around here that were doing it, at least not as well as the top-tier Modernist restaurants. Sure, we did things here and there at The Harvest Vine, where I worked for two years, such as playing with a couple of gels and foaming agents like soy lecithin, etc., but we didn’t really delve into the concept or philosophy of Modernist cuisine. It was more about utility. So when Max mentioned they might have work, I jumped on it.

I really wanted to come here to get grounded in the philosophy of the Modernist movement and to work with some of the best. A number of Modernist chefs like Ferran Adrià, and even Max and Nathan, talk about Modernist cuisine as a language. I have a deep interest in linguistics, which is probably why their explanations appeal to me. In Modernist cooking, just as in every language, there’s definitely structure–an architecture, if you will–but there’s also nuance. There are myriad ways to convey one particular thing. Many people think of Modernist cuisine as technique-driven, but, at least as I practice it, it is really more philosophical. It’s much more fluid. It’s the idea of creativity. It’s searching for purity, for perfection in any dish, whether it’s classical or completely novel. That’s rare, in any realm of life. That’s what I take away from my time of working with the team: the sort of philosophy of Modernist cuisine, more than any technique such as pressure cooking or sous vide. Most importantly, I’ve learned to keep an absolutely open mind. To stretch beyond technique.

I think that that will serve me in my next step, which is to stage for a few months at L’Agapé Substance in Paris. It is a Modernist restaurant, but rooted deeply in classical French cooking. When you go into a new restaurant as a chef, you are not necessarily thinking of which technique to bring. You are there to be imbued in what they’re doing and to understand it. Pushing boundaries, keeping an open mind, and always striving for perfection will help me bridge tradition and modernity. These are all Modernist principles, and all things I learned while at The Cooking Lab.

Aaron made an extraordinary amount of tiny sour cream spheres for our last lab dinner.

Aaron Verzosa joined the team as an intern fresh out of culinary school. He had written me a very passionate and sincere letter describing his connection with Modernist cuisine and his desire to contribute in a very meaningful way. Over the past year, Aaron has more than lived up to that promise and has blossomed into a very talented chef. He is now off on a journey that is important for every young chef, and I have no doubt he will continue to hone his creative culinary potential. –Maxime Bilet, Head Chef, The Cooking Lab

Coffee Without Compromises

Copyright Scott Rao. Used with permission.Few cookbooks devote a single page to instructions on how to make great coffee. That’s a shame, for two reasons. First, a special meal, hours or days in the making, shouldn’t end with a mediocre cup of joe. Yet even today, in the era of ubiquitous Starbucks, the coffee served at some of the best restaurants in the world wouldn’t pass muster with the average street vendor in Seattle or in Portland, or just about anywhere else where people value their coffee.

Another reason it is painful to see fine coffee making neglected at restaurants is that major advances in technology, technique, and understanding have actually transformed the art in recent decades, in much the same way that Modernist ideas, techniques, and ingredients have revolutionized food. While Ferran Adrià, Heston Blumenthal, Wylie Dufresne, and other Modernist chefs were pushing through the limits of cooking, pioneering baristas like James Hoffmann, Scott Rao, Andy Schecter, Tim Wendleboe, and others were working out the art and science of espresso and brewed coffee.

So when we were planning Modernist Cuisine, we decided early on that it should include a whole chapter on coffee. We think it’s crucial that all chefs understand the basics of what matters most in coffee making, from the roasting of beans all the way through the artful presentation of steamed milk. Preparing excellent coffee takes skill, and doing it consistently requires dedication and practice, but also a solid understanding of the details.

The coffee chapter in Modernist Cuisine, which runs to nearly 50 pages, is a good starting point. But for even more insight and instruction on the subject, you could check out the work of some of these masters in the field who are as committed to making uncompromising coffee as we are to food. The best books I’ve found on this topic are The Professional Barista’s Handbook and Everything But Espresso, both by Scott Rao.

Copyright Scott Rao. Used with permission.Rao’s explanations of the how’s and why’s of coffee are as important for baristas and coffee enthusiasts as Harold McGee’s work has been for chefs and serious cooks. Through a balance of clear technical explanations and practical tips, they open your eyes to subtleties and phenomena you didn’t even know existed and show you how to control them where you can. For people who want to improve the quality and consistency of the coffee they make, these two books are the ones to buy.

Several online forums and blogs also provide great sources of information. The forums at CoffeeGeek.com and Portafilter.net, for example, are overflowing with great ideas and research (as well as some not-so-great opinions). Andy Schecter, a frequent contributor to CoffeeGeek.com, was the first to publish espresso brewing ratios, for example, which have been highly influential in the barista community.

I also get a lot out of James Hoffmann’s blog at jimseven.com. James and I met back in 2005, when I was the head development chef at The Fat Duck, and James was preparing for the World Barista Championship (which he won in 2007). If you’re in London, make sure to check out his coffee-roasting company, Square Mile Coffee Roasters.

Tim Wendelboe, who along with James and Chuck Lambert helped us in writing our coffee chapter, also has a book out now.

Whether you’re a professional barista or only make coffee for yourself at home, you’ll probably be surprised by how much more pleasure you can derive from this simple beverage with a relatively small investment of time and money.

Chris Young is a coauthor of Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking

Scott Visits Ireland, Talks Modernist Cuisine, Centrifuges Everything in Sight

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Centrifuged foods, from top-left: cauliflower, Galia melon, white onion, lettuce, celery, cucumber, pea, leek, broccoli, grapefruit, apple, carrot, plum, strawberry, tomato, blueberry, beet, eggplant, kidney bean, potato.

I recently had the pleasure of visiting Ireland for the first time to participate in EDIBLE, an exhibition on food, art, and science held at the Science Gallery in Dublin. But I had ulterior motives for my visit as well — to promote, nay, evangelize, Modernist Cuisine. Our past European press tours hadn’t had the pleasure of stopping in Ireland, so I was glad to be the first official ambassador to represent our incredible book on Irish shores.

But first, I had to transform from food geek to “food artist.” I was contacted by Cat Kramer and Zack Denfeld from the Center for Genomic Gastronomy. They were looking for exhibits to include in the EDIBLE exhibition and stumbled upon some of my work at SeattleFoodGeek.com.

In my mind, one of the most fascinating topics covered in Modernist Cuisine is the use of the centrifuge for culinary applications. For the un-indoctrinated, a centrifuge spins liquids at a very high speed, causing those liquids to experience centrifugal force. The heavier elements experience more force than the light ones, so the liquids separate into discreet layers by density. Heavy stuff at the bottom, light stuff at the top.

In Modernist Cuisine, we show you how to exploit this process to transform pureed peas into three amazing layers: pea water, pea “butter,” and pea solids. Among all of the groundbreaking techniques cataloged in the book, centrifugation is one of my favorites. Why? Because it is one of the only techniques that allows a chef to discover new ingredients.

Without a centrifuge, peas are an all-or-nothing affair. If you’re extremely patient and have the dexterity of a surgical robot, maybe you can peel the skin off a pea, but that’s about all you can do to isolate one part of the pea from the rest. However, using a centrifuge, a chef can transform one ingredient into three! It’s like alchemy, minus the extravagant costuming and shouted Latin. Even more exciting, though, is that most foods have never been tested in a centrifuge. There is literally a new frontier (the voice in my head now sounds like Patrick Stewart) of foods that we may boldly centrifuge to discover components for new preparations!

So when presented with the opportunity to explore this frontier for EDIBLE, I grabbed a juicer and a centrifuge and went to work. With the help of two culinary students in Dublin, I juiced and spun twenty different, common foods. I had a good idea of how some — like peas, grapefruit, and apple — would turn out. Others were a complete mystery, but that was all part of the process. As you can see in the picture below, there’s a lot of water in most of these foods. Some, like potato, produced fascinating strata. Others, like grapefruit and lettuce, yielded a nearly clear liquid that retained the vibrant flavor of the original food.

Of course, it wasn’t enough to spin half of a grocery aisle and hang it on the wall, I needed to show the process in action to get folks really excited about Modernist techniques. So I went on the Irish daytime show, Four Live, to explain the process and to make some pistachio gelato while I was at it.

I wish I could show you the video, but territory restrictions prevent it from playing outside of Ireland. Suffice it to say that the segment was epic, and the entire crew descended on the pistachio gelato as soon as we went to commercial.

four live framegrab
To churn the gelato in a short time, we used liquid nitrogen, an effective and TV-friendly technique for quick freezing. The show’s host was enamored with how “sciency” the technique was, and indeed it has all the visual appeal of Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me with Science” music video. However, the extreme cold of the liquid nitrogen also serves an important, practical purpose: by freezing the gelato quickly, we inhibit the formation of large ice crystals that would otherwise give the finished product a gritty mouthfeel.

The best part, though, was disposing of the excess liquid nitrogen when the show was over. I emptied the 25-liter Dewar in the middle of an expansive parking lot to allow the nitrogen to evaporate back into the atmosphere. As a result, the enormous, Terminator-shattering puddle created a two-foot cloud that blew across the asphalt and into the open door of another nearby sound stage. A security guard emerged, bewildered, as if the fog were an omen of the impending rapture. It was awesome.

My visit to Ireland was very rewarding; everyone I encountered was extremely friendly and had a charming accent. The Science Gallery, enveloped by Dublin’s Trinity College, was an amazing place for scientists and artists to come together and share their work with the city. And it’s true what they say: Guinness really does taste better in Ireland.

Bringing Back the Pressure Cooker

Mifsud writes, I followed a few of Myhrvold’s other suggestions and soon discovered that pressure cookers make superior, stir-free risotto, cooked through, but with a pleasant hint of resistance, after just five-and-a-half minutes at pressure.

Rob Mifsud, who has reviewed MC, interviewed Nathan Myhrvold, and even went toe-to-toe with nay saying critics of Modernist cooking, has a brilliant article on Slate.com today. This time (with a little help from our Recipe Library and his copy of Modernist Cuisine), he is promoting pressure-cooking as an easy, effective method of cooking. Mifsud delves into the history of the pressure cooker while pondering a question many of us have asked: Why don’t more people own one?

Click here to read the full article. And if you need a recommendation on a model, we like the Kuhn Rikon Duromatic.

Jimmy Kimmel, Cryofrying, and How to Make a Laser Omelet

Last night Nathan was a guest on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” along with actress Jessica Alba and Congressman Barney Frank. Jimmy was very excited to meet and cook with Nathan — he’s quite the food enthusiast — in fact, he already owns a set of Modernist Cuisine and has been cooking sous vide at home for some time.

The Modernist Cuisine hamburger is a great example of the philosophy we extol in the book: even the most humble dishes can be worthy of extraordinary care and attention. You’d certainly lavish great care on your duck confit, so why not do the same for your cheeseburger? In the video below, Nathan demonstrates an abbreviated version of our cryo-frying method, which involves cooking the patty sous vide, giving it a quick dunk in liquid nitrogen, and then browning the outside by deep-frying. These steps ensure that your burger is perfectly cooked from edge to edge. But let’s be honest, it’s also pretty bad-ass.

It’s challenging to work in a kitchen adjacent to a machine shop and not get inspired to occasionally tinker. So we’ve developed a “recipe” for laser etching images onto the surface of an omelet! [Perhaps we’ll include this in a future edition of MC clip_image001] First, we make the same omelet base used in our iconic Striped Omelet recipe. We omit the mushroom stripes and instead cook a perfect disk of tender egg using a combi oven. A crucial step, it turns out, is vacuum-boiling off all of the gas trapped in the egg base before we cook it; otherwise, we’d end up with air bubbles and an uneven surface. Once the omelet cools, we put it in our laser cutter, turn the power down from “kill” to “stun,” and burn the image onto the surface. Some reconstructed cheese, cubed ham, and chives round out the dish.

This video shows the laser etching process, sped up 20x actual speed. Needless to say, the parametric recipe for the laser omelet would include additional celebrity faces.

Nathan also got to meet one of his favorite celebrities, Uggie, the Jack Russell terrier from the film The Artist. Nathan showed off a section of volume 3: Animals and Plants, and Uggie was particularly inspired by our rabbit recipe. Unsurprisingly, Uggie has a strong preference for free-range hare.

Maxime Demonstrates Hyperdecantation

Last week during his presentation at Book Larder in Seattle, coauthor Maxime Bilet demonstrated one of the easiest techniques found in Modernist Cuisine: hyperdecantation. By pouring red wine in a blender, you cause it to froth, thereby allowing it to oxidize better and far more quickly. Watch the video, and try it yourself. It might just make your Valentine’s Day dinner that much smoother.

Modernist Cuisine – Maxime Bilet on Hyperdecantation from Modernist Cuisine on Vimeo.

Tune in to Bizarre Foods Tonight!

photo from travelchannel.com

Tune into Bizarre Foods America with Andrew Zimmern on the Travel Channel tonight to see what the team creates for the man who’s tasted it all. Part of a Seattle-themed show, the episode also happens to feature Andrew’s visit to harvest geoducks at Taylor Shellfish–the very place we get our giant clams from, too! At another place close to our hearts, FareStart, where coauthor Maxime Bilet and the Staff Chefs happen to be volunteering a few days from now, putting on a dinner, Andrew teaches a class on cooking offal. Andrew of Bizarre Foods also visits the famous Pike Place Market and Vashon’s Sea Breeze Farm, and drinks a lot of coffee.

This episode airs tonight, February 6, at 9 pm (8 pm central) on the Travel Channel.

The News from Madrid

Aside from a few frantic e-mails from Max about the technical aspects of Nathan’s presentation, we, who are sadly not in Madrid this week, had not heard much from the team. On Wednesday, Staff Chef Johnny Zhu wrote on his Facebook wall, “Put Madrid Fusión 2012 in the bank. We killed it!” But it wasn’t until we read Colman Andrews’s summary of Madrid Fusión Day Two on The Daily Meal that we knew that Johnny’s statement was not just a mixture of jet lag and bravado.

Next week we’ll give you some of the details firsthand. Until then, read the article here.

Modern Marvels of The Cooking Lab

With our centrifuge, rotavap, combi ovens, and myriad other cool cooking gadgets, The Cooking Lab is full of wonder. That’s why H2 (formerly known as The History Channel) will be bringing you an inside look on their hit show, Modern Marvels. Our episode, titled “Under Pressure” airs this Monday, January 30, at 10 pm (check local listings for channel number; time may differ according to region).