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weinoo

Sous Vide Supreme and other home options: 2009-10

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Well, it appears as if home cooks like me will finally get to "sink" ourselves into sous vide cookery. While a number of my friends, accomplished home cooks all, own immersion ciruclators that they've procured from web sites like eBay, I've never taken that plunge. Many of those previously used machines came from science labs, and once they're cleaned up, I'm led to believe they were good as new...even though at one time they may have been circulating fluid around some nasty stuff.

Poly Science is a well known maker of immersion circulators, and once they saw a market niche for their product, the company started producing sous vide and other "techie" cooking tools specifically for cooks - home and professional alike...and they even rebranded that product line to be called Cuisine Technology, a nice bit of marketing.

One of the reasons I'd never taken the plunge into home sous vide cooking was the price. A new immersion circulator, or better yet, the kit from Poly Sci, will set one back a cool grand. I'm not averse to spending money for kitchen toys; I mean I have the whole Silvia/Rocky set-up for espresso, but $1,000 for the circulator just seemed a bit much for me...and I don't even know if I love sous vide that much.

Enter Sous Vide supreme. It's being touted thusly:

The SousVide Supreme™ is the world’s first water oven designed specifically to bring the gourmet sous vide cooking method into home kitchens.

I've already placed my order. And I can't wait to start playing around with it, but I have a question or two - and hopefully someone with lots more knowledge than me about sous vide can answer.

All the sous vide cooking I see done is done with an immersion circulator, which not only keeps the temperature perfectly, but circulates the water at the same time. The Supreme is not a circulator - does that mean it won't do the job properly? And will everyone end up like the scene in Monty Python's Meaning of Life - dropping dead at the table after eating a dish that was not properly cooked? Just asking.


Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

mweinstein@eGstaff.org

Tasty Travails - My Blog

My eGullet FoodBog - A Tale of Two Boroughs

Was it you baby...or just a Brilliant Disguise?

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I briefly considered one of these when I saw it mentioned on the Chadzilla blog but it says "U.S. only"... so I decided they didn't want my money and I'll spend it elsewhere. It's not really what I want anyway, the price was just tempting.


It's kinda like wrestling a gorilla... you don't stop when you're tired, you stop when the gorilla is tired.

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I was thinking of trying Sous Vide Magic--

http://freshmealssolutions.com/index.php?page=shop.product_details&flypage=flypage-ask.tpl&product_id=18&category_id=15&option=com_virtuemart&Itemid=31&vmcchk=1&Itemid=31

--which is less expensive (even if you have to buy a rice cooker to use it) and would work with the rice cooker that I've been thinking of replacing, because it's larger than we're ever likely to need for making rice but would be perfect for this application.

Sous Vide Supreme certainly looks like less of a kludge than Sous Vide Magic.

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It's a more professional/commercial version of a sous vide magic with a rice cooker I guess. Actually that guy wanted to come out with something like this as well. EiPod or so it was supposed to be called.

It's not as exact as a circulator I figure but for home cooking this should be fine. I actually just use an induction cooktop, I did only steak and chicken so far at 60 and 70 fahrenheit and while I had to babysit it a bit it worked out Ok.

JK

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I actually just use an induction cooktop, I did only steak and chicken so far at 60 and 70 fahrenheit and while I had to babysit it a bit it worked out Ok.

JK

That's pretty much what I've been doing as well. It does require a little more attention but it works fine for what I do, I haven't got into attempting the 24 - 48 hour stuff yet. Still, a temp controlled bath would make the task much easier.


It's kinda like wrestling a gorilla... you don't stop when you're tired, you stop when the gorilla is tired.

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Pre-orders are $399, which is $50 off retail, apparently.

Very tempting indeed. Like Mitch -- somewhat eerily so -- I am not averse to dropping big bucks on certain items such as the Sylvia/Rocky combo; like Mitch, I have no experience with SV and can't anticipate using this machine three times daily (the current use rate of the Rancilio duo). But as I packed up my brisket in tin foil for a few hours in a 225F oven, I thought about how nice it would be to seal it all in a FoodSaver bag and plop it into an immersion circulator....

Probably can't spring for one now but I'm very eager to read more.


Chris Amirault

camirault@eGstaff.org

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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I own an old VWR water bath that I bought on ebay from a lab equipment supplier; it works fine, although the dial with gradations of 1 - 10 makes it troublesome to tune. I've spent a considerable amount of time trying to mark off the equivalent temperatures. At the very least, if they didn't want to do specific temps, I wish they could have had the dial go to 11.

Anyhow, I think this is a great product idea and very well priced. I got my water bath for $150 or so IIRC, so having a bath with temp control and racks and in "new" condition - rather than having to give it a vigorous cleaning like I did mine - is a very good tradeoff. Had this product been on the market when I was looking, I would have bought the sous vide supreme rather than go the used lab equipment route.

The one thing that concerns me is the granularity of the temperature control. Sous vide can be very safe if the operator knows just a few key rules, but the wrong combination of sanitation / temperature / time could yield some very, very bad results. I didn't see anything on the website about the temp control range, specifically the bath having temp control down to 120F (or lower), which is necessary to get the full functionality of the cooking method - rare beef; fish; etc. The thought of someone (stupidly) cooking a poorly handled piece of chicken sous vide for an hour at 120F, though, gives me the willies.

I wouldn't want to buy the unit if it didn't do low temp. But what lawyer would allow these guys to sell the unit if it did? I hope I'm just being cynical about the litigiousness of American society, but it's something I'd least want to check before buying this thing. If some lawyer or insurance carrier made them cap out the low end at 150F, it would be a lot less useful.

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If some lawyer or insurance carrier made them cap out the low end at 150F, it would be a lot less useful.

If that were the case, I'd go one step further and call it pretty much useless... the money saved would be negated by the drastic reduction in usefulness. I would be surprised if it doesn't handle low temp though. I would think a simple "always heat food to a minimum of xxx degrees" sticker and/or brochure would cover the legal aspect. People likely to buy this item would have no trouble completely ignoring such warnings because they would know such blanket statements are ridiculous.


Edited by Tri2Cook (log)

It's kinda like wrestling a gorilla... you don't stop when you're tired, you stop when the gorilla is tired.

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Sous vide can be very safe if the operator knows just a few key rules, but the wrong combination of sanitation / temperature / time could yield some very, very bad results.

Which are? The key rules that is. ch

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Sous vide can be very safe if the operator knows just a few key rules, but the wrong combination of sanitation / temperature / time could yield some very, very bad results.

Which are? The key rules that is. ch

There is a very (very) long, detailed, in depth thread on that right here on these forums. Lots of great information from people who use, study and experiment with sous vide cooking on a regular and ongoing basis have contributed an entire textbook of information on the subject. Search "sous vide" when you have a spare hour or three, read and grab notes. It's worth the effort.


It's kinda like wrestling a gorilla... you don't stop when you're tired, you stop when the gorilla is tired.

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The "rules" I was talking about relate to combinations of time and temperature to make sure you kill off the bad stuff, as well as an understanding of a couple of outlier bad things like botulinum toxin.

Look at this thread: specifically post #14. If that catches your interest, read everything NathanM has ever written on egullet.

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You can make your own immersion circulator on the cheap(er) by going to a lab supply company and getting a hotplate and magnetic stirrer combo. You can buy magnetic stir bars of varying sizes and then place a stand in the beaker or whatever to keep the food and bag off the stirrer. Probably would need to calibrate the temperature dial with a good thermometer, but once that was done you're in business. I priced it out from my own company that supplys schools and it was in the sub $200 range.


Edited by Doodad (log)

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I was thinking of trying Sous Vide Magic--

http://freshmealssolutions.com/index.php?page=shop.product_details&flypage=flypage-ask.tpl&product_id=18&category_id=15&option=com_virtuemart&Itemid=31&vmcchk=1&Itemid=31

--which is less expensive (even if you have to buy a rice cooker to use it) and would work with the rice cooker that I've been thinking of replacing, because it's larger than we're ever likely to need for making rice but would be perfect for this application.

Certainly looks like a good competitor to the SV Magic (mine's in the mail; can't wait to use it) but I agree with David that the SV Magic is a little cheaper and would have more functionality as a rice cooker.

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I didn't see anything on the website about the temp control range, specifically the bath having temp control down to 120F (or lower), which is necessary to get the full functionality of the cooking method - rare beef; fish; etc. The thought of someone (stupidly) cooking a poorly handled piece of chicken sous vide for an hour at 120F, though, gives me the willies.

There are no tech specs at all, strangely enough considering the potential market. There is this statement, though:

The concept of sous vide is to cook the food at the same temperature you wish it to be served; most dishes should cook between 120°–190° Fahrenheit (48.9°–87.8° Celcius).

I'd think that they wouldn't say that if they didn't get down to 120F.


Chris Amirault

camirault@eGstaff.org

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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You don't even need a to lay out the cash for a rice cooker, a regular stock pot with a cheap hot plate will work fine:

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I can't see where cooking with a rice cooker or a cheap hot plate would ever be better, even if cheaper, than cooking with this unit if the Supreme is all it appears to be. Blumenthal was extolling its virtues, and I doubt he'd lend his time to it if he didn't think it was worthy. Keeping accurate temp. control over 24 hours is not really gonna happen with a hotplate or even a rice cooker, imo.

Anyway, that's neither here nor there. I've emailed the company to get the more important specs, and invited them to join in the discussion, so we'll see what happens there.

Another concern is what's the importance of circulating the water, which this unit doesn't appear to do? "Immersion circulators" obviously do. And a $950 Poly Sci immersion circulator, along with a couple of clamps and a big stock pot, would be the way I'd go - if I wanted to spend $950. But jury-rigged rice cookers don't circulate water either, nor do stock pots on inexpensive hot plates, and for those content with putting together $250 worth of parts, circulation is obviously not that important either.


Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

mweinstein@eGstaff.org

Tasty Travails - My Blog

My eGullet FoodBog - A Tale of Two Boroughs

Was it you baby...or just a Brilliant Disguise?

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Thanks Mitch, I look forward to seeing those specs.

I've been wondering when such a product was going to hit the mainstream. Electric slow cookers are everywhere for cheap, how hard could it be to add a reliable temperature control offering actual degrees instead of low-med-hi? The answer is "not hard" if there's a market.


Peter Gamble aka "Peter the eater"

I just made a cornish game hen with chestnut stuffing. . .

Would you believe a pigeon stuffed with spam? . . .

Would you believe a rat filled with cough drops?

Moe Sizlack

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Another concern is what's the importance of circulating the water, which this unit doesn't appear to do? "Immersion circulators" obviously do. And a $950 Poly Sci immersion circulator, along with a couple of clamps and a big stock pot, would be the way I'd go - if I wanted to spend $950. But jury-rigged rice cookers don't circulate water either, nor do stock pots on inexpensive hot plates, and for those content with putting together $250 worth of parts, circulation is obviously not that important either.

Isn't the purpose of circulation to make sure that the temperature is consistent throughout the bath? With a rice cooker setup, or this product, you know the temperature of the water near the thermometer probe, but there could be variation (however slight) in the rest of the water. It seems to me that some people have reported having luck using an aquarium pump as a homemade answer to circulation.


Matthew Kayahara

Kayahara.ca

@mtkayahara

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The idea of Sous Vide Magic is that the rice cooker or hotplate doesn't have to be accurate--that's the job of the sensor/control unit--and the advantage of a separate control unit and heating device, aside from cost, would be that you're not limited by the size of the container. You can use a larger or smaller rice cooker or a bigger or smaller hotplate and stockpot as needed.

While I can see the attractions of a simple self-contained appliance, it's not obvious to me that at that price point it's going to be any more functional.

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As I said in the other thread I linked to, I measured the temperature everywhere inside a stockpot on a hot plate controlled by the Sous Vide Magic and didn't find any temperature difference anywhere in the pot. The probe I was using is sensitive to tenths of degrees F.

David's identified why I prefer the external controller to the dedicated appliance:

  • Cost: Since I already had a stock pot, my sous vide gear cost me about $175 (controller + hotplate).
  • Storage: It's easier to find room for a hot plate and the sous vide controller than a box the size of a bread machine.
  • Flexibility: If I wanted to cook a bunch of things at once, I'd want a larger than 10 qt capacity to make room for an aquarium powerhead (to keep cold spots from developing between items). My stockpot is 16 qts, which seems about right for two or maybe three items at once, tied up to keep them apart.

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I have nothing substantive to add to this discussion other than Heston Blumenthal and Kyle Connaughton (both of The Fat Duck) were just in my city (Vancouver BC) to do a demo to a select few people of the SousVide Supreme. (I wasn't in attendance.) Is Heston the new George Foreman of Sous Vide?


fmed

de gustibus non est disputandum

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Keeping accurate temp. control over 24 hours is not really gonna happen with a hotplate or even a rice cooker, imo.

With the Sous Vide Magic and a rice cooker, this is easy Mitch.

If people are interested in safety, you cannot go past Douglas Baldwin's sous vide guide. He runs through all the temperature and time combinations for different thicknesses of foods being cooked.

I've been looking enviously at the sous vide supreme but do not know when it is going to come to us in Australia or what the cost is going to be.

According to the publicity blurbs, Heston Blumenthal has used it in his experimental kitchen and considers it as good as the professional models.

It doesn't have a circulator but judging from what people have measured in terms of temperature with similar set ups, this is not really a consideration unless you cram the device full of things to cook. Even then, the sous vide supreme has a neat little rack into which you can load your food to keep it separate.

I use my SVM plus rice cooker all the time. The meat is exceptional. Even with casseroles, I now do the sauce and vegetables separately and then add the sous-vide cooked meat at the end. The texture is different from what you'd expect so it adds another level of interest into the final product.


Nick Reynolds, aka "nickrey"

"The Internet is full of false information." Plato
My eG Foodblog

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http://www.sousvidecooking.org/tag/sous-vide-equipment/

http://www.cookingsousvide.com/info/freshmealsmagic-from-fresh-meals-solutions

I found the link to the updated fresh meal solution product.

What I am not getting with the Supreme is how it will hold the temperature consistent without a circulator. Using my induction cooktop I noticed that it could keep temperature stable at 60c but not so at 70c, depending where I put the thermometer I would get deviations of 3 or 4 degrees quickly.

The unit looks thought through though with rack and lid.

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      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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