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Sous Vide: Recipes, Techniques & Equipment (Part 1)

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Is this something practicable and or do-able for the (maybe slightly below) average home cook? Cooking in a vacuum packed bag...what are the benefits, anyway? Saw it mentioned in a article and was curious...


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Definitely doable if you have the equipment -- Food Saver plastic bags would work, I think. (Somebody who has one, please confirm or deny.)

Advantages of sous vide are the same as for cooking en papillote, that is you keep the juices and flavors contained, but neater to work with. Also great for portion control, and if done with pre-cooked foods like braises and stews, you won't have to worry about burning or over-reducing the sauce. Those are two of the reasons Artisanal (restaurant here in NYC) does it.

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i laughed, i cried, it was better than cats, it changed my life forever

foodsaver works

ziploc bags work

plastic wrap works

what is your application?

cheers

ps most anything can and will be cooked sous vide


h. alexander talbot

chef and author

Levittown, PA

ideasinfood

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Actually this process of cooking Sous Vide is done in most of the 4-star places around NYC as well as other places outside the city. David Bouley is a master of this process.

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sous vide is a marvelous cooking method. You vacuum pack food (chicken, beef, pork, fish) with stock, seasonings and herbs in a plastic bag. You can then braise it in hot water to the perfect cooking temperature. 160° for an hour and a half for beef and you get perfect medium-rare. Can't overcook it. Same with chicken, squab, guinea hen. You need the vacuum machine to do it at home.


Mark

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it might work for scallopine n stuff... but what about the good ol maillard ??

your meat will lack flavor ?!... ??

cheers

t.


toertchen toertchen

patissier chocolatier cafe

cologne, germany

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Interesting little piece on the father of "La cuisson sous-vide" Georges Pralus.

here

(you will have to scroll down a bit)

Moderator's note: broken link. -- CA


Michel

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it might work for scallopine n stuff... but what about the good ol maillard ??

your meat will lack flavor ?!... ??

Well... it will have a different flavor is all. Sometimes you don't necessarily want that Maillard flavor, and might be going for something a little cleaner, fresher, greener. One can always, of course, brown the meat either before or after cooking sous vide.


--

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if you brown before your crust be gone ?!

are there any recipes on sous vide on the web ???

like more than just one at a time ??...

cheers

t.


toertchen toertchen

patissier chocolatier cafe

cologne, germany

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Well... it will have a different flavor is all. Sometimes you don't necessarily want that Maillard flavor, and might be going for something a little cleaner, fresher, greener. One can always, of course, brown the meat either before or after cooking sous vide.

"greener" in meat... :wink: i havent tried a meat that tasted green yet.... :wacko:

t.


toertchen toertchen

patissier chocolatier cafe

cologne, germany

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:laugh: I was thinking in terms of whatever herbs one might put in with the item to be cooked.

--

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The application I'm familiar with is not for the initial cooking, but for reheating. Artisanal vacuum-packs portions of braised dishes, and then the line cook just drops it in a pot of boiling water to reheat. Perfect portion control, no overcoked sauce, no burnt sauce.

But I imagine that anything you cook en papillote you could cook sous vide.

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:rolleyes: i tried the technique as iam a proud owner of a foodsaver :)

i grabbed a bag threw in some deepfrozen greenpeas a lump

of butter, a tsp. duck demiglace, seasalt, malabar pepper, a dash

of dried savory and sealed it in...

then i poached in a 80 C waterbath for 30 25 mins....

and what should i tell you... marvelous result

the peas seemed much more flavorful to me, and all the

other ingredients seemed to have fused to a really delicious sauce...

i threw everything into a casseorle drizzled a tiny bit of arrowroot to

coat the peas with sauce, and served with a lambchop and some potatosnow..

i surely will try again...

cheers

t.


toertchen toertchen

patissier chocolatier cafe

cologne, germany

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This thread prompted me to reminisce about our family seal-a-meal. It was a great item. I see they are made by rival now, and include a vaccume pack feature. I have ordered one for my brother, a gift for his birthday.

schneich, you are in Germany, right? Who is the manufacturer of your foodsaver? Am I correct in assuming that this is something that heat seals? I am in France and do not know who might manufacture such an item for use in Europe.

edited to correct a typo


Edited by bleudauvergne (log)

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i own the original tilia foodsaver, i got it from switzerland years ago.

since about a year the foodsaver & utils is sold everywhere across germany

especially in the big wholesale markets.

i saw the tilia foodsaver in one of our "metro" markets. in france youll

have them too, maybe you will get it there its called "metro cash n carry"

http://www.metro.fr/

cheers

t. :smile:


Edited by schneich (log)

toertchen toertchen

patissier chocolatier cafe

cologne, germany

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I am wondering if anybody has sources for recipes for sous-vide cooking - which is to say, cooking done in sealed vacuum bags.

It started out in Europe as a means to do large scale cooking - like airline catering - where food is cooked in a factory and reheated elsewhere. the idea was the cooking was done centrally, and reheating done elsewhere/later.

Some chefs in the US use it that way - for example for late night food at Las Vegas restaurants so a minimal kitchen staff can prepare it. However, there is a clear trend toward high end chefs using it as a tool in its own right rather than simply a means to centralize cooking. Charlie Trotter gave an interview in a restaurant trade magazine saying that 50% of his plates have at least one component made this way. Daniel Boulud and a number of other chefs are using it.

Typically the ingredients are sealed in a plastic bag under vacuum (similar to various home vacuum sealer machines). The bag is then cooked at low temperature - typically at less than boiling (150 degrees), and sometimes even lower. Typical cooking times are long - hours. It is basically a very gentle form of poaching.

I have a vacuum sealer machine, and I got some heat proof sealing bags. So I have been experimenting. However, there are very few recipes out there. This is a bit surprising because it is pretty widely used in Europe. So, one would expect there to be more recipes or even information of a general nature.

There is one book on the topic from Amazon - it is very expensive, and utterly worthless - it is more about industrial processes and gives few if any details.

Art Cullinaire had an issue with several recipes in it in Spring 2002 - for example: http://www.findarticles.com/cf_dls/m0JAW/2...457/print.jhtml

On eGullet, the only references seem to be to restaurants that use it - like Trio near Chicago.

My questions are does anybody:

- Have any recipes themselves?

- Know of other sources (books, magazines, web sites)?


Nathan

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You need a vacum machine 10- 15 thousand cdn.

suck the air out of the bag then pump in nitrogen.

You can sous-vide any thing.

dig in

stovetop

good for a satilite location that does not have a lot of prep space.

Portioning things then freezing.


Cook To Live; Live To Cook

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I love to cook chicken breasts sous vide (ditto guinea hen, pheasant, partridge). You really do not need a recipe. Pre-season any way you prefer. If you want to add wine or any other liquid seasoning freeze it before adding it to the bag as any liquid will be sucked out when you vacuum.

The trick is to get the water in the pan to the right temperature and keep it there for about 40 minutes. I do mine at very low temperatures (around 120°F) as I like to brown the skin before serving and I like the meat to be a little pink. If you buy a cook book you will probably find they tell you to bring the water to 160° (USDA recommended temperature). Your choice. But this is a technique that is fun to experiment with.


Ruth Friedman

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Thanks for the chicken information.

Although I said that I wanted "recipes" the main thing I am looking for is some authoritative information on time and temperature.

In the few sous vide recipes that I have seen, there seems to be a pretty wide range of temperatures. They are all cooler than boiling, but they range from 190 degrees F at the high down to much lower - like the 120 degrees.

Last night I made salmon - I had two different sources - one saying that I MUST cook it no higher than 104 degrees F. The other said 113 degrees F. So, I tried both ways. There was a clear difference, but each worked.

The cooking times vary a lot - all are long, but the question is how long. I found a sous vide lamb shank recipe on the internet which called for 4 hours at 180. That is the same time as many conventional recipes at higher tempertatures. I tried it, and it clearly was not enough, the shank was not tender. So I tried 6 hours - that was better, but again clearly not enough. My guess is that the shanks really needed 8 or possibly more hours - which is a 2X difference from the recipe.

I am told that Daniel Boulud does short ribs sous vide for 36 hours - I don't know at what temperature however.

So, bottom line is that some reliable time and temperature information would be very useful.


Nathan

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Nathan

If you can get hold of the Winter 2003 issue of Art Culinaire (#71) you will find a whole section on sous vide cooking which will show how a number of different chefs use it. Paul Sale cooks a 6 oz portion of halibut at 135° for 10 minutes, frenched chicken breasts at 165° for 25 minutes and oxtail at 165° for 8 hours.. Alessandro Stratta coooks pork belly (after searing) at 200° for 12 hours. There are many other recipes in the issue whuch use the sous vide method.

The method is fairly new and I do not think there is any truly authoritative source. We just have to go by the good old reliable trial and error.


Edited by Ruth (log)

Ruth Friedman

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Hey nathan, I could be wrong but I thought the u.s came up with the idead of storing food in vacuum packaging during the second world war and then the Europeans enhanced it (Grace Cryovac) by doing a different style of papillote. We know that it helps to remove air causing less oxidation to happen. Also, It helps to ensure a better product by it's method of cooking at a lower temperature where less loss of valuable food components,(water, vitamins, and flavor) are now not compromised. These components are lost during open cooking.

As far as cooking: When we cook a 6 oz. piece of hake fish or salmon or something similar, we make a flavored beurre blanc (vanilla, caper, red wine,etc.) and place the fish inside and cookin a water bath at 58-59c (138f )or so and cook it for about 35-40 minutes. So I find it hard to believe that Paul Sale can cook his in 10 minutes(ART CULINARE)! Cooking Lamb and squab with other styles of marinades in the same fashion come out a perfect medium where it still takes on a rare look. No juices are lost during the cooking. When I was at The Fat Duck Heston changed the method of cooking the saddle of Lamb from oven top to water baths giving a better end product reducing the watch time cooking the lamb turning every few minutes. Also cooking foie gras in this fashion helps reduces shrinkage. So I would play with different marinades in cooking but change the times you may have seen, and use a probe (thermometer) if you have one to ensure stable temperature.

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Ducasse has been a major advocate of sous vide cookery in haute cuisine (I believe there are several sous vide recipes and parts of recipes in his Grand Livre, which is only available in French as far as I know -- here's one I found by googling). A couple of years ago I spent a week in Ducasse's kitchen at the Essex House and watched them employ the sous vide method with several dishes, most notably the signature Ducasse pigeon which so many have said is definitive. There are a few different ways to handle it, as best I understand this. One way is to use a water bath that is at the exact temperature you want your meat (or veg or whatever) to end up at. With that method, you cook for many, many hours -- possibly days depending on the size of the cut. You can never really overcook, because once the product reaches the temperature of the water bath it won't go any higher (for example in the Ducasse recipe cited above it says "Conditionner sous vide avec le confit d'oignons, les sommités de thym et les abricots (soudure à 6; pression 2,8), cuire par immersion d'eau dans une ambiance à 62 °C ( 143 °F) pour atteindre une température à coeur de 62 °C (143 °F) pendant 36 heures."). You can also handle it by using a high temperature of water (boiling or near boiling) which brings the package up to temperature much more rapidly. For that method, you really need a temperature probe in the center of the meat so you can cook to an exact number. The only way to avoid the temperature probe when using the higher temperature sous vide method is to have extremely uniform cuts of meat -- in terms of both mass and shape -- so you can essentially run a program specific to that cut, e.g., a 5-ounce piece of lamb loin that's 2" x 1" x 5" cooks in a 190-degree water bath for 42 minutes or whatever.

At the haute cuisine level, however, the water bath has in the past couple of years given way to the steam oven or combi oven. At Mix in New York, Ducasse's newest New York restaurant, all the sous vide cooking is done with steam not in a water bath. We have a good relationship with Doug Psaltis at Mix in New York, and could possibly get someone in there to talk to him, get some basic information, and take some photos -- though of course we'd have to clear it with him and the Ducasse organization. But we can certainly make the request. Nathan are you in New York? If so, and if we can set up a tutorial, maybe you can tag along.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
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Thanks for the information. I have the Grand Livre volumes, and I can read kitchen level French, but I don't tend to go there first for information. Thanks for the tip - I will read up on it.

I have had the pigeon at Ducasse in NY, and is very good indeed! I didn't realize it was sous vide.

I have Rational combi-ovens and I have been using low temperature steam mode to cook the sous-vide experiments I have done to date.

Heston Blumenthal of the Fat Duck in the UK is a big advocate of using scientific lab equipment - specifically a temperature controlled water bath for doing low temperature cooking. This includes both sous vide, and other methods like low temperature poaching, or low temperature confit. I bought one of these at a surplus auction and I am going to try it also. The potential benefit over the combi oven is that the temperature control is even better.

Yesterday's experiment was salmon "mi cuit" - cooked in oil as a kind of confit, in a sous vide bag at low temp. Blumenthal recommends 45 C = 113 F. Keller, and John Cambell (another British chef) recommend lower - not over 104F. So, I tried it both ways. THey are both good, but the higher temperature one looks a bit more like cooked salmon, while the lower temp one looks almost dead raw (but has mouth feel of being cooked).


Nathan

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At the restaurant we do work a lot with sous vide a lot of foie gras bird and fish are done this way, but it is very important to be extra cautious with cleanliness when working with the sous vide techniques.A lot of experiments are needed to achieve good results but wow they are great.For example with cook confit of d uck sous vide...for 7 hours at 90 celcius, pigeon for 1h30at 54 celcius,rabbit legs at 58 celcius for 50 minutes...and it goes on. obviously it requires a final preparation example searing it to order..crisping the skin...we use retractable bags as well it is very important they are special bags to cook in..always adding some kind of fat or liquid and aromatics inside as well...it is great for cooking foie gras for cold preparations...anyways if you have a more specific question you could always ask me...salut...


Edited by bigorre (log)

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Sous Vide certainly seems to be the latest buzz. We have been using it at the restaurant I work at for a few yeras now, but we are really getting our balls busted by the helath inspector to come up with a thoroughly prepared HAACP handbook for sous vide in order to prevent them from taking the vac machine away from us. Does anyone else have this problem/issue with their health inspectors and sous vide preparations?


Terrarich

Crashed and Burned Cook

Current Wannabe

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      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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