I first went to Mexico as a backpacker over winter break in 2007. My total budget for three weeks and 5,000 kilometers was $500, which ended up covering transportation, lodging, food, drinks, and a healthy dose of souvenirs and presents. Swiss friends drove down from Mississippi, picked me up in Louisiana, and drove on down to the border. We left the car in Laredo, Mexico (a long story onto itself), and hoped on a bus to Mexico City. We lounged on the beach in Puerto Angel and visited Indian villages around San Cristobal de la Casas. We played cards on the zocalos of Oaxaca and Palenque. We spent many nights in buses, since they both got us from one place to the next and saved us the cost of a hotel night. I remember arriving in Acapulco around 4 one morning and exhaustedly drinking vodka and coffee outside a small café where only a thin tarp protected us from the pouring rain until it was late enough to go to a hotel that wouldn’t charge us for that day. Or taking 12 hours to drive 200 kilometers on dirt roads in the mountains, once again so exhausted that we slept on the floor of the bus between seats. Or eating blue corn tacos made by an old woman crouching against a wall in Mexico City, before heading on the subway to go to the acclaimed anthropology museum, and feeling absolutely content. It was a trip of countless adventures, discoveries, and encounters, the kind of which are only possible when backpacking and having all the time in the world, even if it’s never enough. It was a trip that made me fall in love with Mexico.
We were broke college students, and fine dining had no room in our plans. We didn’t try to eat exclusively Mexican food, but our budget forced us to and we followed the recommendations of Let’s Go Mexico for the best cheap places in each city we visited. I knew nothing about Mexican food then (we occasionally made tacos with high school friends in Switzerland, with Old El Paso taco shells and seasonings, feeling worldly, and what I ate in Louisiana was really Tex-Mex), so every bite opened me up to new flavors. I would eat the salsas on our tables by the spoonful to unpack their different taste layers—once even getting a real high from the heat of the chiles, something I’ve (thankfully?) never experienced again. I fell in love with tacos al pastor, that perfect combination of pork, chiles, and pineapple, which today remain one of my favorite foods. I was constantly looking for the next dish I hadn’t tried yet, to a point that became almost ridiculous, especially since then my career aspirations were to become a war reporter for the Associated Press, not work in food. It was, in retrospect, an unconscious behavior, just another materialization of a love of food that didn’t become intentional until I graduated college and looked for my first real job.
I dreamed of going back to Mexico ever since then, but it took me until May 2013 to make it happen, when attending Mesamerica in Mexico City. Then I went to Acapulco in October for the first Foro Mundial de la Gastronomía Mexicana. And back to Mexico City in November, to research a profile of Enrique Olvera of Pujol and another piece on the next generation of Mexican chefs. Those came out in the March issue of Food Arts, and appeared online the day after I came back from yet another visit, this time to Merida in the Yucatan, to celebrate a friend’s birthday. I’ll be back in May. I am lucky.
Those trips have been different. I’ve eaten world-class tasting menus in the best restaurants in Mexico City and traditional dishes prepared by village cooks over a wood fire, alongside experts who could explain and contextualize it all. They have offered the same contentedness and joy, however, and have rekindled a love that I hope never becomes dormant again.
The 11th edition of Madrid Fusión, which took place January 21-23, focused less on dazzling with technique and more on expressing sensitivity to one’s physical and cultural environment. It can be safely assumed that immersion circulators, rotary evaporators, and other modern technologies are very much part of the everyday repertoire of the chefs featured, and that for most of them, “creativity continues”—this year’s theme—beyond technology, especially in times that call for responsible economic and sustainable decision-making.
Click here to continue reading my Food Arts article about Madrid Fusión on the magazine’s website.
These days, it’s rare that I get to read a book that will keep me up at night because I just can’t put it down, not because I need to finish it to construct an argument around it for a presentation or my dissertation. Jonathan Dixon’s Beaten, Seared, and Sauced: On Becoming a Chef at the Culinary Institute of America initially caught my attention because its topic relates to my research on the role that education plays in the professionalization of the chef—I was obligated to read it, of course. I was also wondering how it could differ from Michael Ruhlman’s The Making of a Chef, other than reflecting an America even more interested in the culinary world than it was when Ruhlman’s book came out in 1997. So it was a wonderful surprise to find Beaten, Seared, and Sauced so engrossing that it became a pure treat rather than something to add to my bibliography.
Dixon is 38 when he enrolls and knows that he wants to do something with his hands but is not sure where that’ll leave him once he graduates. He’s dabbled in a number of careers, including writing for Martha Stewart Living, but he’s not going to school to become a food writer. He’s rarely sure of why he is putting himself through a training that has more grueling than rewarding days, at least at first. The chef of his externship site finds him useless in the kitchen. He’s broke. There is no Hollywood ending, with our hero getting a job offer at Per Se or the likes because his talent is suddenly revealed. But the book is not pessimistic—to the contrary. He shares his shortcomings as a student with a refreshing and reflective attitude. Dixon doesn’t attempt to send out a larger message through it, I think; it’s his experience, that’s it. But because he paints such a clear picture of what he did and how he felt during his two-year program, his book will be useful to aspiring cooks. The tone and rhythm are dynamic and upbeat: Dixon can talk about his hesitations without being hesitant on the page.
In the end, it’s not a matter of choosing to read Ruhlman or Dixon. Ruhlman was a participant-observant; Dixon is decidedly a participant. Their books are complementary; they show an evolution in our collective interest for all things food, but also perhaps an evolution in the genre to which they both belong. The Making of a Chef is more contextualized than Beaten, Seared, and Sauced, and more sociological; it was one of the first books of its kind, launching Ruhlman’s very successful food writing career. Dixon arrives when our hunger for behind-the-scene material on chefs could not be higher, as evidenced by TV shows such as Top Chef, and when we already feel like we know a lot about that world, which might give him more narrative freedom. Ruhlman’s books have often kept me up because I just had to read one more page, because the story was so good that I couldn’t go to sleep without knowing just a bit more of it. Dixon’s has done the same thing.
Dixon will talk about his book at the Museum of the City of New York on May 19. See below for details and a special discount (I bought a ticket before receiving this notice and bought the book too, so this is not a sponsored post or one resulting from perks received!).
Thursday, May 19 at 6:30 pm Beaten, Seared and Sauced: A New York Culinary Education
With a grueling combination of in-class training and externships at some of the city’s most famous restaurants, the Culinary Institute of America has graduated some of the most influential chefs and culinary celebrities on the New York City food scene. Jonathan Dixon, CIA graduate and author of Beaten, Seared, and Sauced: On Becoming a Chef at the Culinary Institute of America (Clarkson Potter, 2011), and Andrew Friedman, author of Knives at Dawn: America’s Quest for Culinary Glory at the Legendary Bocuse d’Or Competition (Free Press, 2009), offer a behind-the-scenes look at the cutthroat world of Michelin stars, maniacal chefs, and the chaotic kitchens of New York from the perspective of chefs in training.
Presented in conjunction with the exhibition Moveable Feast: Fresh Produce and the NYC Green Carts Program.
I wrote an article about Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, an interview with Nathan Myhrvold, and a profile of co-author Maxime Bilet for the ICE newsletter. I’ll post some of that when it comes out, but this is more of a stream-of-consciousness post to try and understand why it was so hard to write about a book I’ve been hearing about since 2008—the first time I talked to Max and to Chris Young, the other co-author, about it. I saw early pages when Chris brought them to StarChefs’ International Chefs Congress in September 2009. I saw some more again in May 2010 when I was lucky enough to have coffee with Nathan and his extraordinary publicist, Carrie Bachman. Chris and Max agreed months ago to present at the daylong symposium of the Experimental Cuisine Collective in May. So I think it’s fair to say that I’ve been pretty familiar with the project, without being intimate with it. I was expecting words to flow on the page once I read through all five volumes and kitchen manual in an online viewing site and through a hard copy of volume 2 (Techniques and Equipment), such was my excitement at finally getting to see it all. But it was almost too much to process at once (and by once I mean several weeks).
There isn’t really is a beginning and an end to Modernist Cuisine, although everyone should start with volume 1, which provides the fundamentals necessary to understand the material in the other volumes. It is easy enough to consult the index when looking for a specific information, or to let oneself be carried by the beautiful, clear writing a few randomly opened pages at a time. I had first favored that latter approach, when trying to grasp the breadth and depth of the full book, then decided to methodically make my way through each volume, skimming some pages, reading others attentively. I was fascinated with the history section of volume 1, which thoroughly (starting with the invention of fire) contextualizes Modernist cooking. Having read many food history works and being knowledgeable of the specific history of this new cuisine, I was nonetheless impressed by the material covered and the superb summary that chapter provided, only regretting that I couldn’t copy it for the students of my experimental cuisine class at NYU. Knowing the context in which this genre emerged is essential to its application in the kitchen, I believe, or even to its critique. Too much of what I read online or in print about experimental/science-based/Modernist cooking is overly simplified and shows no sense of history. Reading those 100 or so pages should be mandatory for anyone who writes as much as a blog post using a term like “molecular gastronomy.”
So why so hard? I think it’s because I felt a personal responsibility to do this book justice. Some reviews, even when written by renowned authors in prestigious publications, didn’t seem to “get it.” Others did, beautifully so, raising the bar for anyone writing on the topic, even if not even close to coming to the same category of publication. I adore this book and find it to be a bargain (at $625, or $462 on Amazon) when all the information it contains is taken into consideration. It’s a work of art visually. It makes science and technology accessible. It provides recipes to use the technologies that have emerged for kitchen use (rather than just lab use) in recent years. It challenges its readers to be better—better cooks, better thinkers, better food people. But just saying this is equivalent to gushing, so I had to do more. I’m not sure I’ve succeeded, but I know that I can’t wait for my copy to arrive so that I can continue to think about and explore Modernist cuisine in all that it has to offer, thanks to the amazing gift Nathan, Chris, Max, and their large team have given us.
“Being creative as a chef is not mimicking what you see in Tokyo or Bangkok,” said Grant Achatz, the chef-owner of Alinea in Chicago, at the Institute of Culinary Education last night. “It’s being inspired by that. It’s reactions to influences, whether those are reading a book, walking down the street, or looking up something online. Creativity is really unpredictable, and can come from anywhere.”
Achatz was in town to promote his memoir, Life, on the Line, co-authored with his business partner, Nick Kokonas. Both spoke at a panel moderated by food writer and food52.com founder Amanda Hesser and attended by chefs such as Peter Hoffman and George Mendes, media such as Jeffrey Steingarten and Melissa Clark, and a bevy of industry professionals and ICE students.
Achatz, whose restaurant is seventh in the S. Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants—the highest ranked in the United States—won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef in 2008. He met Kokonas when the now former trader became a regular at Trio, where Achatz first showcased his unique cooking style as executive chef, and offered to build a restaurant with him.
“You need commerce to make the art, and vice versa,” Achatz said after Kokonas pointed out that Achatz has much more of a hand in the business side of the restaurant than people think. Kokonas also said that people are surprised to hear how often the two talk about food together, as the pair explained how their collaboration works. Kokonas pointed out that Achatz could not create the food he does without a lot of infrastructure. Even though Kokonas never interferes with what Achatz puts on the menu, the two jokingly acknowledged that anything Kokonas doesn’t like seem to disappear from the menu after a few days.
Achatz used that anecdote as an opportunity to discuss how editing contributes to the making of a great chef. “Ideas are not hard to come by,” he said. “You can have an idea and realize the next day that it’s not that great. That’s editing. Chefs often throw out an idea before editing it, which is a mistake. An idea is one thing, a great idea is another.”
Achatz spoke of Alinea as a place that never feels like work, only like passion, as he spends 16 hours a day there with a staff of 65 dedicated to serving the 64 diners the restaurant can accommodate at a time. This unusual ratio is essential to the highly interactive dishes served at Alinea, where currently a dessert course consists of Achatz and a cook laying out the components of the dish on a silicone mat that covers all 48 square inches of the table directly in front of the guests.
“We are in the midst of another big shift in gastronomy,” he said. “At Alinea, we’re moving past the focus of modernist cuisine, whatever you want to call it, to focus on the guests’ emotions and reactions. It’s not about being showy. It’s about interacting with the guests and having them eat food in a different way and at a different scale.”
Achatz and Kokonas will open two establishments in Chicago, Next and The Aviary—a cocktail bar that will do with drinks what Alinea does with food—by the end of the month. At Next, the menu will be completely reinvented every three months, and focus on different styles of cooking and time periods. The opening menu will take diners to Paris in 1907, with classic Escoffier-style food as interpreted by Achatz.
“The guy can actually cook; it’s not smoke and mirrors,” said Kokonas with a laugh, since Achatz made his name with revolutionary techniques and is primarily known for his experimental cooking.
Achatz, who spent several years working with Thomas Keller at the French Laundry and spoke fondly of his mentor throughout the evening, stressed the importance of establishing solid foundations.
“It’s a misconception of a lot young chefs now, especially as they see lots of chefs on television and chefs treated like rock stars,” he emphatically stated. “The foundation is always classic cooking. Always.”
This post also appeared on Diced, the official blog of the Institute of Culinary Education, with photos by Stephanie Bourgeois.
This afternoon, Blue Hill and the French Culinary Institute hosted a demonstration by chef Ángel León of Aponiente in El Puerto de Santa Maria, Andalucía, Spain, featuring his work with products from the ocean. León is the son of a fisherman and serves creative seafood preparation in his 25-seat fine dining restaurant, inspired by the great knowledge of the sea and its products that he gained going fishing with his father from an early age. I haven’t attended many modern cooking demonstrations about fish and seafood, so being able to learn from such a master, who is also a clear, organized, and charismatic speaker, was a truly special treat.
Chef León demonstrated three different techniques: olive pit charcoal fire, micro algae clarification, and cooking with plankton. He’s been working on those things for a while and has presented aspects of them before, but it was great to see it in person. He also unveiled a machine that has not been presented in Spain yet.
Throughout the demo, which was hosted by Chef Dan Barber, León made his commitment to sustainability (without using the term), responsible behavior, and preservation of cultural heritage very evident. After having spent a lot of time on fishing boats he was appalled that 80 percent of the fish caught in nets as byproduct was thrown back to the sea because customers want “glamorous, name fish.” He said that fishermen don’t have time to think about marketing names for the unknown fish. Seeing this made him want to make use of those 80 percent. Because of his relations with fishermen, they know to not toss back certain fish and bring them to him instead. He said that the chefs who work with such fish want control over the process and don’t want to buy it back from the market already fabricated. A lot of the fish are small and so hard to control once filleted, which prompts the need for other techniques. He takes primal cuts of those small fish, marinates them in salt to make them firmer, then wrap them in plastic wrap, which turns the fish into something that can be controlled. He plunges it 1 minute in boiling water then chills it on ice. The fat coagulates and allows him to then cut and serve the fish however he wants to. He used mackerel that way, for example, and said that with this method he can then serve it sashimi style, cook it a la plancha, etc.
I missed the very beginning of his presentation because I was stuck in a meeting, so don’t know exactly how he started it, but he was cooking fish over an olive pit charcoal fire, which he was heating up with a blow dryer (he presented that with Chef Andoni Aduriz at Madrid Fusion in 2008). Olive pits are abundant in Spain and make for a clean burning charcoal. I think that the fish might have been the mackerel prepared in the process described above but can’t be absolutely sure. He gave the above explanation afterward, but the fish he was cooking when I arrived looked just like the one he then sliced to serve sashimi style. We didn’t get to taste the fish cooked over the olive pits, but he said that it picks up the flavor. He used the same fire again later in the demo and just restarted it with the blow dryer.
Then he moved on to micro algae clarification, which he developed into the Clarimax machine. He wanted to work with algae and did his own chemical analysis of them in his kitchen. He then developed a flour-like product from those micro-algae. He made a very murky broth (which can be meat or fish) and added some of that flour to it. Then he passed it once through a chinois lined with thick, brown paper (the one very often available in kitchens and used to wipe hands and counters alike). The resulting broth is completely clear. That process doesn’t require any heat and no flavor is lost. He buys that micro algae powder from a purveyor but said that it was nearly impossible to obtain.
He then spoke about plankton, which they use for everything in his kitchen. He became interested in it but didn’t know how to get it out of the ocean. He decided to go out with a boat and use a special cloth that scientists use to get plankton for their research. After four hours he had only collected 2 grams of plankton, which, once he got it analyzed in a lab, was loaded with “everything from the periodic table.” So he decided to replicate the photosynthesis process and now grows his own, which he harvests every three months. Plankton has 30 times more omega 3s than olive oil, Chef León said. He makes a sort of liquidy paste with the plankton (lyophylized here because he had to transport it from Spain, but usually fresh), mineral water, xanthan gum, and a pinch of salt. That liquid can be used as sort of an instant fumet, by mixing some of it with water and a little bit of thyme. He demonstrated that particular use in a seafood risotto that is very typical dish of Andalucía. He serves his version with clams from his area (he demonstrated it with oysters here because the clams are not available but said that they are not quite right for the dish, for taste and texture reasons) and egg white whipped with citric acide and lemon. The fumet and stock (he used both terms and I don’t know if it meant that in this case the traditional dish uses both—the translator was excellent but that part wasn’t clear to me) for the traditional dish require a lot of different varieties of fish and seafood, and must be made at least several hours ahead. He uses plankton instead, which is ready in seconds. The rice was first cooked with squid parts that are not presentable at markets because they are torn up and presumably some sort of fat and other aromatics. That part was done by a sous chef while he talked about something else. Plankton loses a lot of its characteristics when heated. It can’t be added to the risotto over heat because it is very rich in proteins and will coagulate. So once the rice is ready, they take it off the heat and stir in the plankton “fumet.” Chef León likened that to finishing a dish with butter, which gives it a familiar onctuousity. The “raw” plankton paste, which we sampled, has a very strong, yet strangely enjoyable flavor but the cooked one is more “commercial,” to use his term. We sampled the risotto, which was as good as any traditional seafood risotto I have ever eaten. The flavors were multi-layered and rich and the consistency perfectly “creamy.”
Chef León then unveiled a machine that had been covered with a white cloth until then, something that he has been developing with a technology company in Andalucía for both home and restaurant use. He is very interested by “cold,” he said, and does work in that area, without using liquid nitrogen in the restaurant, however. Inside this machine is a liquid made of all-natural ingredients (he said we could eat it) that circulates and chills things very rapidly. The liquid is of course proprietary and he didn’t reveal any further details as to what it might contain. The machine doesn’t have a temperature dial, only a timer. One controls the chilling process by deciding how long to leave something in the machine. Because his restaurant is small, they don’t have much storage space. Having this machine allows for white wine to be chilled a la minute rather than being kept in refrigerators, which is necessary in a region where temperatures average 40 C in the summer. His sommelier also said that he didn’t like wines staying refrigerated for too long. With this, they can take a room-temperature bottle of wine to chilled in 2 minutes. They can also instantly make a bottle of wine colder if a diner requests it. The machine he showed only had one hole, for one bottle at a time, but the one they use in the restaurant has four holes, which each have their own timer. It’s great for a tasting, the sommelier said. Chef León started using the liquid to chill stocks by dropping plastic bags of them directly into it. The machine can also be used with solids; he freezes an apple, for example, and then shaves it onto cheese.
The demonstration concluded with a short video about a traditional way to fish tuna as they swim through the Strait of Gibraltar on their way to the Mediterranean Sea, where they spawn, from the Atlantic Ocean. Chef Barber spoke with great passion about this process, which goes back to Roman times. The fishermen use nets that let the fish best suited for spawning go through, which ensures that enough tuna reproduces. This is not the type of fishing that renders tuna an endangered species, Chef Barber insisted.
Two hours had passed but I could have sat in that room for many more to continue absorbing knowledge and passion. I guess it’s time to plan a trip to Spain.
Today, I got to hear Heston Blumenthal talk about a new piece of equipment that will allow people to cook food sous vide at home. He consulted on the development of SousVide Supreme, created by Drs. Michael and Mary Dan Eades. I arrived late because I was attending a talk by Jurgen Habermas and Charles Taylor earlier that afternoon, so missed the founders’ introduction and the early part of Chef Blumenthal’s presentation, but when I got there he was talking about how the Fat Duck came to be, the fact that he has been cooking the way he does–thinking about technology and science–for 15 years, and how useful sous vide is as a technique. He called it the single most important development in the kitchen in decades. The event was intimate and the chef generous with his time, so we got to chat a bit afterward, as he showed us the new, cheaper edition of the Fat Duck Cookbook, which has the exact same content as the deluxe edition from last year. He’s most proud, I got the feeling, of the third section of the book, which includes scientific contributions by his longtime collaborators. That’s what makes this book a long-lasting one; recipes age, but this information will always be of use. He was having dinner at Ssam Bar tonight and likes going to steakhouses and places like Katz’s while in New York, he told me.
Back to the product he was showing, since it is thanks to the courtesy of SousVide Supreme and its PR company that I got to hear Chef Blumenthal, after all. I have been wanting to buy sous vide equipment for a long time, but both space limitations and the expense stopped me. My first instinct is always to be skeptical of products and technologies that have been adapted for home cooks, since I am worried they will have been dumbed down and cheapened. So I went in not expecting to be blown away, but certainly curious. I was quite impressed with what I saw: SousVide Supreme seems simple to use (we could look at the machines but this was not a hands-on session for the guests), with just five control buttons. You can switch between Celsius and Fahrenheit measurements, which I appreciated since users will be spending a lot of time online looking for recipes from all their favorite experimental chefs, I would guess–at least I will. The unit is larger and taller than a microwave but still compact and light, while still accommodating a lot of food, we were told: Chef Blumenthal and the chef who assisted him cooked 12 bags of salmon and five bags of steak in one machine. A rack ensures that the bags are not stacked on top of one another and that water can circulate.
We were served soft scrambled eggs with white truffles, salmon (brined and without brine), chicken (with and without skin that had been browned after coming out of the water bath), steak, glazed eggplants, and poached pears. The eggs were very creamy, which can be adjusted by length of cooking time. The non-brined salmon was firmer and had a more complex flavor, which I preferred. The chicken and steak were like many others I’ve had before, so very good (with a preference for the browned chicken). The eggplants and the pears were outstanding. The texture of both was still a bit firm but also just the right amount of soft and they were full of flavors. These two dishes were also the most creative of the list, I would say. Which is why the glance I had at the user manual’s recipes was somewhat disappointing: the recipes it contains had no appeal to me. I have chi-chi tastes, which might be why, but it’s worth noting. So were I to get the machine, I would likely rely on other sources to cook in it, aside from using the cooking time grid.
So will I get it? Probably. SousVide Supreme costs $449 ($399 if you order before November 13), which is reasonable for something so convenient and versatile. It shares the advantage of the crock-pot in that it allows you to start a dish in the morning and come back to it finished at night, for example, but with much more control (and, let’s be honest, style). No chance of burning anything, for example. You can cook meals ahead of time and reheat them as needed. And you can play.