Behind the Scenes at a Lab Dinner, Part 4

Maxime Bilet, Jeffry Steingarten, Oswaldo Oliva, and Charles ZnatyJust as Nathan Myhrvold set out to write a 600-page book on cooking sous vide and wound up with the 2,438-page Modernist Cuisine, I started out with the simple idea of writing a blog post about what it takes to put on one of our dinner events at The Cooking Lab. I realized early on that one post would never do and adjusted my plan to allow for three separate posts, detailing shopping at the farmers’ market, prepping, and finally, the dinner. All went according to plan until I started writing about the dinner itself. It turns out that 33 courses is not only a lot to make and eat, but also a lot to write about. So here is, at last, the fourth (and final) installment in my three-part series chronicling the lab dinner we held last November.

The guests’ enjoyment is always the best part

The tasting menu paired the 33 courses with six wines from the Pacific Northwest (click the menu at right to enlarge it),
not counting the champagne that started off the evening during Nathan’s presentation. Needless to say, with the wine flowing and the food seeming to go on forever, guests were in good spirits. The look of utter shock on Johnny Iuzzini’s face when he ate the Raw Quail Egg–described on the menu as simply “a touch of protein to invigorate the appetite”–was a highlight. He was the last at his table to try it, so the other guests already knew that it was not actually an egg, but a trompe l’oeil made from passion fruit. Johnny laughed so hard, his head sank to the table.

Yet another surprise followed. The Polenta Marinara is a recipe found in Modernist Cuisine, but it’s titled in the book a little more descriptively as Strawberry Marinara. Another recipe straight from MC was the Mushroom Omelet, which was a great hit, as always. If you have a whipping siphon, it’s worth trying at least the siphoned egg foam that is used to fill the omelet. It is wonderfully creamy in texture but still intensely eggy in flavor. Nathan took a break from his work in the kitchen to explain to the guests the method we use to create perfectly even stripes in the omelet.

By this point in the dinner, some of the courses the team was plating up were filling enough to serve as entrees all by themselves. The Roast Chicken was delicious, but many guests had to put down their forks before they had polished off all of it. The pastrami was also challenging in its size and richness, but even the New Yorkers in the group said they hadn’t had pastrami this good; most of the guests gave it their all.

A we neared the end, the courses took a turn from savory to sweet. The Citrus Minestrone happily combined the two by pairing a quenelle of cucumber sorbet with vacuum-infused vegetables, all surrounded by a citrus consommé. I’ve never been a fan of cucumbers, but I enjoyed this immensely! And of course, I also enjoyed the pistachio gelato (as I mentioned in my last post, I never pass up a chance to eat it), which was served with macadamia and strawberry flavors. Max explained that they were serving far more desserts than they had at past events–part of the reason that this tasting dinner was the widest in scope yet attempted by our team. Pastry extraordinaires Pierre Hermé and Johnny Iuzzini were attending, and we wanted to show them that the Modernist Cuisine team can hold its own when it comes down to sweets.

It was around this time–10:30 PM, and the guests had been eating for about four hours–that MC coauthor Chris Young walked in, like a prospective father showing up at the end of a baby shower. Wearing jeans and a hoodie, he had come straight from the airport, hoping to catch the tail end of the dinner and greet the guests. As Max later explained to me, it was actually a treat for the team to watch people eat. It’s not something we get to do a lot. He said, “Because most of our food is communicated through language and imagery, it’s a very unique–and I think important–moment in our process for us to share the message of Modernist Cuisine through taste.”

The dinners also offer us a great opportunity to see people who, owing to busy schedules and geographic separation, we don’t get to see often enough. Oddly enough, Max and Nathan had just met with Pierre Hermé in Europe the week before, but due to projects of his own, Chris wasn’t able to make the trip.

The dinner ended with delicate snowflakes of violet sugar cut with a laser, Gruyère caramels, and olive oil gummy worms.

All 16 guests stood to give the culinary team an ovation after the meal. This was especially considerate considering that the act of standing probably required real effort at this point. Nathan thanked them for the applause and introduced each member of the team, from the chefs to Amy, our PR guru, to our photographers Melissa and Tyson, and even me, the blogger. It takes a lot of people to deliver a 33-course MC dinner.

After the dinner had ended, I asked Nathan and Max to sign my menu. Max asked me which dish was my favorite. After a moment’s thought, I said “France in a Bowl.” At the time, in the beginning of November, the team was developing my crazy idea of a Thanksgiving Stew, which Nathan had referred to as “Modernist cuisine in a bowl.” So, it was my hope that perhaps the “in a bowl” concept was catching on. There are, I thought, endless possibilities. But I also liked it because the base of the dish was a foie gras custard with hoisin sauce. The historical ties between France and Vietnam, and therefore the inclusion of hoisin along with the quintessentially French snails, frog legs, and chanterelle mushrooms, proved in my mind that cuisine is indeed always changing–even French cuisine. The outside influences from other ethnicities, the discovery of new ingredients, the development of new technology, and scientific breakthroughs all propel food forward, just as they affect so much else in human culture. Cuisine evolves, and it is exciting to witness the transformations that are underway.

I then turned the table on Max and asked him what he would point to as a highlight of the evening. He said, “It was amazing to share our food with some of our favorite chefs in the world, and to try to give back to them as much as they have given us through their inspiration and contribution to Modernist cuisine.”

While exciting, that aspect was also a bit daunting. Max had been especially thrilled to serve Andoni Luis Anduriz, a ground-breaking chef who flew all the way from San Sebastian, Spain. He also felt a little trepidation about cooking for old friends like Johnny Iuzzini, Jeffrey Steingarten, and Scott Boswell. But he needn’t have feared; everything went wonderfully. “I am extremely proud of the team,” Max said. “They came together after weeks of testing and prepping, and the effort they invested into each detail was apparent in all of the dishes we served tonight.”

Of course, just because the meal was done did not mean the night was yet over. Johnny Iuzzuni rounded up many of the chefs and guests to hit the town. I, however, helped clean up, matched coats with guests, and went home to a welcoming bed after a very long day.

Behind the Scenes at a Lab Dinner, Part 3

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.

corn butterI 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.

geoduck

Coffee: Because, Damn It, We’re from Seattle

Nathan Myhrvold on coffee at Seattle Town Hall from Modernist Cuisine on Vimeo.

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.

Scott from Seattle Food Geek Is Joining the MC Team!

Photo courtesy of Scott Heimendinger.

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 info@modernistcuisine.com.

I’m incredibly excited about the future of Modernist Cuisine, and I’m honored by the privilege of helping to shape it!

Nathan on Slate.com

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.

Enter to Win a Signed Apron at Nathan’s Talk at Seattle’s Town Hall!

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 mcgiveaways@gmail.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!

New Recipe: Garlic Confit

We love pressure cookers for making garlic confit, stocks, and grains, too!

You can find our recipe for garlic confit along with tips on pressure cooker safety in our Recipe Library! We’ve also included a step-by-step video on how to safely use a pressure cooker and a helpful table on the boiling point of liquids at different gauges of pressure.

The MC Team

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!