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.