Here are a few of the questions audience members asked Nathan after his Town Hall lecture last month. What would you have asked him?
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 eloté, 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.
I 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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m incredibly excited about the future of Modernist Cuisine, and I’m honored by the privilege of helping to shape it!
In the fourth installment of Nathan Myhrvold’s interview with Slate.com‘s Jacob Weisberg, the subject veered away from Intellectual Ventures (Nathan’s company), climate change, Steve Jobs, and nuclear power to something we can all get behind: food! Watch Nathan discuss both the necessity and art of food.
Dr. Nathan Myhrvold was recently invited to Harvard University to give a lecture for the Science & Cooking series. The folks at Harvard were kind enough to release the entire 90-minute lecture on YouTube in order to reach a worldwide audience. For more on the series, click here.
As you may already know, Nathan Myhrvold will give a lecture at Town Hall Seattle at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, December 5. Some of his topics will include:
- How Modernist cuisine is like Modernist art and architecture
- How we made the spectacular cutaways in Modernist Cuisine
- Liquid nitrogen and cryofrying
- Why your toast seems to go from light brown to dark and burnt in a manner of seconds
- Why we love pressure cookers and cooking sous vide
- Plus much, much more!
Also to be included in his presentation:
- Photos from the book and behind the scenes
- Ultra-slow motion videos
- Recipe videos
But now there’s an even cooler reason to go. We will be giving away two aprons autographed by Nathan at the event. Email us at email@example.com with your proof of purchase (tickets can be bought for only $5 here) and you will be entered to win! You have until noon on Monday to enter. We will announce the winners at the event (you must be present to win).
See you there!
As you may have guessed, The Cooking Lab is a bit different than the restaurant kitchens most chefs work in (even discounting the presence of centrifuges and rotavaps). One thing it does have in common with other professional kitchens around the world, though, is this: it takes a lot of people to make it run smoothly. As Nathan points out, at one moment during the creation of Modernist Cuisine more than 30 people were at the lab working, from editing and photographing to consulting and, of course, cooking. Check out this video of Nathan introducing some of the key players, with clips of life in a Modernist kitchen.
If you would prefer to watch the video on YouTube, you can find it here.
We also have a brand-new feature on our site: our Video Gallery, where you can find all of our videos in one place!
In my last post, I explained how vacuum-concentrating can condense flavor well below the boiling point of water, thereby leaving aroma compounds intact. Some Modernist chefs do this with a rotary evaporator, or rotavap for short. The only problem is that a full-sized version is a $40,000 piece of research equipment. Even a small one costs over $5,000. They’re fragile, and replacement parts aren’t cheap; they can leak in at least a dozen different places, requiring time to futz around and find the leak. They’re designed for laboratories, not for kitchens.
This isn’t to say that rotavaps aren’t useful for chefs. They are one of the few ways to capture distillate at temperatures below the boiling point of water. But if you want only the concentrate, rather than the distillate, there’s a much easier way to put together a vacuum-concentrating system. The photo below shows just how to do that (click the photo to enhance the image).
To build a vacuum-concentrating system, you need a few things:
1. First, you need a vacuum pump that can handle a lot of liquid. Many cheap vacuum pumps use oil, but if you pull water vapor through that oil it will emulsify, gum up, and damage the pump. Make sure to get a water-recirculating aspirator pump with a capacity of about 10 liters. This looks like a beer cooler, but inside there’s a pump that circulates water. As the water flows by the little orifice in the nozzle, it creates a venturi effect, creating a vacuum. Because they’re sold to laboratories (which are less sensitive to price), new ones can cost more than $1,000. If you’re mechanically inclined, you can take a trip to any major hardware store and get everything you need to build your own. If you look around on eBay for recirculating aspirator pumps, however, you’ll find a lot of these for far less than the one linked to above.
Your pump should be able to pull 5-40 mbar (0.07-0.58 psi), depending on water temperature. The colder the water, the stronger the vacuum will be. To maintain a cold temperature, keep ice floating in the water bath while it’s circulating.
An aspirating nozzle, which has a little side arm that you can screw onto your faucet, is an even cheaper alternative. Vacuum strength will depend on how fast the tap water is flowing as well as the water temperature. The downside to these devices is that you throw away tens of gallons of water. That water goes down into the sewage to be reused, but it can add up. If you vacuum-concentrate a lot, a recirculating pump probably makes sense financially, but if you just want to try it, you should go with the faucet aspirator because you’ll save a few hundred dollars.
2. The next thing you need is a vacuum flask, sometimes called a side-armed Erlenmeyer flask. They come in myriad sizes, from a few hundred milliliters (about one cup) up to tens of liters or more. For home use, 2-5 liters is optimal.
3. You also need rubber vacuum tubing. Most flasks require a hose with an inner diameter of 5/16 in. You can find this sold by the meter in a well-supplied auto parts store, or online.
4. Your flask will need a size-appropriate stopper, which is sold separately. For example, a 2-liter flask takes a number 9 stopper.
5. You need a Teflon-coated magnetic stir bar. This will work in conjunction with item #6 below, and should be about 2 in long.
6. To go with the magnetic stir bar, you need a magnetic stirring hot plate, about 6-7 sq. in. Again, because this is a piece of lab equipment, it’s more expensive than you’d guess. Luckily, eBay is just brimming with them. Digital ones cost more, but analog is just fine.
This handy gadget not only heats the plate, but also creates an alternating magnetic field that causes that stir bar inside your glass flask to spin. Once it gets going fast enough, the stir bar creates a vortex, which expands the surface area of the liquid and thus increases the rate of evaporation. The vortex also encourages nucleation. When liquid is in a smooth glass flask, it tends to boil quite violently because there are few nucleation sites on which bubbles can form. In such situations, the temperature of the liquid can actually become super-heated, rising a couple of degrees above its boiling point. You may have seen this phenomenon if you’ve ever heated a mug of water in the microwave and noted that it barely bubbled at all until you dropped a spoon in it, at which point the liquid suddenly boiled all at once. When super-heating occurs inside a stoppered flask, a huge bubble can burst to the surface so violently it can actually cause the flask to jump off the plate and shatter. Stirring the liquid creates little bubbles that serve as nucleation sites, so the liquid boils steadily and more safely.
The key idea here is that the liquid in the flask can never be hotter than its boiling point, which is determined by the strength of the vacuum. This is just like boiling water on a gas burner because while the burning gas beneath it is thousands of degrees, the water in the pot is not above 100 ?C / 212 ?F. Turning the heat up higher will make it boil faster, but it doesn’t make it boil hotter, so your flavor compounds remain intact. You want this hot enough so that it boils fast enough to get the evaporation to make it worthwhile, to get the job done. If you go too fast, the pump can’t keep up and the pressure starts to rise, so then the temperature rises a little. We tend to set the hot plate to about 205 ?C / 400 ?F. If the water is cold enough in the pump, it will boil away at 26 ?C / 80 ?Fa warm swimming pool, but not warm enough to change delicately flavored liquids, such as a citrus juice. You could set your hot plate as low as 150 ?C / 300 ?F, but you’d be surprised, you almost never want it to go lower than that for a reasonable rate of evaporation.