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.


Behind the Scenes at a Lab Dinner, Part 2

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 2·458 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.

Behind the Scenes at a Lab Dinner, Part 1

There are no two ways about it: 33 courses is a lot. The amount of effort the team at The Cooking Lab puts into one of our dinner events is astounding. Though we invited only 16 guests to our dinner on November 6—mainly chefs, writers, and food critics—preparations by the culinary research team consumed more than a week. I usually stick to my office and stay away from the lab during the week leading up to a dinner, so as not to get in the way. But this time, Maxime Bilet, Modernist Cuisine coauthor and head chef, invited me to tag along and witness the controlled chaos. This is the first installment in a three-part series that chronicles my time behind the scenes.

Shopping for 16 guests

and 33 courses

The dinner was scheduled for a Sunday evening, and the intensity started revving up the week before. Phone calls and emails were flying around fast; I could tell the team had their hands full. So I waited until the Saturday before the dinner to dive into the fray. I accompanied Max to the University District Farmers’ Market in Seattle to buy fresh ingredients. The U-District market runs every Saturday, year-round, and is Max’s favorite place to buy fresh produce. Tyson Stole, our videographer and photographer for this event, met up with us shortly after the market opened at 9 a.m.

While Max picked out some Savoy cabbages, Romanesco broccoli, and delicate mustard flowers from Nash’s, I asked him what he planned on using these for. “I don’t know yet,” he said. Given the amount of prep work the team had been doing the last few days, I was more than a little surprised.

“You mean, you don’t have a shopping list?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “I’m just seeing what looks good.” Finding inspiration in fresh produce is a fundamental part of great cuisine, of course, but I wondered aloud how the team would respond to last-minute changes. “It’s going to drive them crazy,” he grinned.

Next, we were on to Max’s friends at Mair Farm-Taki, where we picked up a variety of fruits and vegetables, including Concord grapes, turnips, and the freshest ginger I’ve ever seen (I bought some myself). This is Max’s go-to vendor, so we paused for a photo, too. Katsumi Taki runs an organic farm in Wapato, WA, which has supplied our team with fresh vegetables for years. In fact, Max estimates that probably half the vegetables photographed in MC came from Taki.

At that point, with both of our hands full, we split up, and Max headed back to his car to drop off his purchases. The market is big enough that one can easily get distracted, and it was a few minutes before we found each other again. “Did you see the foraged watercress?” I asked. In response, Max held up a bag filled with Foraged & Found’s watercress and a variety of foraged mushrooms.

After several more trips to Max’s car to unload raw milk, colorful root vegetables, greens, and more, Max finally had everything he wanted and took off for the Lab, where prep work would be going strong all day. I bought myself some pluots (and ate them all that day) and goat chops and went home looking forward to helping in the research kitchen the next day.

Meanwhile, the cooking team kept at it. That night, after more than 12 hours at work, the team went out for a late dinner to Monsoon East (where culinary research assistant Johnny Zhu had worked as executive chef before joining The Cooking Lab).

Next week in part 2: the cooking frenzy begins

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!

A New Recipe and Our Cutest Video Yet: Olive Oil Gummy Worms!

We use fishing lure molds to make our creepy crawlers.

A special helper came to The Cooking Lab recently to help us prepare for Halloween. Find him guest-starring in our newest recipe video as he helps his dad, one of our culinary research assistants, Johnny Zhu, make olive oil gummy worms and “dirt.” We also have the recipe, along with photos and tips.

Have you signed up yet to receive our emails? You can get our recipes a few days earlier than we post them here when you check “receive emails” on your profile page. Register here to get started!

Mayuri: Where we get our spices

Uwajimaya is one of our favorite places to pick up all kinds of produce, but when we need an exotic spice or two, we head over to Mayuri, an Indian grocery store near The Cooking Lab in Bellevue, Washington.

The spice aisles at Indian grocers can be daunting at first, but they become easier to navigate if you know what you’re looking for.
Spices come in bags, in jars, and in bulk. Cardamom, black onion seeds, and mace are all important to Indian cooking.
Pomegranate seeds are delicious with lamb!
Certain products may vary in their spellings, reflecting common usage in the region in which they were grown. Ajowan, ajwan, and ajwain are all popular spellings of the same seed we like to sprinkle on our caramelized carrot soup.
A little research goes a long way. Look up alternative names and spellings while making your grocery list.
You can often find vinegars, oils, and fragrant waters not found in chain grocery stores when you explore ethnic markets.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help! We found our aloe juice in the refrigerator!
Tamarind, an important ingredient in Indian cuisine, can come in many forms. Make sure you know what type of product is best for the dish you are making.
You can find ghee in many grocery stores these days, but if you want variety, it’s at an Indian grocer!

Our Urban Herbs

Between grilling ribs, making rare beef jus, tossing pizza dough, and duties as the resident barrista (really, he makes the best macchiatos!), our Culinary Research Assistant Grant Crilly recently discussed one of his other roles at the The Cooking Lab: gardener.

Tell me about the system you set up for growing herbs outside The Cooking Lab.

We plant all of our herbs in burlap coffee bean sacks. You can get them for free from just about any coffee bean roaster. Each bag lasts only for about a season, but they work well for both holding moisture in and for drainage purposes. We put them on pallets, so they don’t rot at the bottom. They’re just regular shipping pallets, but they create a nice circulation underneath the bags.

Tell me about the hoses you have set up for watering.

It’s an automatic drip system, which is set up to drip for 60 minutes every four hours for an 18-hour period throughout the night. You don’t want it to drip during the day because you’ll lose most of the water to evaporation and you can even burn some of the plants on a sunny day.

Do you use any fertilizer?

We use compost. It’s all from Cedar Grove. That’s the local waste management composting company. All of the compostable waste from our building goes to Cedar Grove actually, most of the compostable organic waste from the Seattle area goes to Cedar Grove. They then turn it into actual compost.

You don’t really do much in the way of trimming the plants back, do you?

No, we don’t trim like in a normal garden because we want the blossoms and flowers and everything. We use those. And the bees like them! We just do some general weeding.

The garden is between the Lab’s building and the parking lot, which isn’t a lot of space. Would you say you could do this on, say, an apartment balcony?

Yeah, you can do this anywhere. The nice thing about this system is that you can adjust the size. You can do one bag; you can do a hundred bags. And you can move them around. We used to have garden beds out there, but this system works better because if one plant is done for the season, you can take it out, scrap it, and get a new bag for a different plant to replace it.

Tell me about the cherry tomatoes.

This year has been a rough one for tomatoes in the Pacific Northwest. We grow two types of tomatoes out there: Sweet 100s and Sun Golds.

Some of these herbs I recognize, some I don’t. For instance, I see more than one kind of thyme and basil.

Yeah, there’s a few different types of thyme. There’s a French thyme, and then a lemon thyme. There’s a little bush thyme, but we don’t really use that. The thyme grows like crazy. There are a few different basils, too: a globe basil and a green basil and a purple basil. And then there’s a Pistou, which is a petite basil.

What are some of the more interesting or unusual herbs you grow?

We grow pineapple sage. If you grab it and mush it real quick, it smells like pineapple. Stevia is interesting: it is like pure sugar. It’s the only zero-calorie sugar. It’s super sugary. It’s like eating a whole thing of Bubblicious bubble gum. We grow salsify. We have cute little purple carrots.

You grow chamomile, right?

We used up our Roman chamomile during the last Lab dinner in Max’s sherry reduction for the spot prawns course. Chamomile also has a dry floral component like sherry; they match up really well. Max infuses it in the sauce at the last second. So what you see now, that’s pennyroyal: it looks kind of similar. We use it to flavor broths or serve with fish. It dries on the bud, but we use it fresh or dried. It’s good fresh, but we like to flavor things with the dried pennyroyal.

So, do you really grow enough of each herb to use?

No, we use them for garnishes and stuff like that. We’re not using them for substantial amounts of food. But as a garnish, they bring our dishes a nice freshness.

What are you going to be doing this time of year to prepare for the winter?

Rip everything out, pretty much. Just let it be dirt for a couple of months.

In the springtime, when you put the dirt in a new bag, will you actually dump it out or put the whole bag in a new bag?

You can’t really do that because the bags are so tender, they will start to decompose a little bit. So you have to dump everything out and put it back in there. But you’ll want to do that anyway because you want to rip the old plants out and loosen up the soil. And start over. Get new sacks. Plant new stuff.

Even though some of the herbs would come back?

Yeah, some would, like the mint. Most of the mint and chives are from last year. But it’s getting too out of hand. It’s getting crazy.

So it’s time to restart?


Inside The Lab with the Modernist Cuisine Kitchen Team: Trials and Variables

In Parts One and Two of this three-part series, I described the processes by which we developed the recipes and captured the images for Modernist Cuisine. In this final post, I will explain how one of the most tedious aspects of our job turned out to be among the most useful.

With most cookbooks, a chef must usually spend a lot of time deciphering a particular recipe in order to break down its components to the essentials. Modernist Cuisine is different in that we furnish the chef with parametric recipes and tables that provide the crucial components of a dish, and then we offer some suggested variables.

For example, a typical sausage recipe will contain meat, fat, binders, and spices calculated to specific measurements. In contrast, Modernist Cuisine provides a table that shows a ratio of meat to fat to binder, plus any other components, for different styles of sausage. Providing a ratio allows the chef to introduce his or her own preferences and tastes to create their own distinctive dish without having to reverse-engineer it from a static recipe.

These tables require a large, sometimes exhaustive, amount of data. For example, just to fill out the additives portion of the sausage table, we set up and tasted 56 variations of additives, binders, and emulsifiers, all in at least three different concentrations! For the 14 temperature grades in our egg chart, we tested the entire range of 55-80 °C / 130-176 °F, degree by individual degree. The sheer number of variables became mind-numbing at times, but the utility of this raw data is invaluable.

The hot fruit and vegetable gels table.

This series has encompassed in a nutshell what the kitchen team behind Modernist Cuisine does all day. While our work can be wearing, we think it is definitely worth the results, and we hope that you do as well. We look forward to the forthcoming release of the book and to finding new ways of pushing the boundaries of cuisine. As we discover more new and exciting things, we will post the results right here, so check back again soon.

Inside The Lab with the Modernist Cuisine Kitchen Team: Food Styling

In Part One of this three-part series, I described how we developed the recipes for Modernist Cuisine. In this second installment, I will shed some light on how we captured the high-quality, amazingly vivid photographs found in the book.

Most of the credit for the imagery in Modernist Cuisine goes to Ryan Matthew Smith, our photographer, who seems to make every frame explode with detail and vibrancy. But for every photo that causes a reader to say, “That’s crazy; how did they do that?” a member of the kitchen team likely did something risky to get that shot.

One photo in particular has attained near-legendary status due to its level of danger: the Pad Thai cutaway. The picture is already impressive because of the use of the cutaway technique, a method frequently employed throughout the book. (We have the luxury of working near a machine shop, so anything that a chef might want cut in half, such as an appliance, can usually be sliced within a day or two.)

The famous Pad Thai Cutaway photo features a cutaway wok with all of the ingredients for pad thai suspended above it in mid-flight, including the noodles. To capture the realism of noodles being wok-fried, Max and Ryan had to toss all of the components, in smoking-hot oil, as high as possible into the air. This is a feat that turns out to be akin to juggling napalm.

The Pad Thai Cutaway features a halved wok containing sizzling hot oil, noodles, and the dish’s other components.

While no chefs were harmed (much) in capturing images for the book, it is important to note that for every remarkable shot that graces the pages of Modernist Cuisine, someone on the kitchen team spent hours making it work, often by doing something many people would consider crazy.

Check back again soon for the final installment of this three-part series, in which I’ll explain how the kitchen team developed the parametric recipes and tables found in Modernist Cuisine.

Inside The Lab with the Modernist Cuisine Kitchen Team

During promotional events for Modernist Cuisine, we are often asked what exactly we do all day. While one might imagine that our days are filled with whimsical experimentation coupled with high-tech gadgets and mysterious powders, the reality of this project is that a book needs to be written — and that book needs data.

So, the short answer to what we do all day is that we provide data for the 1,000+ recipes and step-by-step procedures contained in the book. This information includes the numbers, percentages, ratios, and recipes for the plethora of formulations and tables that supplement the body text of Modernist Cuisine.

In this three-part article series, I will describe the process by which we developed our recipes, staged the photographs, and tirelessly captured the parametric data for the book. This first installment will discuss our recipe development process.

Inside The Lab with the Modernist Cuisine Kitchen Team: Recipe Development

Over the last three years, we have developed hundreds of recipes in our test kitchen. Most of these recipes have been either adapted from or inspired by various chefs and styles of food. But beyond inspiration, our goal with these recipes has always been to put our own unique Modernist take on them. Whether we improved upon the methods used or completely restructured the dish, we always sought to provide something novel in our approach to every recipe.

The recipe selection and development process evolved over time. Initially, Chris and Max worked together closely with Nathan to assemble an initial plan of recipes that dovetail with the body text to illustrate all the various cooking techniques and ingredients discussed in the book, and that also fit together to form highly appealing plated dishes.

That recipe plan was refined and elaborated extensively as the research kitchen staff grew. In 2009, the recipe development and testing process evolved into its final form. That process usually begins when Maxime, after hours of research and consultation with Nathan, presents the rest of the kitchen team with a dish that inspired us. We are then collectively given the assignment of finding a way to redefine and refine the technique(s) in which the inspired dish is approached.

For example, several months ago, we were asked to make a Modernist ham and cheese omelet. We already knew there were certain components that we wanted treated a certain way. For instance, the omelet’s filling would consist of finely diced ham and cheese, but it would also contain a siphoned scrambled egg with a silky smooth consistency.

After many trials, we finally found the perfect temperature and time for cooking the eggs sous vide, in such a way that the finished eggs were still fluid, but not sticky. From there, we moved on to the omelet’s skin, which we found to be ideally tender when baked in a steam oven at around 82 °C / 179 °F.

In short, we began with a vision of the model traditional omelet (specifically, a fluffy un-caramelized skin with a moist filling) and methodically worked our way towards its Modernist extreme, creating, in our opinion, a remarkable result.

The Modernist kitchen team whiteboard.

Stay tuned for the second installment of this three-part series, in which I will describe our preparations for capturing the images used in the book.