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Inside the Alinea Food Lab

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#1 ronnie_suburban

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Posted 18 October 2004 - 01:55 PM

It’s the first day of cooking in Alinea's Food Lab and the mood is relaxed. We’re in a residential kitchen but there’s nothing ordinary about it. Chef Grant, along with sous chefs John Peters and Curtis Duffy are setting up. The sight of the 3 steady pros, each in their chef’s whites, working away, does not match this domestic space. Nor does the intimidating display of industrial tools lined up on the counters. While the traditional elements are here in this suburban kitchen: oven, cooktop, sink, so too are the tools of modern restaurant cookery: pacojet, cryovac machine, paint stripping heat gun…wait, a paint stripping heat gun?

In the physical realm, the Food Lab is a tangible space where the conventional and the unconventional are melded together in the quest for new culinary territory. With Alinea’s construction under way, the team must be resourceful. This meant that renting a space large enough to house both the office and the kitchen aspects of the food lab was out of the question.

The decision was made to take over a large office space for the research and administrative aspects of Alinea and transform a residential kitchen into the Lab. Achatz and the team would work three days per week at the office researching all aspects of gastronomy and brainstorming new dishes, while managing the project as a whole. The remaining time would be spent in the kitchen executing the ideas formulated at the office. “At first I thought separating the two would be problematic,” says Grant “but in the end we are finding it very productive. It allows us to really focus on the tasks at hand, and also immerse ourselves in the environment conducive to each discipline.” The menus for opening night—containing as many as 50 never-before-served dishes--must be conceived, designed, tested and perfected. The Alinea team does not want to fly without a net on opening night.

On a more abstract level, the Food Lab is simply the series of processes that continually loop in the minds of Chef Grant and his team. While there is no single conduit by which prospective menus--and the dishes which comprise them--arrive at Alinea, virtually all of them start in Chef Grant's imagination and eventually take form after brainstorming sessions between the Chef and his team. Menus are charted, based on the seasonality of their respective components, and the details of each dish are then laid out on paper, computer or both and brought to the kitchen for development. In this regard, the Food Lab provides something very special to the Chef and his team. “We consider the food lab a luxury,” says Grant. Once Alinea is open and the restaurant’s daily operations are consuming up to 16 hours of each day, time for such creative planning (aka play) will be scarce. Building a library of concepts, ideas and plans for future menus now will be extraordinarily valuable in the future. Otherwise, such planning sessions will have to take place in the 17th and 18th hours of future workdays, as they did when the Chef and his team were at Trio.

Today, several projects are planned and the Chefs dig into their preparations as soon as their equipment setup is complete…

Poached Broccoli Stem with wild Coho roe, crispy bread, grapefruit
Stem cooked sous vide (butter, salt, granulated cane juice)
Machine-sliced thin bread
Dairyless grapefruit “pudding”

Dried Crème Brulee
Caramel orb shell made with bubble maker and heat gun
Powdered interior made with dried butterfat, egg yolks, powdered sugar & vanilla

PB&J
Peeled grapes on the stem
Peanut butter coating
Wrap in brioche
Broil
Micro-grated, roasted peanuts

Instant Tropical Pudding
Freeze Dried Powders of coconut, pineapple, banana
Young coconut water spiked with rum
Muscovado Sugar
Cilantro
Candied Chili
Jamaican Peppercorn
Vanilla Bean

The steps required to comprise each dish are, as one might imagine, intricate and numerous. For the Poached Broccoli Stem, Chef Grant begins by separating the broccoli stems from the florets. The stems are stripped of their fibrous exteriors and pared down until they are uniform in size. Grant comments on the use of the second hand part of the vegetable: “This dish started with the roe. Every year we receive the most amazing Brook Trout Roe from Steve Stallard, my friend and owner of Blis. Typically, we serve the eggs with an element of sweetness. I find it goes very well with the ultra fresh salinity of the week-old roe. This time around we wanted to take a savory approach so I began looking into complimenting flavors in the vegetal category. About the same time, our group had a discussion about secondary parts of vegetables and the stem of broccoli came up. I had a past experience with the stem and found it to be very reminiscent of cabbage. Knowing that cabbage and caviar are essentially a classic pairing, I felt confident that we could work the dish out. Now I'm struggling to decide if this is a broccoli dish or in fact a roe dish, I think they really battle for the top position and that helps makes the dish very complex."

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Chef Grant processing the broccoli

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The stems are placed in a polyethylene bag, along with butter, salt and granulated cane juice. The bag is sealed with a cryovac machine

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The sealed stems are placed in a 170 degree F water to cook, sous vide, until extremely tender; about three hours

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Broccoli stems after cooking


The crisp bread element is fabricated via the use of an industrial deli slicer. Chef Grant then brushes the sectioned pieces of poached broccoli stem with eggwash, affixes them to the thin planks of brioche and places them in a fry pan with butter.

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Grant's mise...not your ordinary cutting board

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Poached Broccoli Stem and Crisp Bread cooking

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Ready for plating

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A bright green broccoli puree is made with a vita-prep blender. Here, Chef Grant "mohawks" it onto china given to him by Thomas Keller

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Smoked Coho roe has arrived via Fed-Ex, courtesy of Steve Stallard

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Chef Grant devises a plating scheme for the Poached Broccoli Stem while Curtis looks on

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Chef Grant ponders one potential plating of the dish. He called this incarnation 'predictable' and started over.

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Another plating idea. This version is garnished with broccoli petals and ultra-thin slices of connected grapefruit pulp cells. The yellow petals are stand-ins for what will ultimately be broccoli blossoms


Grant is still displeased at the dish's appearance. "The dish tastes as I envisioned it....texturally complex, with the crispness of the bread, the soft elements of the floret puree and stem, and the pop of the eggs. The buttery richness from the bread gives the stem the flavor of the melted cabbage I loved at the [French] Laundry. And the hot and cold contrasts from the roe and broccoli …I like it…..I just don’t like the way it looks.” Another attempt and the group agrees, it is better but not “the one.” The use of the thinly sliced cross sections of peeled grapefruit energizes the group. In the next rendition, they make small packets with the ultra thinly-sliced grapefruit containing the roe...

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A third plating configuration for Poached Broccoli Stems; this one featuring the packets of roe wrapped in ultra thin sheets of grapefruit pulp cells

At this point the team decides to move on and come back to it next week. After some conversation they decide that in the final dish, broccoli will appear in at least 5 forms: poached stems, floret puree, some raw form of the stem, the tiny individual sprouts of broccoli florets, and the blooms. Grant feels that Poached Broccoli Stem could be ready for service, although he still envisions some changes for the dish that will make it even more emblematic of his personal style. “Our dishes continue to evolve after they hit the menu. It is important for us to get to know them better before we can clearly see their weaknesses.”

The thought for the dried crème brulee originated over a year ago when a regular customer jokingly asked for a crème brulee for dessert. “He said it as joke, I took it as a challenge,” says Grant. "Of course, we never intended to give him a regular crème brulee.” The team tried various techniques to create the powder-filled caramel bubble while at Trio to no avail. An acceptable filling for the Dried Crème Brulee has been developed by the Chef and his team but several different methods, attempted today, to create the orb from caramelized sugar have been less than 100% successful.

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Caramel blob awaiting formation. Chef Curtis kept this pliable by leaving it in a low oven throughout the day

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Chef Grant’s initial idea to use a metal bubble ring and heat gun (normally used for stripping paint) to form the bubbles does not work as hoped. Attempts to fashion them by hand also come up short.

Says Grant, “At Trio we tried a hair-dryer. When Martin told me about these heat guns which get up to 900 degrees F, I thought we had it for sure. If it was easy everyone would do it I guess.” Eventually, Alinea partner Nick Kokonas garners the task’s best result by positioning a small, warm blob of sugar onto the end of a drinking straw and blowing into the other end. The results are promising. Curtis suggests using a sugar pump to inflate the orbs. That adjustment will be attempted on another day.

“We intentionally position whimsical bite in the amuse slot, it tends to break the ice and make people laugh. It is a deliberate attempt to craft the experience by positioning the courses in a very pre-meditated order. A great deal of thought goes into the order of the courses, a misalignment may really take away from the meal as a whole.” For PB&J, the grapes are peeled while still on the vine and then dipped into unsweetened peanut butter. They are allowed to set–up, and then they are wrapped with a thin sheet of bread and lightly toasted. When the peeled grapes warm, they become so soft they mimic jelly. The composition is strangely unfamiliar in appearance but instantly reminiscent on the palate. PB&J is, according to Grant, virtually ready for service. There are a couple of aesthetic elements, which need minor tweaks but the Chef feels very good about today’s prototype.

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Chef John peels grapes while still on their stems

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Peeled grapes on their stems with peanut butter coating

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Chef Grant studies the completed PB&J in the Crucial Detail designed piece

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PB&J

Often, creative impulses come by way of Alinea’s special purveyors. “Terra Spice’s support over the past couple of years has been unprecedented, and it has accelerated with the start of the food lab,” says Grant. “It is great to have relationships with people that think like we do, it can make the creative process so much easier. Often Phil, our contact at Terra, would come into the kitchen at Trio and encourage us to try and stump him on obscure ingredients. We always lost, but not from lack of trying. He even brought in two live chufa plants into the kitchen one day.” The relationship has developed and Terra team has really made an effort to not only search out products that the chefs ask for but also keep an eye out for new ingredients and innovations. In August, Phil brought by some samples of products that he thought the Alinea team might be interested in trying.


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Phil of Terra Spice showing the team some samples

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Coconut powder and other samples


Grant recalls “the most surprising item to me was the dried coconut powder. When I put a spoonful in my mouth I could not believe the intense flavor and instant creamy texture, it was awesome.” That was the inspiration for what is now Instant Tropical Pudding. The guest is presented with a glass filled with dried ingredients. A member of the service team pours a measured amount of coconut water into the glass and instructs the guest to stir the pudding until a creamy consistency is formed.

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The rum-spiked coconut water being added to the powders


At the end of the day, the Chefs assess their overall effort as having gone “fairly well.” It’s a mixed bag of results. Clearly, the fact that things have not gone perfectly on Day 1 has not dampened anyone’s spirits. The team has purposely attempted dishes of varying degrees of difficultly in order to maximize their productivity. Says Grant, “Making a bubble of caramel filled with powder…I have devoted the better part of fifteen years to this craft, I have trained with the best chefs alive. I have a good grasp of known technique. The lab's purpose is to create technique based on our vision. Sometimes we will succeed, and sometimes we will fail, but trying is what make us who we are." The team's measured evaluations of their day’s work reflect that philosophy.

According to Chef Grant, “The purpose of the lab is to create the un-creatable. I know the level at which we can cook. I know the level of technique we already possess. What I am interested in is what we don't know...making a daydream reality.” With little more than 100 days on the calendar between now and Alinea’s opening, the Chef and his team will have their work cut out for them.

=R=

A special thanks to eGullet member yellow truffle, who contributed greatly to this piece
"Hey, hey, careful man! There's a beverage here!" --The Dude, The Big Lebowski

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#2 Chris Cognac

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Posted 18 October 2004 - 04:09 PM

Whatss the story on the PB and J thing, it looked interesting.
Moo, Cluck, Oink.....they all taste good!
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#3 ronnie_suburban

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Posted 18 October 2004 - 04:22 PM

Whatss the story on the PB and J thing, it looked interesting.

View Post

I can tell you that it was absolutely delicious :smile:

chefg,

What was the inspiration for your version of PB&J?

=R=
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#4 chefg

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Posted 18 October 2004 - 07:50 PM

Whatss the story on the PB and J thing, it looked interesting.

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As I said up-post that amuse slot is an important one. The guests first bite should, in my opinion, do more than just taste good. For us it becomes a way to disarm the diner. Yes the food is highly manipulated, yes it is aesthetically different that most that you have had, yes it tastes good, but it is also familiar and it is ok if it makes fun of itself. If we can successfully place a dish in front of the guest that is visually unfamiliar yet tastes of one of the most comforting flavors known….. we have successfully set the tone for the rest of the evening.

The dish itself it very simple. The technique of slicing bread very thinly and wrapping it around things comes from el Bulli. The inspiration for this particular dish started with the squid. That is what we call the holder developed by Crucial Detail. I wanted a bite sized course that would be consumed by hand and be positioned upright. I started to review fruits and vegetables that would provide a natural “handle” for the guests to use to consume the course. Once I settled on grapes on the vine the rest was a given. Of course we make the peanut butter ourselves and peel the grapes while they are still on the vine, that takes some dexterity.
--
Grant Achatz
Chef/Owner
Alinea

#5 ronnie_suburban

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Posted 19 October 2004 - 08:10 AM

chefg,

Can you give us an update on the Dried Creme Brulee? Has your crew been able to "push the ball forward," so to speak? :wink:

=R=
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#6 docsconz

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Posted 19 October 2004 - 09:18 AM

Fabulous report about an extremely exciting project.

ChefG, I have a question about the sous vide cooking of the broccoli. It appears in the photo as if you are cooking it in water on top of a range. How do you control the temperature to a constant 170F or do you?

Another question - I do not see the broccoli stems in the final platings. Are they there?

Thank you for the insights.
John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."
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#7 ronnie_suburban

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Posted 19 October 2004 - 09:33 AM

Another question - I do not see the broccoli stems in the final platings. Are they there?

View Post

I think I can answer this part of the question. The crisp breads are inverted, with the broccoli stems on their undersides, facing the plate.

=R=
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#8 docsconz

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Posted 19 October 2004 - 09:48 AM

I think I can answer this part of the question.  The crisp breads are inverted, with the broccoli stems on their undersides, facing the plate.

=R=

View Post


Ok, I can see that in the first two platings, but not in the final plating with the disc shaped bread. That appears to be resting flat on the bottom of the plate, although I suppose it isn't. It is an intriguing dish. Personally, the stems are my favorite part of the broccoli.
John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."
- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

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#9 ducphat30

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Posted 19 October 2004 - 09:55 AM

Doc,

If I am not mistaken, that is a bowl, so the broccoli stem is underneath the bread.
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#10 ronnie_suburban

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Posted 19 October 2004 - 09:56 AM

Ok, I can see that in the first two platings, but not in the final plating with the disc shaped bread. That appears to be resting flat on the bottom of the plate, although I suppose it isn't. It is an intriguing dish. Personally, the stems are my favorite part of the broccoli.

View Post

If you look very closely, it appears that the crisp bread disc is not lying completely flat on the plate in the final version shown.

I love the stems too. I often make slaw or soup with them.

=R=
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#11 chefg

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Posted 19 October 2004 - 10:23 AM

chefg,

Can you give us an update on the Dried Creme Brulee?  Has your crew been able to "push the ball forward," so to speak? :wink:

=R=

View Post


Ron:

We have in fact finalized the technique that we will use to create the bubble of caramel. After tomarrow's session I hope to be able to post some images.
--
Grant Achatz
Chef/Owner
Alinea

#12 ronnie_suburban

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Posted 19 October 2004 - 10:26 AM

We have in fact finalized the technique that we will use to create the bubble of caramel. After tomarrow's session I hope to be able to post some images.

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Most excellent. I'll look forward to seeing them. :smile:

=R=
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#13 Bicycle Lee

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Posted 19 October 2004 - 10:38 AM

uhhh...so WHEN are you going to start taking resumes?
With every post I become more anxious.
"Make me some mignardises, &*%$@!" -Mateo

#14 ronnie_suburban

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Posted 19 October 2004 - 10:49 AM

uhhh...so WHEN are you going to start taking resumes?
With every post I become more anxious.

View Post

LOL...again with the resume questions?! :biggrin:

Please check Alinea's web site for employment information.

Thanks :smile:

=R=
"Hey, hey, careful man! There's a beverage here!" --The Dude, The Big Lebowski

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#15 Bicycle Lee

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Posted 19 October 2004 - 11:07 AM

eh, there's still only the intro page there.
I figure that I might as well keep popping my face out into the open.
I know it is a bit like when I applied to Harvard, but then again, I won't know what I am capable of if I rely solely on speculation.
Even a stage position would be like my Golden Ticket, but an actual paid position, now that would be incredible.

This Food Lab thread really gets my neurons firing....
I will venture so far as to say that I believe Alinea will be one of the most important restaurants in America for years to come.
"Make me some mignardises, &*%$@!" -Mateo

#16 ronnie_suburban

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Posted 19 October 2004 - 11:23 AM

eh, there's still only the intro page there.
I figure that I might as well keep popping my face out into the open.
I know it is a bit like when I applied to Harvard, but then again, I won't know what I am capable of if I rely solely on speculation.
Even a stage position would be like my Golden Ticket, but an actual paid position, now that would be incredible.

This Food Lab thread really gets my neurons firing....
I will venture so far as to say that I believe Alinea will be one of the most important restaurants in America for years to come.

View Post

I appreciate your enthusiasm and perseverance. There is an email link that appears at the bottom (right corner) of the intro page at the Alinea site. From what I can tell, it appears to be functional.

Now....back to the food! :smile:

=R=
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#17 agbaber

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Posted 19 October 2004 - 12:34 PM

This is, by far, the coolest thing I have seen yet on eGullet.


And that's saying a lot. (The Bourdain/Ruhlman/Pardus/Ripert battle runs a close second, though.)

I look forward to coming to Alinea now as much as look forward to Masa or even The French Laundy.

I cannot thank you enough for letting us have this look into the process behind your food. It really is quite incredible.

Thank you.


(And Jon Klemt, one of your foodrunners at Trio says hi. He lives in my house at BU now. I nearly flipped out when I learned he worked at Trio with you.)
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#18 Fritz Brenner

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Posted 19 October 2004 - 12:41 PM

this is amazing, thank you so much for the report. :smile:

also very interested to hear about the brulée. what will the dessert feel like in the mouth? aside from its flavor, will the traditional crème aspect of the dish come through?

thanks again.
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#19 nick.kokonas

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Posted 19 October 2004 - 03:16 PM

uhhh...so WHEN are you going to start taking resumes?
With every post I become more anxious.

View Post



At the risk of starting a flood, I will say that nothing is stopping you from sending your request for information or resume to info@alinearestaurant.com . A "few" others have already... Every single email gets personal attention.

Officially, the next phase of our website will likely go live in December. It is likely then that Chef Achatz will begin sorting through all of the employment requests.

#20 nick.kokonas

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Posted 19 October 2004 - 03:29 PM

ChefG, I have a question about the sous vide cooking of the broccoli. It appears in the photo as if  you are cooking it in water on top of a range. How do you control the temperature to a constant 170F or do you?

Another question - I do not see the broccoli stems in the final platings. Are they there?

View Post



Chef G and the team are giving a cooking demostration this evening at the Chopping Block in Chicago....

There is an electronic thermometer probe that you can see sticking out of the right hand side of the pot. The temperature is monitored and a slow steady flame keeps it very constant. With a large pot of water, this is easy to achieve.

In each of the platings, including the final one which is a bowl, the broccoli stems are under the brioche.

... and don't worry Chef G and eGulleters, that is the first, last, and only food question I will answer!

Edited by nick.kokonas, 19 October 2004 - 03:32 PM.


#21 woodburner

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Posted 19 October 2004 - 05:56 PM

chefg.

The most amazing media, I have ever seen, in any form.

If one could parallel your artistry, it would be to Paul McCartney writing " Hey Jude" for Juilan Lennon.

Magnificent.


woodburner

#22 docsconz

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Posted 19 October 2004 - 06:09 PM

Chef G and the team are giving a cooking demostration this evening at the Chopping Block in Chicago....

There is an electronic thermometer probe that you can see sticking out of the right hand side of the pot.  The temperature is monitored and a slow steady flame keeps it very constant.  With a large pot of water, this is easy to achieve.

In each of the platings, including the final one which is a bowl, the broccoli stems are under the brioche.

... and don't worry Chef G and eGulleters, that is the first, last, and only food question I will answer!

View Post


Thanks!
John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."
- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

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#23 petite tête de chou

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Posted 19 October 2004 - 08:10 PM

A fascinating process to witness.
Shelley: Would you like some pie?
Gordon: MASSIVE, MASSIVE QUANTITIES AND A GLASS OF WATER, SWEETHEART. MY SOCKS ARE ON FIRE.

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#24 Gul_Dekar

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Posted 19 October 2004 - 08:40 PM

I have to say this is probably the most exciting section of eGullet at the moment! Reading about all the developments for Alinea has made me feel vicariously exhilarated about it.

ChefG: All the best and hope to see how the dried creme brulee turns out! :biggrin:

#25 chefg

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Posted 20 October 2004 - 10:50 PM

At this point we have been is the test kitchen for about 7 weeks. It took some time to get acclimated to the mechanics of a kitchen after a four-week absence, but now it seems the team has hit a groove. We are adjusting to our surroundings and getting used to the schedule that we have held over the last two months…now things seem to be developing as we envisioned.

One aspect of this process that I have found most interesting is the relationship between the actual foodstuffs and creation of concepts. In the past, while working 16 hours a day, I always wished for more quiet time to “brainstorm”. I felt that if I slightly removed myself from the maintenance of daily production it would enable me to conceptualize dishes more efficiently, freeing up more time to ponder technique, and craft the overall experience that would become Alinea. Recently, I have had the time, and that is not true. Hours spent in front of a computer, in cookbooks, and with my eyes closed result in fewer ideas than when I touch the food. I will have a preconceived idea of a dish’s direction, or of the aesthetic, and it will change before my eyes when I touch the ingredients. At this point I will walk you through some of the dishes we have been working on.



Ron captured the early struggles of the caramel bubble. As I mentioned this concept has been in the back of my mind for a long time, only recently have we devoted a great deal of time to the development.

Most of the time when a new idea takes its position on the docket we think backwards first. In other words reaching back to previous technique or concept often helps us solve issues at the moment. For some reason, in this case, we neglected this approach and stubbornly pushed forward with reckless abandoned. The blinders we placed on ourselves cost us a couple of weeks time and much frustration. As shown here

Posted Image
An early attempt to blow the bubble with a sugar pump


We were determined to “blow” a bubble of caramel, in the literal sense. This thought obviously stemmed from the basic concept of a bubble, as we knew it, the introduction of forced air into an elastic medium. Our determination became a limiting factor, when in fact we knew the technique that would solve the problem all along. It took Nick's wife, Dagmara, who was quietly watching us struggle, to bring the solution to life.

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Inflated balloons waiting to be dipped in sugar

We had used balloons to help us mold food into spherical shapes before. In the past we used them in the inverse, filling the balloons with the liquid foodstuff and popping the balloon to achieve the shape we desired. In this case the balloon had to become an exterior mold, the balloon dipped into the hot sugar and then deflated to produce the brittle shell. After several popped balloons and some burned fingers we finalize the technique and the result is shown here.

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The finshed caramel bubble

As I stated we were determined to produce a dried crème brulee. After the burnt sugar sphere was created the rest seemed easy. A mixture of spray dried cream, egg yolk, and powdered sugar scented with vanilla was mixed and added to the orb. A bottom layer of sugar was added and the result was a globe of caramel with a powdered “custard” interior.

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A Dried Creme Brulee Cracked Open

In true ironic innovative fashion we looked at the November issue of Food and Wine today and read about Jose Andres producing a “caramel lightbulb”…after some disbelief and a few four letter words we came to the conclusion that we ran out of time for this concept. In todays fast paced world you need to get your ideas to the table very quickly, every pun imaginable intended.


I love coconut. We only deal with it fresh of course, and it becomes one of the “bottom of totem pole” tasks in the kitchen, that is, to shuck, peel and juice the flesh. The end result is far superior than any processed product you can buy, not to mention the sense of accomplishment that comes with fabricating a dozen or more, with the knowledge that the will be consumed that night.

For this dish: Stone Crab young coconut, cashew, parsnip we decided to utilize modern technology to help us achieve the desired effect. Parsnips have an amazing aromatic quality when raw, but seem to be very toothsome at that stage. After we settled on the flavors of cashews and coconut to solidify this crab dish we were determined to produce a veletely eretheral puree made from those ingredients. The first couple of attempts fell short, the puree coming out very grainy. But after marinating the raw cashews, young coconut, and parsnips overnight in a solution of coconut water and salt we discovered the mixture cold be manipulated into a smooth puree in the vita-prep blender with ease. At that point we froze the puree and processed it in the paco jet, the result was a mousse like consistency of ultra-smooth texture. This base became the sockel for the resulting crab dish.

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Plating of the crab dish

In an attempt to build on the aromatic quality of the dish we looked to volatile spices to accent the crisp raw flavors of the puree. Mace and saffron seemed a natural match. The result was vinaigrette made from the two spices; it would be tossed over the crab and applied to the plate. The last element was the herbacious kilimanjari basil which you see in leaf and bloom form.

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Stone Crab young coconut, cahsews, parsnips (front view)

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Stone Crab young cocnut, cahsews, parsnips (side view)

Procuitto-Passionfruit-Catmint

This dish was initialized from the dehydration of cured meats. Their intensely salty and crispy characteristics were appealing to us, especially since the use of a dehydrator produced a result that did not taste “cooked”.

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discs of procuitto in dehydrator

It seems to be the closest version of a crispy “raw” flavor that we can accomplish. I considered using pancetta in this manner, mainly for its rolled properties, but found the flavors of procuitto to be more appealing. Trying to mimic the spiral asthetic of pancetta we rolled the thinly sliced procuitto and froze it into a log. It was then sliced into thin rounds and dehydrated into crispy, half dollar sized chips of cured meat.

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A chip of crispy procuitto held up after being removed from dehydrator

Of course everyone would think of melon at this point. But the reason melon works so well with procuitto is what interested me. Knowing we could replace it with anything that fit the profile, we chose passionfruit for a few reasons.

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Sous Chef Curtis Duffy with passionfruit bavarios laid out in a sheet pan before punching

Obviously the fruitiness, but also the intense aroma and acidity. The pulp and shell were made into a broth that was then turned into a bavarios. This was punched into a disc slightly smaller than the ham and sandwiched between. Mint seemed to be another natural element to this dish. We chose catmint that was growing in Nick’s garden. It is very powerful and tends to push into nose more them most mints. I think it is nice contrast to the lingering meaty notes of the ham.

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Finished dish:Procuitto-Passionfruit-Catmint

We view responsible manipulation as a good thing. If we can maintain integral qualities of an ingredient but present it in a different form, be it an alteration of texture or physical state, that is appealing to us. This is an example of that philosophy. Here we have flavored a “cracker base” with a duxelle of wild mushrooms and various mushroom powders. The apperiel is mixed, steamed, dehydrated, and then fried to achieve its final form. The result is a very crunchy, intensely flavored mushroom cheetos if you will. We simply micro-plane fresh matsutakes mushrooms over the cracker and arrange various herbs throughout.

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Puffed Wild Mushroom

The dishes as you see them here will undoubtedly evolve of the next couple of weeks. I am sure by tomorrow morning we will all have fresh ideas regarding them, and as more days in the kitchen unfold the dishes will mature. After all, that is one of the main reasons we decided to devote the energies to this process, to open Alinea with dishes that have gone through the same evolutionary process as a restaurant that as been open for a period of time.

I am finding it difficult to articulate the physical process behind a lot of these concepts. I can comment on the inspiration, and the technical aspects, but the fact that they are so close to me prevents me from describing them objectively. Maybe Nick can give us an "outsiders" opinion.
--
Grant Achatz
Chef/Owner
Alinea

#26 nick.kokonas

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Posted 20 October 2004 - 10:54 PM

As an outside observer I feel very privileged to be afforded the opportunity to watch Chef Achatz work in the Alinea Food Lab. While I am intricately involved in the business of Alinea, obviously I am not a chef and will have no involvement in the creation of the dishes. As an amateur I have a unique perspective on Chef Achatz’ creative process, and the craft of cooking at such a high level.

Several things are striking.

Perhaps most surprising is that there are no shortcuts, nor are there significant differences in speed between Chefs Achatz, Duffy and Peters and a passionate, skilled home cook.

I watched Chef Peters peel grapes for nearly 2 hours, sweating at the brow, holding the grapes up closely to his eyes to be sure that he had removed all of the peel. This was accomplished with a pairing knife. Occasionally, one of the grapes would fall from the vine – which was intended to remain attached – and thereby render that grape useless. This all seemed like a terrible bother to me… peeled, unpeeled, what’s the difference? I thought this expenditure of tedious effort was for a minor difference in taste that would hardly be noticed. I mentioned this to Chef Peters.

“Have you ever tasted a peeled grape, Nick,” Chef said.

“I don’t really know,” I replied as he handed me one of the fallen grapes and picked a fresh one off the vine. I tried the grape with the peel first. Then I tried the peeled grape.

The difference was not subtle. The peeled grape was sweeter, fruitier, and lacked any bitterness or tannic taste. I must have given a curious look, because he just laughed, smiled at me, and went back to peeling grapes. Now I understood why.

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Chef Peters' Peeled and Coated Grapes


Obviously, I think there is a great difference in speed and skill between Chef Peters and me. It would have taken me all day to peel those grapes, and they would have looked lousy. But my point is, I could peel 10 of them well – and serve them to guests – and it would be a lot of time and effort, just as it is for Chef Peters. There is no fancy grape-peeling gadget (at least, not that we know of…), and despite the difficulty, Chef Peters happily struggles through because it tastes better. And that is enough.

Watching Chef Achatz plate the Shellfish Sponge dish today was another eye opener. For several hours this morning he created the components to the dish. One of the key components, mussels, was cooked and then the mussel was removed. Then, Chef G spent another half hour removing small portions of the mussel to feature just the cutlet – a sort of filet of mussel.

Meanwhile, after reducing, gelatin in the form of alginate was added to the mussel broth and whipped for 30 minutes into the sponge. All of the complimentary flavor components were also cooked or cut delicately into their final form.

In and of themselves, none of these steps were significantly different than what I do for a typical dinner. I braise, I reduce, I sear. OK, I admit I don’t use much alginate, but once I see how that is done, I can blend in some alginate too if I need to. I can even use a kitchen-aid mixer!

But then, assembled before him are all of these components. And a mold ring. And 5 minutes later, using just a spoon and an offset spatula, there is this beautiful plate. It was nothing short of amazing, and it reminded me immediately why I am involved in this whole venture.

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Grant plating the Seafood Sponge dish... this does NOT look easy!



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CHef Achatz' "Seafood Sponge" as seen from above



All of this ends up sounding like a Monday-morning-quarterback watching a football game. Hey, he says, I can throw a ball, too. And it definitely feels that way. In the end, you know you can’t do it, but you think, just maybe, you can. And that is the fun of watching the process up close. The illusion of simplicity is right before you – there are no tricks – and yet, there exists this finely honed craft hidden just below the surface.

____________________________________________________



Very separate from the actual execution of the dishes is the process of conceptualizing them. In this regard, Chef Achatz considers everyone’s input and is one of those people who truly listens to what one has to say.

Today, one of the questions he had was, “what is pure bitter – how can we achieve pure bitter?” It sounds simple, but the contrast was: pure sweet is sugar, pure sour is citric acid, and pure salty is salt… so what is pure bitter?

In these exchanges Chef Achatz will listen to everyone. He is exceptional at taking in a divergence of thought and honing the concepts down to the salient idea. In this case, everyone had some input ranging from “burn anything and it’s bitter” to specifics like coffee, unsweetened chocolate, a tea of hops. As a first effort, Chef Duffy burned sugar (intentionally..), and then diluted that with water, then reduced it. The final dish might be self-encapsulated flavors of sweet, salty, sour and bitter… then again it may not. But the process is one of pure creation… of shouting out ideas without fear of judgment.

And here, in the purely conceptual realm, everyone is an equal player.

__________________________________________________________________


There are several techniques I will certainly take away from watching the chefs and use in my own home cooking….

The most obvious is cooking Sous Vide. I know that sous vide cooking has been covered extensively on eGullet, so I will not delve into the details. But it is a wonderful cooking method that can be achieved with a FoodSaver, a digital thermometer, and a pot of water. It is difficult to overcook items if the water temperature is properly regulated, and the flavor lives up to the ideal of chefs like Achatz, Keller, and Trotter: a purity of flavor based on the foodstuff itself.

On that same note, I am constantly struck by the fact that the best sauces I have ever had have but one main ingredient in them – the thing itself. So at this point if I wanted to make a grapefruit sauce, or a pea soup, or a tart lemon sauce, I would cryovac the grapefruit, cook it sous-vide for a few hours, and blend it smooth (peel and all) with a little cold water. At the end I might add some sugar or salt. That’s it.

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Chef Achatz spices the vermouth for the mussels, while halved passion fruit cook sous vide


It is astonishing to see this method and then to taste the final product. Yet, despite the relative simplicity of the cooking method itself, and the ability to craft one component of the dish well, I am left amazed by Chef Achatz' ability to create a unified whole out of 10-15 flavor components. Ultimately, this is the real skill, the art, which eludes the rank amateur.

I am left with a note, Chef G ends up with a composition.

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#27 bleudauvergne

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Posted 21 October 2004 - 12:43 AM

Simply gorgeous. I'm astounded at the beauty represented here.

On that same note, I am constantly struck by the fact that the best sauces I have ever had have but one main ingredient in them – the thing itself. So at this point if I wanted to make a grapefruit sauce, or a pea soup, or a tart lemon sauce, I would cryovac the grapefruit, cook it sous-vide for a few hours, and blend it smooth (peel and all) with a little cold water. At the end I might add some sugar or salt. That’s it.

I am very happy to hear that very inspiring bit of advice.

#28 Bicycle Lee

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Posted 21 October 2004 - 08:37 AM

ChefG:
I have a question regarding the seafood sponge...
I came across a kilo of alginate and have only experimented minimally with it. I am amazed by the potential of this product. My problem is: there aren't too many resources regarding the use of alginate in cooking that I have been able to find. I love your use of it to create this ethereal, whipped mound of flavor...but I am curious: what ratio do you use it in? From experience I have found that a little goes a long way, but I thought it might be worth the time to ask the mad scientist himself. So far I have only used it to keep gelato from crystallizing and thicken lightly reduced sauces...but even then it was pretty much a guessing game as far as amounts. Can you lend any advice?
Thanks
B
"Make me some mignardises, &*%$@!" -Mateo

#29 FoodMan

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Posted 21 October 2004 - 12:05 PM

I cannot believe we are actually observing this process, the Alinea R&D oner could call it. It really is one of the most amazing things to see how these delectables are created.

With the broccoli dish, it is very interesting how rustic the stem/bread combination looks right before plating and how refined it becomes after it is plated.

Thanks for sharing this with us.

Elie

E. Nassar
Houston, TX

My Blog
contact: enassar(AT)gmail(DOT)com


#30 docsconz

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Posted 21 October 2004 - 12:36 PM

Please keep this coming. It is amazing. I can't wait until I have the opportunity to try some or all of these dishes and others. The sheer creativity is phenomenal. The writing, too, is a pleasure to read.

As far as the dried creme brulee, are you going to discard the idea because someone else came up with a similar product presumably through a different process? That is the impression I got and I hope it ain't so as yours looked marvellous.
John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."
- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

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