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MobyP

The Fat Duck 2004

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In this weekend's Independent, Terry Durack asks whether acclaim will spoil the master of molecular gastronomy, Heston Blumenthal.

And Matthew Fort on how Heston Blumenthal combined mastery of French cuisine and the mechanics of cooking to win a rare third Michelin star.

[both pieces can be found in this week's UK Press Digest.]


"Gimme a pig's foot, and a bottle of beer..." Bessie Smith

Flickr Food

"111,111,111 x 111,111,111 = 12,345,678,987,654,321" Bruce Frigard 'Winesonoma' - RIP

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There's a new review of the Fat Duck in the Telegraph. The headline is: "Jan Moir concludes that while a dying millionaire with no teeth might appreciate Heston Blumenthal's cuisine, she'd rather have a cheese sandwich." I'm curious what all of you think of it. And we thought there was a lot of flak after the Shepherd's review....

Robyn

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I think the headline is fine. The article's bloody awful though. :blink:

Jan Moir at the Telegraph on the Fat Duck.

I thought this in particular was cute:

"The chefs may sneer that people like me do not "get it" or understand their food, but one thing I do recognise when I see it is greed."

It reminded me of people who feel it necessary to declare they have a good "bullshit detector," when actually it makes you think they have nothing of the kind, other than another undiagnosed neurosis.


"Gimme a pig's foot, and a bottle of beer..." Bessie Smith

Flickr Food

"111,111,111 x 111,111,111 = 12,345,678,987,654,321" Bruce Frigard 'Winesonoma' - RIP

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Interesting that she calls the place "The Fat Profit" and then points out that it takes 50 quail to produce 2 litres of stock for the "Quail Jelly, Pea Puree, Cream of Langoustine". In the Restaurant Magazine article, the figures they give are 90 quail for 4.5 litres and that when it is served with an oak flavoured truffle butter toast, as it soon will be, the dish would have to sell at £11.00 if it were to be individualy priced on the a la carte.

Given that the tasting menu consists of 17 dishes, and given what it takes to produce them (although I'm sure not all of them are as expensive or labour intensive as the quail jelly), the £85 price tag doesn't seem all that bad or greedy, especially when you compare it to the 6 courses (including coffee and mignardises) for £79.50 at The Waterside Inn.

I've had the champagne flutes she mentions, and although they are very thin, they are also very tall and I'm fairly sure hold the standard 125ml. £9.50 is the going rate for house champage in a 2 or 3 star establishment.

Other than that, I thought it was a nicely written and entertaining article, and reported the Fat Duck experience accurately, its just that she didn't like it very much.

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Other than that, I thought it was a nicely written and entertaining article, and reported the Fat Duck experience accurately, its just that she didn't like it very much.

In this case, Andy, I disagree. Whilst I ordinarily enjoy Jan Moir's columns, this one seemed to be driven by an agenda rather than by any real experience of the restaurant. The nonsense about "the fat profit", the continuous attribution of sinister motives to the chef and the staff, and the silly digs --

the chef's visionary monomania ... savoury ice creams, the crashing bores of the dairy world...the kind of wacky stuff that appeals to chefs and industry professionals in the same way that fashionistas are charmed by avant garde, but unwearable hats.
none of which actually describe the experience, but rather the reviewer's attitude -- all these make this a less than insightful review.

It's fine to dislike the Fat Duck. I don't like every one of Blumenthal's dishes. Some find his cooking generally obnoxious. But given the strong public interest in the place after its third star, people deserve to know something about the place as it actually is. Jan Moir can do better than this, and usually does. This was a weak, self-indulgent review.


Jonathan Day

"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

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and the silly digs --
the chef's visionary monomania ... savoury ice creams, the crashing bores of the dairy world...the kind of wacky stuff that appeals to chefs and industry professionals in the same way that fashionistas are charmed by avant garde, but unwearable hats.
none of which actually describe the experience, but rather the reviewer's attitude -- all these make this a less than insightful review.

Although I think its true to a certain extent that Moir can be accused of phrase making and given the timing of the review, opportunism, that quote in particular I think rings very true. Although I wouldn't agree with the "crashing bores" part, there is an arguement that a proportion of what Blumenthal does is aimed at other chefs, industry people and devised to get the likes of you and me excited.

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It reminded me of people who feel it necessary to declare they have a good "bullshit detector," when actually it makes you think they have nothing of the kind, other than another undiagnosed neurosis.

My old man used to say:

"it's one thing to call a spade, a spade, it's another to call it a f**king shovel"

I agree entirely, some get so caught up telling it like it is, they don't stop to wonder if they have "it" right.


A meal without wine is... well, erm, what is that like?

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a proportion of what Blumenthal does is aimed at other chefs, industry people and devised to get the likes of you and me excited.

I doubt you mean that Heston Blumenthal personally can't stand the taste of a lot of the things he makes, but dishes them up anyway because he knows they will appeal to a certain segment of foodies, including Derek Brown and the Michelin inspectors.

My sense from a brief chat with Blumenthal, from reading his writing and from dining at the Fat Duck is that Blumenthal enjoys good (delicious) food, its intellectual sophistication aside. He himself hardly seems an esoteric scholar: he's a somewhat blokeish family man who enjoys his Sunday roast surrounded by roast potatoes. He may have cooked the joint in a 60C oven and done a brown crust with a blowtorch, but so what?

Any highly ambitious chef "plays to the Michelin inspectors", if nothing else by ensuring fancy tablecloths and tableware, high standards of service and the like. The Fat Duck's offer is innovative, "molecular gastronomy" cuisine. A positive spin on dishes like the beetroot and orange combination mentioned by Jan Moir is that Blumenthal, like Adria, is trying to shock us into tasting these things anew, rediscovering what they really taste like. But why not write a review without bringing either a negative or positive attitude to the table, before the first dish arrives? Why not just write about how you, as a critic, enjoyed the food at The Fat Duck?


Jonathan Day

"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

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"This is the kind of wacky stuff that appeals to chefs and industry professionals in the same way that fashionistas are charmed by avant garde, but unwearable hats."

i'm going later this month. i'll be sure to wear my phillip treacy hat.


Suzi Edwards aka "Tarka"

"the only thing larger than her bum is her ego"

Blogito ergo sum

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Okay, time for one of those posts that BLH hates.

But why not write a review without bringing either a negative or positive attitude to the table, before the first dish arrives? Why not just write about how you, as a critic, enjoyed the food at The Fat Duck?

The penultimate issue faced by any critic of any craft or art or artisanship is: Why, and for whom, do they do what they do? The ultimate issue is how they then execute the answer.

It is my - probably minority - view, that any critic who goes believing themselves to represent the consumer of the work in question, will never be able to address artisanship, or craft, or art, at the highest level - because primarily they will see their role as one of consumption. That, imo, is Moir's problem. If all you can do is hold up your experience and expectations as the high water mark to be reached, you'll never know when they've been surpassed. More importantly, you will never admit that any work is greater than your ability to perceive it, because that goes against your fundamental precept that as a consumer, you are there to be pleased.


"Gimme a pig's foot, and a bottle of beer..." Bessie Smith

Flickr Food

"111,111,111 x 111,111,111 = 12,345,678,987,654,321" Bruce Frigard 'Winesonoma' - RIP

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Moby, I wonder whether we are discussing two different things here.

I don't have any problem with the critic bringing a concept of the good to a work; in any event we all turn up at the theatre, gallery, concert hall or restaurant with some idea of good art, whether or not this is explicit.

What bothers me is a critic arriving at a restaurant obviously predisposed to dislike it, and apparently not open to the possibility that the prior concept she held might be limited, or limiting.

I've had friends and family come to fine restaurants in France and -- even before the menu is brought to the table -- begin to complain about how formal the place is, how the waiters look intimidating, how the people at the next table aren't speaking English. Then the menu arrives and -- ohmigod -- it includes liver and sweetbreads. Can't they make a burger and fries?

I'd be surprised if the Telegraph were to accept a review written by someone who started from that perspective. Switching some of the details around, is Jan Moir's review all that different?


Jonathan Day

"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

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Sorry Jonathan - I was actually agreeing with you (I think). The point is, at that level, walking into that room with many preconceptions - as she so clearly did, and you so clearly pointed out - was going to be an act of ego that could only get in the way of a fair evaluation.


"Gimme a pig's foot, and a bottle of beer..." Bessie Smith

Flickr Food

"111,111,111 x 111,111,111 = 12,345,678,987,654,321" Bruce Frigard 'Winesonoma' - RIP

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And a slightly different perspective from the Financial Times (www.ft.com)


"Gimme a pig's foot, and a bottle of beer..." Bessie Smith

Flickr Food

"111,111,111 x 111,111,111 = 12,345,678,987,654,321" Bruce Frigard 'Winesonoma' - RIP

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And continuing his rise - of all odd places - Heston Blumenthal was just interviewed on Richard and Judy. He brought along a selection of chocolates - including leather, oak, and pine. And some beetroot pastilles - one of which had an increase of acid only, which gave it the flavour of blackcurrent.


"Gimme a pig's foot, and a bottle of beer..." Bessie Smith

Flickr Food

"111,111,111 x 111,111,111 = 12,345,678,987,654,321" Bruce Frigard 'Winesonoma' - RIP

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I saw that interview and I think this is where Heston has a problem appealing to lots of food lovers. Too many mainstream commentators concentrate on the the amusing little courses, the beetroot jellies, the tobacco ice cream, the snail porridge.

Why don't people ask about the main courses which aren't nearly as bizarre? Where are the questions regarding the slow cooked lamb, the pigeon and pastilla of its leg, the duck with pomme puree. All delicious dishes incorporating 'different' techniques but overlooked or glossed over by far too many people in my opinion. Heston is aware of this problem, maybe when he does interviews like this he should talk about something other than the little in between bites.

Intersting to see he has a new book coming out, strange that it has the same title as the last one, I hope that doesn't affect sales :raz:


"Why would we want Children? What do they know about food?"

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And continuing his rise - of all odd places - Heston Blumenthal was just interviewed on Richard and Judy. He brought along a selection of chocolates - including leather, oak, and pine. And some beetroot pastilles - one of which had an increase of acid only, which gave it the flavour of blackcurrent.

Could you describe the chocolates a little more? I am familiar with some unusual chocolates - but I've never heard of anything like this before. Robyn

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Nothing more to say about the chocolates, they really are tobacco/leather/pine flavoured chocolates. I have only tried the Tobacco, at first it tastes of chocolate but after a good few seconds you feel a slight burn at the back of your throat (not unpleasant) and the tobaco flacour comes through. Very nice indeed!

They are made for Heston by Artisan Du Chocolat who sell the tobacco flavour at Borough market on Saturdays.


"Why would we want Children? What do they know about food?"

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Why don't people ask about the main courses which aren't nearly as bizarre?  Where are the questions regarding the slow cooked lamb, the pigeon and pastilla of its leg, the duck with pomme puree. All delicious dishes incorporating 'different' techniques but overlooked or glossed over by far too many people in my opinion. Heston is aware of this problem, maybe when he does interviews like this he should talk about something other than the little in between bites.

I agree - the interview made the food sound a little Science Project ("And if we surgically remove your tongue, and then reattach it to your knee caps, and feed you sauteed sea-slug...it tastes like bacon!") But on the Web site, many of the main courses - as you say - don't sound odd in the slightest.

Well, I'm looking forward to going there.... (I've agreed to go as Tarka's security detail).


Edited by MobyP (log)

"Gimme a pig's foot, and a bottle of beer..." Bessie Smith

Flickr Food

"111,111,111 x 111,111,111 = 12,345,678,987,654,321" Bruce Frigard 'Winesonoma' - RIP

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Amazing (to me) that someone could say ""This is the kind of wacky stuff that appeals to chefs and industry professionals in the same way that fashionistas are charmed by avant garde, but unwearable hats" without arriving at one fundamental conclusion.

Namely, that however outlandish a couture collection may look on the catwalk, it will be influencing high street fashion somewhere down the line. The extreme militaria of one collection may be unwearable in itself (for most of us, anyway), but when Top Shop is full of cammo print t-shirts, skirts and handbags 4 months later, where do you think their inspiration came from ?

Likewise, some chefs may be doing things which the mainstream finds odd today - but their real influence is in what we will be able to eat in restaurants several years into the future.

Think back to the days before nouvelle cuisine, to what London restaurants were about, what the dining experience consisted of - elaboration, heavy sauces, Edwardian tradition. You may not have fully "got" what nouvelle cuisine was about, but you might accept that is has fundamentally influenced what we can eat in London restaurants today.

This is the importance of Heston's style of molecular cuisine. Not what we all eat in restaurants today, but in influencing the presentations and flavours we will find commonplace in a few years time. Not in repetition of his work, but in influence and in opening up the imagination of tomorrow's chefs.

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This is the importance of Heston's style of molecular cuisine. Not what we all eat in restaurants today, but in influencing the presentations and flavours we will find commonplace in a few years time. Not in repetition of his work, but in influence and in opening up the imagination of tomorrow's chefs.

It seems to me that what English chefs have really gained over the last ten years, and Heston is almost the apogee of, is freedom.

Defining the rules by which they chose to deal with food, and the non-classical schools with which they associate themselves. Has there ever been a more exciting time in food in this country? The resources that we take for granted - which 20 years ago we couldn't have dreamed of - are exceptional.


"Gimme a pig's foot, and a bottle of beer..." Bessie Smith

Flickr Food

"111,111,111 x 111,111,111 = 12,345,678,987,654,321" Bruce Frigard 'Winesonoma' - RIP

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I had exactly the same experience as Moir last week, the same food with the same wine. But I came to some different conclusions.

Let me start by saying that I enjoyed it.

That said, her point about course after course of flavour has something to be said for it. She talks of wanting a roast chicken, a green salad. I can relate to this. Jelly and mousse does have this effect.

But I wonder if the answer to this is not to have the tasting menu, but to have the courses instead. In fact, I almost wish I'd done this. Although I *had* to try the tasting menu.

What I do disagree with are the comments about the wine. We had the wines matched to the food, and they did this brilliantly. In fact my girlfriend cannot have cows milk (or butter, obviously). The restaurant not only adjusted and substituted courses, but also changed her selection of wines, and did this brialliantly. Moreover, the way the wines complimented the food was excellent.

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Giles Coren definitely gets The Fat Duck.


"Gimme a pig's foot, and a bottle of beer..." Bessie Smith

Flickr Food

"111,111,111 x 111,111,111 = 12,345,678,987,654,321" Bruce Frigard 'Winesonoma' - RIP

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It took my friend TP to the Fat Duck for a celebratory lunch yesterday. It was my second visit, her first. The first time I did really like it, couldn't see what all the fuss was about but though it deserved a second chance. Now seemed like a good time to return.

3 menus on offer: lunch menu, a la carte and tasting. After much deliberation & pondering etc. we went for the tasting (this was help enormously by the fact my partner, who is filming in Canada just now - had arrange for a bottle of champagne: me for valentines & TP for her birthday. Trust me, this is a very good way to start a meal.)

I remembered some of the pre-starters before but some have had a make over.

Man arrives with pot of liquid nitrogen. What looks like shaving cream is pumped from a canister- this is egg whites with green tea & lime, a ball of which is dropped in said nitrogen. As they can only do one at a time we are told to pop it all into our mouth in one go and to not wait for the others. The melting texture is simply astonishing an unlike anything I've had before. Great fun, pure theatre & not bad tasting too.

A couple of jellies arrive, orange & beetroot. Fine if a little unspectacular (it was a hard act to follow).

Next oyster with passion fruit jelly also had a hint of lavender. This was new to me & quite superb excellent pairing of fish & fruit. Could easily have had several more.

Mustard ice cream & red cabbage essence. I vividly remembered this from last time & as one of the few good moments. It didn't disappoint this time around.

Then came the layered dish which I also remembered from last time & really didn't enjoy, layers of pea, quail jelly & langoustine cream. This time it also had a dollop of foie gras mousse. I just ate the foie gras, the other were too musty for my liking, but TP devoured & loved it.

That was the pre-starters, overall, vastly improved on my first visit. Presentation was a lot slicker and certainly more fun.

The meal was 8 mini-courses starting with snail porridge. When ordering I said that I really couldn't see my way to eating he snails. I have a bad enough time with crustacea (insects!) but snails were a no. Very silly of me of course, but its hardly polite to wretch in the middle of a dining room. Anyway, we were talked into having a snail porridge and a vegetarian version made with parsnip & almond. The result was little more than a mouthful of bright green sludge with saving of various vegetables decorating the plate. The vegetarian one pretty good. I did brave a taste of the snail but its too rubbery & garlicky & was forced down with lots of water. I can see its attraction though.

Roast foie followed, quite stunning. Medium sized piece of foie gras which had the most perfect velvety texture with almond and pistachio crumbs on top & accompanied with two striking slashes of red cherry sauce. A few almonds & cherries dotted the plate. Fabulous.

Sardines on toast next, the sardine was mackerel ballotine virtually raw - with toast sorbet. The sorbet also had mackerel taste accompanied with crisp piece of very thin melba. Again, quite stunning, great combination of textures and tastes. A second plate wouldn't have gone amiss.

Salmon poached in liquorice followed. It was covered in a thin jelly made from liquorice accompanied by some superb bitter chicory and a couple of splashes of vanilla mayonnaise, the most substantial mayo I've ever had. The salmon was cooked to perfection. I guess this was done at quite low temperatures as it was cooked but looked raw-ish. Also came with some asparagus. The liquorice was kept under control, more essence than in your face & the balance between that & the salmon & vanilla mayo was accomplished.

The sweetbreads came next. The waiter described it as the "chicken nugget" course. It was a single sweetbread parcel cooked in a casing of hay, pollen & salt. A parsnip puree accompanied this with seriously good cockle sauce, breathtakingly good sauce. Again, a superb dish that left you wanting more.

This was followed by:

- a cornet of ice cream & caramelised pear followed, silly & fun

- a disk of white chocolate with caviar

- a plate with a silver box, same size a mini-breakfast cereal boxes. Inside was some dried parsnip crisps. These were accompanies with milk infused with parsnip. Again, silly & fun.

Then came desserts, two of them. First was a mousse of mango & lychee(?) with some darkberry sorbet. The pate was dotted with little cubes of jelly. This was a bit hit and miss, looked great, very good sorbet but the mousse didn't do it for me. There was also a weird undertaste to this that I didn't like, it was very pronounced but it did have a long unpleasant finish.

Then came the bacon & egg ice cream with tea & toast. The bacon & eggs: infused ice cream, this didn't really taste of much to me which was just as well given my aversion to eggy tastes. The toast was caramelised brioche, v good. Also was a thick gooey salty caramel & we were advised to have all three together for maximum enjoyment. I didn't like this at all. The tea was tea jelly & we were told to eat after the meal.

A couple of petit fours arrive with some chocolates. Great - but we were pretty stuffed by now & not a little tipsy and don't really remember them too well.

So, in the two years the cooking has dramatically shifted in terms of look, taste and confidence. The 4 main courses, foie gras, mackerel, salmon & sweetbreads where truly outstanding & I would rate easily as on a level with establishments such as Gagnaire & Arzak. OK, I wasn't keen on desserts, but then again I am not a great lover of sweat curses (ice cream excepted) . It certainly had the fun, not taking ourselves too seriously, approach putting the stuffy places like RHR to shame. This is a seriously good place & a lot better than I remembered. Anyway, don't take my word for it go see for yourself. Pity about the awful modern art on the walls, though.

(BTW this was booked before its got its third star, certainly deserved)

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      b. Virtually nothing goes vertical above the 36” counter top in the space. All food, plates, equipment, and dry good storage are contained by under counter units. There are a few exceptions such as the infrared salamanders, the three-door refrigerator, and the hood. This allows all the cooks a clear line of communication between each other and the front staff. It allows me an easy sight line to survey the entire kitchen’s progress with a quick glance.
      Given these two points it seemed obvious that we needed to combine the two and create custom pieces that would fulfill both needs. Large spans of plating surfaces with all food and equipment storage below. As you can see we ended up with two 22’ long units. Each function as a pass and under counter storage.
      The building is 21’ wide wall to wall. This allowed us just enough space to create two lines on each exterior wall with their passes forming a 60” corridor for the pick up of plates and finishing of dishes.
      4. We decided to add a station to the kitchen. At Trio we had five including:
      a. pastry
      b. cold garde manger
      c. hot garde manger
      d. fish
      e. meat
      Now that we had more space, and the ability to give each station multiple heat
      sources regardless of their location in the kitchen, we could spread the workload even further. We also realized it doesn’t make much sense to identify each station by classic French Bragade terms. A saucier did not solely cook meat with classic techniques and prepare various traditional stocks and sauces…in fact quite the opposite. This holds true with most of the stations, with the exception of pastry, but even they will have very unconventional techniques, menu placement and involvement in the kitchen systems. We will add a station that will be responsible for a large majority of the one-bite courses both sweet and savory.
      5.Given the size constraints of the building we realized a walk-in would not be possible in the kitchen. If we were to have one it would be in the basement. Having experienced this at Trio we decided to design the kitchen without a walk-in, making up for the space in various lowboy locations and a three-door reach-in. I experienced the walk-in less environment when I worked at Charlie Trotter’s. It is certainly different, but as with most things if done properly it provides a very efficient environment. It works best in situations where fresh products are brought in daily for that days use. And prevents ordering in large quantities. It also provides us with very specific units to house different items. We will utilize the 3-door refrigerator to store the majority of the vegetables and herbs along with some staple mise en place, and items that cannot be made in very small quantities like stocks. Raw meat will have it’s own lowboys as well as fish, dairy, and all frozen products.
      6. At Trio we found ourselves using the salamander a great deal. It is very useful for melting sugar, bringing on transparent qualities in things like fat and cheese, cooking items intensely on only one side, and it is a highly controllable non-direct heat source. Due to the air gap between the foodstuff and the heat elements the cook can control the degree of heat applied to the dish based on the technique he is using. It becomes a very versatile tool in the modern kitchen, so much so that we will install three Sodir infrared salamanders.

      Again, this is to insure that all the cooks have access to all of the techniques in the kitchen. As I said before it is important for our cooks to be able to sauté, simmer, poach, fry, grill, salamander, and freeze at the same time and sometimes for the same dish.
      We have a few unusual pieces of equipment in the kitchen; the most is probably a centrifuge. A few months ago Nick and I were driving home from a design meeting and ended up talking about signature dishes and menu repetition. Of course the black truffle explosion came up and he asked if I would have it on the menu at Alinea. I replied a firm no, but shortly thereafter said I would enjoy updating it. We threw around some tongue and cheek ideas like White Truffle Implosion, and Truffle Explosion 2005….I said it was a goal of mine to make a frozen ball with a liquid center….but then dismissed it as nearly impossible. Within a few minutes he said …”I got it…we need a centrifuge” His explanation was simple, place the desired liquid in a spherical mold and place on the centrifuge…place the whole thing in the freezer. Within days he had one in the test kitchen. I guess this is better suited for the kitchen lab topic that we will be starting in a few weeks…
      We are working on a upload of the kitchen blueprints. When those post I plan on going into more detail about certian aspects of the design. Doing so now would be pointless as the viewer does not have a reference point.
    • By ronnie_suburban
      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."

      Chef Grant processing the broccoli

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

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

      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.

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

      Poached Broccoli Stem and Crisp Bread cooking

      Ready for plating

      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

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

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

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

      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...

      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.

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

      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.

      Chef John peels grapes while still on their stems

      Peeled grapes on their stems with peanut butter coating

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

      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.

      Phil of Terra Spice showing the team some samples

      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.

      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
    • By ronnie_suburban
      Sometime this week, at an undisclosed location in the city of Chicago, Chef Grant Achatz begins the next leg of his journey to open his new restaurant, Alinea. Grant will christen the 'food lab' where the menu for Alinea will be developed. eGullet will be trailing Grant and his team throughout the process -- not just in the food lab but through every facet of the launch. Over the next six months, we will follow the Alinea team as they discover, develop, design and execute their plan. We'll document behind-the-scenes communications, forwarded directly to us by the Alinea team. We will be on the scene, bringing regular updates to the eGullet community. And Grant will join us in this special Alinea forum to discuss the process of opening Alinea. eGullet members will have the opportunity to ask Grant, and several other members of the Alinea team, questions about the development of the restaurant.
       
      A Perfect Pairing?
      By the time he was 12 years old, Grant Achatz knew that he would someday run his own restaurant. The story of Alinea is the story of Grant's personal development as a chef and a leader. Grant was brought up in a restaurant family. He bypassed a college education in favor of culinary school, after which he ascended rapidly to the position of sous chef for Thomas Keller at The French Laundry in Yountville, California. In 2001, Grant took the helm of Trio in Evanston, Illinois, which had previously turned out such noted chefs as Gale Gand, Rick Tramanto (Tru) and Shawn McClain (Spring, Green Zebra). In 2003 Grant won the James Beard Foundation's "Rising Star Chef" award, and other prestigious awards followed. By 2004, Grant was recognized as one of the most influential and unique voices on the international culinary scene.
       
      In January 2004, Grant met Nick Kokonas, a successful entrepreneur who was so obsessed with haute cuisine that he had traveled the world in search of it. After globe-trekking specifically to eat at such culinary meccas as Alfonso 1890, Taillevent, Arpège, Arzak, and the French Laundry, Nick was in near disbelief when he realized that the "best food in the world was 10 minutes from my house." Nick had not previously consideredbacking a restaurant, even though he has both relatives and friends in the industry. But in Grant, he saw an opportunity to help create something great.
       
      Through Grant's cuisine, a bond formed between the two men. So inspired was Nick by Grant's culinary ideas that he returned to Trio almost monthly. Finally, he challenged two of his friends, one from New York and the other from San Francisco, to fly to Chicago and experience Trio. He wanted to prove definitively to his skeptical, coastal buddies that Trio was the best and most important restaurant in the country, assuring them that "if the meal at Trio isn't the best meal you've ever had, I'll pay for your meals and your flights." Nick won his bet: his friends were blown away.
       
      Later that night, after service, Grant joined Nick and his guests at their table. The men chatted about a variety of topics and in the '14 wines' haze of the late evening, they discussed Blue Trout and Black Truffles: The Peregrinations of an Epicure, Joseph Wechsberg's gastronomic memoir. The next day, Grant emailed Nick to ask again about the title of the book they had discussed. Not only did Nick remind him, but, within a few days, sent Grant a copy of Wechsberg's book. A friendship was born.
      Shortly thereafter, Grant sentNick his business plan for Alinea, sending an email after evening service. By the following morning Nick had read it and replied with his own enthusiastic amendments. With a burgeoning friendship already in place, trust developing between the two men and proof they could work together crystallizing before their eyes, it became clear that they would become a team. Says Grant, "I think most people, in a lot of ways, look for themselves in other people in order to match with and I think to a large degree, the reason why we get along so well is that our personalities align very well."
       
      Nick felt the same way. "It's one of those situations where everything just lined up right. I had the interest, I'd started a number of different businesses and I felt like it would be an opportunity to work with someone who I'd get along with very well. I wouldn't want to build a restaurant just to build a restaurant and I doubt I'll ever develop some other restaurant. I think this is the right situation at the right time."
       
      Grant adds, "I think we're both very driven and passionate people. So for me, it was about finding someone I could trust, someone that I knew was going to think like me, be as motivated or more motivated than me. Those things were very, very important--and something I hadn't seen--or something I didn't believe in--that I saw in Nick." Nick continues, "I think a lot people come to a chef with their pre-existing vision of the restaurant they want to build. I didn't even want to build a restaurant before I saw his vision, so it wasn't like I was saying 'I'm building this restaurant and I want you to be my chef' -- it was more like 'I think you should build a restaurant, what can I do to help you build it?'" Grant would have the additional supportive backing he'd need and Nick would have another venture -- and one he solidly believed in -- in which to direct his business acumen.
       
      It's All About The Container
      Anyone who's eaten Grant's cuisine at Trio knows that he is intensely concerned with food and the optimal ways to prepare and serve it. His dishes innovate in flavor; they challenge, tease and delight the senses. But Grant is also driven to innovate in service and technique, constantly seeking new vehicles to deliver sensations to the diner. He works closely with a trusted collaborator, Martin Kastner of Crucial Detail in San Diego, CA to create original service pieces for many of his dishes. And as Grant has searched for additional ways to expand the continuity of the dining experience, it has become clear to him that it starts before the diner even gets to the restaurant's front door.
       
      According to Grant, "You can pull it back as far as you want. The experience is going to start before someone even picks up the phone to make a reservation to this restaurant. It's going to be about their perceptions; why are they picking up the phone to make a reservation? What did they see? What did they read? What's leading them up to that point? They call to make a reservation, that's another experience. The drive to get to this neighborhood is another experience. The minute they open their door and take one step out of their car, now they're surrounded by another experience."
       
      Advancing the functional elements of how food is served is an innate part of the cooking process for Grant, who seeks to render the traditional boundaries of dining obsolete. When asked what he will be able to accomplish at Alinea that he couldn't accomplish at Trio, Grant says, "the obvious is to create the container in which we create the experience. I think that's the very exciting thing for me that I've never been able to have a part in." For Grant, a restaurant's physical space represents the ultimate container and the ultimate personal challenge. The result should break new ground in the world of fine dining.   Grant and Nick are intense and competitive. In both their minds, "crafting a complete experience" is the primary focus of Alinea. According to Nick, "the whole idea is to produce an experience where the food lines up with the décor, which lines up with the flow through the restaurant and from the moment you get, literally, to the front door of the place and you walk in, your experience should mirror in some respects--and complement in others--the whole process you're going to go through when you start eating." Grant takes it a step further. "It's about having a central beacon from which everything else emanates and therefore, it's seamless. The whole experience is crafted on one finite point and if everything emanates from that point, then there's no chance that the experience can be interrupted."
       
      The search for Alinea's space further reflects not only their shared philosophy but also their separate intensities. Says Nick, "One of the things we felt really strongly about, and we both came to it, was that we wanted it to be a 'stand alone' building because if you're in something else you can't help but take on some of that identity. And it's really difficult to find the right size building in the right kind of location, with the right kind of construction that was suitable for the identity of Alinea."
      Nick and Grant drove down every street within a chosen geographical band, armed with a giant map and a set of green, yellow and red markers. Once they had found a set of acceptable streets, they asked a realtor to show them every space available on them.
       
      "Once we did find the building," says Grant, "whichever space we would have chosen, we would have analyzed and considered each different aspect to provoke a certain emotion, a very controlled emotion depending on how we wanted it arranged. But I also think that we wanted the neighborhood to feel a certain way, the street to feel a certain way. Is it like Michigan Avenue where I have people 4-deep, walking straight down the sidewalk, non-stop, all day and all night or is it more of a tranquil environment outside? All those things were spinning around and once you identify the golden egg, then you have to go find it."
      While they would probably never admit it, each innovation, each step they take together in building their venture serves as yet another a opportunity for the Alinea team to challenge the restaurant's competitors. Their attention to all the details provides countless opportunities to distinguish Alinea from other restaurants.
       
      Here the two men can share in the creation, combining their diverse skills and experiences into a unified and shared vision. Alinea will be their baby. They want it to be the best --not just the best food -- but the best everything. They even want the experience of calling for a reservation to be a memorable one.
       
      The Path From Here
      In that spirit, the Alinea food lab opens this week. Grant refuses to promote even one of his legendary creations to 'signature dish' status. Instead of populating Alinea's menu with previous favorites from Trio or 'trial' dishes that have been only roughly tested, Grant and his team will take six months to devise, develop and perfect the dishes and delivery modes that will appear on Alinea's opening menu. When the idea of maintaining a kitchen staff for six months before the restaurant's opening was presented to its investors, in spite of the additional expense, "it seemed like a no-brainer" according to Nick. Grant is an equity partner--a true chef/owner--in the venture and there is a solid consensus among all the backers about the priority of his vision.
      * * * * *
      In addition to being one of today's foremost chefs and culinary innovators, Grant Achatz is a long-time member of eGullet, and a lively, provocative contributor to our discussion forums. Read his March, 2003 eGullet Q&A here.
      Photos courtesy Alinea
       
      eGullet member, yellow_truffle, also contributed to this report
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