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Jonathan Day

Q&A with Grant Achatz

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Cabrales

In reviewing the indicative menus on your website, I noted Chef Achatz's attention to the solid, liquid or other state of certain components of his dishes. Are you aware of some of the chef's thinking in this regard, and could you compare that thinking to the approach adopted by certain Spanish chefs, if you are familiar with certain of the latter's dishes?

Examples of menu items that appear to have "solid/liquid/other state" effects are: watermelon ice cubes; horseradish foam; ginger glass jelly; liquid black truffle ravioli.

The scrutiny of foodstuffs in their natural state, as well as any state they can be manipulated to, allows the chef a more intimate knowledge of the ingredient itself and its relations with other foodstuffs in the composition of a dish. Ice tastes different than water. Ice feels different than water. Steam carries aroma better than ice and water. Steam carries no palatable taste, only olfactory flavor.

Surface area exposure to flavonoids is increased in liquid state due to coverage, but dissipates faster due to dilution and consumption. What tastes more like carrot? Carrot juice or a carrot?

Manipulation of states alters the mind's perception of flavor memory. Your mind processes textures and aromas with flavors to create a food memory. If one chooses a flavor and presents it in a different texture it is a new experience for your mind. A greater degree of focus is applied to the task of consuming. Flavors are heightened, memories are etched, smiles are produced.

Cabrales

In the Food & Wine Best New Chefs issue, Chef Achatz noted that the most "exotic" item on the Trio menu was rosemary vapor. "We pour boiling water over rosemary sprigs at the table, so it perfumes the air and adds a new level of complexity to our lobster dish." Could you describe how the rosemary vapor is intended to interact with the perfume emanating from the saucing of the lobster dish and the lobster itself?

The intent of the rosemary vapor is to flavor the lobster dish. As most know, olfactory sense plays a huge part of taste. Rosemary when infused tends to be bitter due to the natural resin present in the plant. However, the flavor of rosemary with lobster and rosemary with mushrooms is appealing. Rosemary is not palatable in a chopped state. We try to introduce rosemary flavor in a palatable, texturally appealing way.

Cabrales

The indicative menus on the Trio website include the "Bloody Mary" dish, which is described as including vodka mist. Could you discuss the role intended by Chef Achatz for the vodka mist, if you are aware of it?

The vodka mist adds two elements to the "Bloody Mary"

1. A slight alcoholic "burn" to the dish when it consumed, which makes it faithful to the beverage.

2. Completion from concept to execution.

Cabrales

If you have information on the Trio "pushed" foie gras item, could you share it with members? For example, is duck or goose foie gras utilized, and which type do you prefer? What is the texture of the pushed foie gras, and are the fatty connotations of foie gras accentuated or mitigated by the preparation techniques?

Quite simply "pushed foie gras" is a kitchen term applied to the passing of cured foie gras through a fine mesh screen or tamis. Chefs de partie physically "push" the cold liver through the screen. Duck liver is used from the La Belle farm in the Hudson valley of New York because of its consistent high quality. The liver is shredded into strands resembling shredded wheat breakfast cereal. These thin stands of foie melt instantly when they come in contact with anything above 92F. What this means texturally is a sudden and smooth melt in the mouth, without residual matter.

Cabrales

The Trio website describes the restaurant as offering "progressive French cuisine with a wide range of global influences". Could you discuss what primary "global influences" might be involved, including with respect to the utilization of spices/ingredients from other regions of the world? Do you see some culinary techniques at Trio as being influenced by global approaches as well?

Global influences refer to the world. All cuisines are explored and taken seriously at Trio. It makes us stronger as cooks and as a restaurant. Why mold ourselves to the French diagram, to become one homogeneous cuisine? We take cues from South America, Asia, Eastern Europe, all parts of the US, Africa, the tropics...everywhere. The techniques of the areas are explored and executed. Integrity is important at Trio, and it is painstakingly followed through in the food. Trio wants to produce an experience that takes diners to every gastronomically tangible place known. The ceiling is nonexistent in this kitchen, the blinders are removed, but the focus is intense. The ultimate stars guide us.

Cabrales

Could you discuss how frequently the 20-course tour de force menu is ordered by diners? Are you aware of Chef Achatz's thinking behind having so many courses, and how that might relate to his experiences at French Laundry?

TOUR DE FORCE MENU 1.19. 03

"Caramel popcorn"

Osetra caviar Kola nut ice, frothed milk.

Puree of celeriac soup.

Shaved bottarga curled bread, arugula, red wine vinegar

Watermelon-smoky paprika ice

Oysters and beer

Lightly grilled Florida Cobia, flavors of the sea

Fennel bulb and heirloom beets licorice, goat milk sorbet, grapefruit.

Black truffle explosion

Maine diver scallop with orange rind vapor.

Steamed wild steelhead black truffles, rutabaga-mustard juice

"Pizza"

Poached loin of venison four flavors grated

Pig tail and crispy cheek, red wine braised cabbage, quince

"Dry shot"

Braised prime beef short rib root beer flavours

Point Reyes blue cheese white chocolate, mint, dried banana pudding

Ginseng fizz blood orange, grains of paradise

Pushed foie gras, Bosc pears, Sauternes, salt roasted pear sorbet

Roasted buttercup squash flan bacon, curried pineapple

Tea smoked chocolate, crystallized nori, plum sorbet, pickled plums

Black truffle and banana milkshake

The French Laundry offers 2 menu options: a five course with choices in each category and a 9 course tasting. A menu of greater length is not offered, but is consumed by people nightly if they become "VIP'ed". This includes people dining by themselves, people in the industry, journalists, celebrities, friends of the restaurant. Having both cooked and consumed meals of great length, and enjoying them, the idea was to make that experience available to every guest at Trio.

The TDF is not for everyone, it takes at least 4 hours, it ends up being a lot of food. Too much? I don't think so most finish it without issue. Again we say 22 courses, some of those are less than 1 bite. Like the "pizza" for example, basically a 1/2" x 1/2" piece of paper, or the caramel popcorn, a nickel-sized lozenge.

You do not come to Trio because you are hungry. Reservations are made weeks in advance. This is an experience in dining that goes beyond food and hunger. It is entertainment, if the guest is willing to let it be. The Tour de Force tells a story, it's about 22 pages long.

RyneSchraw

I ate dinner at Trio last night. The meal was excellent: perfectly composed from start to finish, dishes were unique and all tasted wonderful and there was a very balanced progression of tastes throughout the meal. Never did I feel that I had had too much of a flavor, nor did I ever really wish the portion was bigger. I'm really starting to appreciate at Trio how well the transitions of flavors from savory to sweet are handled, without letting any course over-shadow the one preceding or following it.

Because of this, a real star emerges in the pastry kitchen, led by pastry chef Paula Haney. Her desserts are intense, to say the least. They are extremely memorable, which says a lot after eating over ten other courses which are also extremely memorable. They are refreshing (very important after the heaviness of the preceding meat courses) and provide a needed change right around the time one starts to doubt one's ability of making it through the last stage of the meal (esp. with regards to the Tour de Force menu). And they are also very fun; the Black Truffle-Banana Milkshake and the test-tube/Erlenmeyer flask that accompany the Ginseng Fizz - both very cool. However, they all fit in perfectly and remain true to Chef's style and his vision, so the experience becomes seamless. List of courses I had:

Amuse-bouche - "Caramel popcorn": this is warm sweet-corn pudding enclosed in a caramelized sugar shell. it "pops" when you bite down on it...a very fun and sweet way to start the meal.

Osetra caviar, kola nut ice, frothed milk: Iranian caviar in a martini glass with kola nut ice and frothed milk...Caviar was very good quality so I wasn't really concentrating on the taste of the other two elements, but they did provide a nice texture.

Fennel bulb and heirloom beets, licorice, goat milk sorbet, grapefruit: probably one of my favorite dishes of the night...chilled fennel and heirloom beets with licorice foam, goat milk sorbet, grapefruit puree and grapefruit cells...a lot of intense flavors, which all worked great together...bitterness of the beets and grapefruit was complimented well by the goat milk sorbet and licorice. I really would like to have this dish again.

Purée of celeriac soup, black truffles, pears, celery branch: soup came in a clear PVC cylinder, hollow on each end, which was lifted when it was served, allowing the soup to pour out into the bowl. Very sweet and creamy, but also had a light consistency...not very heavy as I expected it to be. There were some huge slices of shaved black truffle, along with a custard infused with black truffle oil, so this was the dominant taste. The soup itelf doesn't have the strong bitterness of celery, and the pears add the sweetness. Very cool dish to watch being served, and the truffle servings were very generous.

Maine diver scallop, butternut squash, prosciutto, orange rind vapor: Replacement to the infamous "Maine lobster with rosemary vapor" dish and served the same way (small bowl in larger bowl with hot water poured over the orange peel in larger bowl to release the aroma). I always loved the lobster/rosemary dish, and so did a lot of people because it was on the menu for about a year, I believe. When I heard the menu was going through some huge changes, I was worried Chef had taken this off completely. Glad to see that he didn't, since it brings such a different level to the meal. After eating the said lobster dish several times I don't think I'll ever be able to smell rosemary again without thinking of the dining room at Trio or lobster. I say 'the dining room at Trio' because anyone who's eaten there knows that even if you are eating off the 4-course Prix Fixe menu without this course, you will smell it, when the 4-top next to you is having hot water poured, simultaneously, over four bowls.

Anyway, after eating this dish, I probably would say I still enjoyed the lobster better, but this dish is excellent. The butternut squash gave it a nice sweetness and the prosciutto was dried and provided a texture to contrast the tenderness of the scallop (which by the way was the best scallop I have had...bigger and more tender than the one at Spring a month ago). The orange peel was cool...certainly a flavor that would not have necessarily been great squeezed over the scallop, but as an aroma it worked. I spoke to Chef Achatz after the meal and he said they were still playing around with this dish, so there will probably be some changes in the near future.

Steamed North Atlantic halibut, black truffles, rutabaga-mustard juice: coolest and most creative fish course I've had. The steamed halibut came wrapped in mustard leaves; it looked exactly like sushi wrapped in nori, with a packet of rutabaga on top and shaved black truffle and gnocchi spread around. Then the dish was sauced at the table with a beaker full of rutabaga-mustard juice! This was a very fun dish and a cool take on sushi. Fish was cooked perfectly...tender and flaky. Mustard sauce might have covered up the taste of the black truffle a bit too much, but there wasn't a whole lot of truffle on it and it wasn't supposed to be a dominant flavor. Also I really liked that it was sauced at the table and the beaker was cool - it gave off a 'mad scientist' alchemy feel.

"Pizza": fun course. A stamp-sized square of vegetable paper dusted with the flavors of pizza. Dissolves in your mouth, and tastes like...pizza. The complete antithesis of those Listerine 'Cool Strips.'

Poached Elysian Fields Farm lamb, sweet potato, four flavors grated (those being: black truffle, chocolate, hazelnut, brioche flavored with Jamaican Peppercorn). Perfectly cooked lamb. I believe Trio and The French Laundry are the only two places to serve Elysian Fields Farm lamb. Truly it is excellent. Poached en sous-vide. They poach the lamb in a vacuum-sealed bag at 120 degrees F (I think, but again you might want to check that) for a long time. Lamb ends up very tender and looks almost rare, all the way through! Sweet potato and chocolate cookie go great with the lamb and the sauce is a reduction of the 4 flavors. Same 4 flavors are all grated separately in Brussels sprout leaves...allowing you to test and see what each flavor brings to the lamb, but the chocolate and black truffles were the standouts.

Braised prime beef short rib root beer flavors: they did a different dish about a year ago with the same root beer flavors: vanilla-scented burdock root, sassafras root, and fennel (I think) but from what I hear it was a completely different preparation. The dish came in what looked like a rocks glass blown up to twice or three times its normal size. The braised prime rib was served pretty simple with prunes and two sticks of salsify, looking like frites on the side and with the root beer flavors it provided a cool deconstruction of a hamburger, fries and a glass of root beer.

Artisan and fermier cheeses, seasonal fruits, candied nuts. I didn't write the cheese names down and there is no way I'll ever remember them...there were four and I do highly recommend ordering this extra course for $14. The fromagier is extremely knowledgeable and they have a great selection of cheeses.

Intermezzo - yogurt water granita, caramelized onion sorbet/or custard (don't quite remember which it was) Caramelized onion was sweet and savory, while the yogurt water granita was more of a refreshing texture than anything else. Not sure onion is the greatest thing for clearing the palate though, but it was an interesting dish.

Parfait tangerine, sunchoke: layer of tangerine curd on the bottom, fresh tangerine supremes above that, vanilla sunchoke custard and maté foam on top. Offered as an extra course, compliments of the pastry chef, this was one of the best desserts I've ever eaten

Trio tarte. Another excellent dessert I really am not sure about...it consisted of apple with a porter beer foam, and then a blue cheese sauce that you poured on the side of the plate. There was a sorbet on top, but I forget what it was...maybe graham cracker sorbet...not sure. I really like apple and it reminded me of an apple bavarian dessert with maple foam and swiss chard granita they were doing last month...both very memorable, but different

Black truffle-roasted banana milkshake. Looks exactly like an Oreo-milk shake, but it's really black truffles - back again at the end of the night for an encore! I also had the white truffle-roasted banana milkshake at Trio last November, and both work great. Comes in a flute and they put sea-salt around the rim to really give the flavors a kick.

Ginseng fizz, blood orange, grains of paradise. This is awesome, if only for the way they bring out a huge 500-1000ml beaker full of crushed ice with a test tube submerged in the center, and then the straw in an Erlenmeyer flask. It's very strong, with the blood orange and grains of paradise, which is a citrus like fruit from the Middle East (Iraq I think). A cool and refershing way to end the meal. It's really funny to see people throughout the night with what looks like an elaborate science experiment sitting on their table, sipping from a test tube.

Definitely this was a meal that raises the bar for Trio and Chef Achatz. Having seen the menu change completely a few times over, it's clear how he is defining his own style and direction. In most reviews and articles about Trio, it is noted how he had been sous-chef at The French Laundry for several years and had a stage at el Bulli and that he has been influenced by both Thomas Keller and Ferran Adrià.

One meal at Trio, however, and you see how much broader his influences really are. At Trio they explore everthing - high and low cuisine, old and new, the world over - and really it makes the whole experience something so different than the 'norms' of fine dining. Another aspect worth mentioning is the freshness and quality of ingredients and purveyors. Lots of private farms (the butter comes from a lady in Vermont who only owns 8 cows) and really just a lot of people who care about what they do as much as the chef and staff at Trio. Having never eaten at The French Laundry, but obsessively studied the cookbook, this seems to me one of the most apparent concepts Grant has brought with him from there to Trio - the strong bonds connecting purveyor to restaurant to customer.

Mikeczyz

RyneSchraw: other than the obvious of fish being wrapped in a green, vegetal wrap, in what way does the "halibut dish with rutabaga-mustard that is a take on sushi" remind you of sushi?

RyneSchraw

Well, first there is the way it is served, like you said, wrapped in mustard leaves (I think), and second is the usage of mustard in the sauce, which has a similar effect to wasabi. Of course the dish itself is not technically sushi at all, as the fish is cooked and served heated. Definitely, though it was a suprising and very creative dish. 'Chefg' is correct about the smaller dishes and canapés tending more towards creativity, but lately some of the main courses have that feeling about them as well!

Guru

How long do diners take to get through the Tour de Force menu? and how much time do you allow between courses?

The tour de force menu averages 4 hours. Time between courses should only be 5 minutes.

Steve Plotnicki

I ate at Trio this past November. You can find the review on The Heartland board under the title of Trotter's & Trio etc. My question for you is, why 21 courses? I found the number of courses a little oppressive. Can't the same statement, possibly a more focused one, be made in say, 14 courses, just to pick a number mind you.

Pick your pony. Trio offers 3 tasting menus nightly. A 4 course which turns into a 7 course after the amuse, canapé, and mignardise. An 8 course which is really 11 after the aforementioned and the (currently) 22 course tour de force. They are designed to provide dining experiences for people willing to commit to different levels of time and exposure.

Cabrales

Do you have a view on the value of the "molecular gastronomy" school of thinking, including how it may interact with the solid/liquid/vapour/other state of food products?

As food evolves and becomes more creative the need for a better understanding of foodstuffs will become necessary for cooks to manipulate ingredients further. Trio finds this approach to food very exciting, as it opens many new doors to not only the way we cook but the way the guest eats. This movement, in combination with the highly creative movement, will redefine high level dinning in the years to come. New techniques will be born and food will become more thought provoking and entertaining. The days of putting a piece of protein in a hot pan are almost over. Observant cooks will continue to incorporate tools and techniques from other professions into the cooking arena. Some examples include the ISI foamer, liquid misters, Pacojet, wine press, centrifuge, bag cookery (sous-vide), nitrous freezing: the list goes on. It will continue to make dinning exciting, both for the cook and the guest.

Steve Plotnicki

I can't tell you the thread it is in, but there is a debate on this board about whether the cooking at El Bulli (and that name is used as a generic example) is going to be lasting, or is it a flash in the pan. And I will pose the question we asked there to you. Granted (excuse the pun) the cooking tools and techniques chefs impose on ingredients will be revolutionary, and granted that it will continue to make dinner exciting for the cook and the guest, but where is the identifiable cuisine that people will speak of?

For example, I ate at Trio in November and had a terrific meal. But I am hard pressed to communicate that meal to others unless I go into detailed descriptions of each dish. I never had that problem eating at 3 star restaurants in France. Each one is identifiable by the region they reside in. Even the ones in Paris, aside from Pierre Gagnaire and Lucas-Carton, are usually heavily influenced by the chef's native region. Even in this country, The French Laundry is described as "whimsical" because the dishes mimic classic American concepts like Coffee and Donuts etc. So how are we going to describe this new cuisine you are talking about other then "modern and inventive?"

There is another aspect to this as well. If I wanted to be cynical about it, if the new cooking techniques you describe had such a tremendous positive impact on flavor, why the need for unusual pairings? What about using a Pacojet or mister has caused chefs to shuffle the flavor deck? Why isn't just enhancing the flavor you used to get with more traditional cooking methods, plus the improved texture you get from the new cooking technique, enough? To simplify this question, if a new cooking technique makes for a steak that tastes better, why for example does a chef need to pair it with date purée? And to simplify it even more, it seemed that traditionally chefs tried to make combinations that were intended to last. But I don't see that happening as much anymore. Today the modern chefs seem to be in a free-for-all where the main goal is to surprise. Do you really think that dining will be become almost exclusively about what the chef does? And can that genre of cooking style last if an identifiable cuisine doesn't spring out of it?

This will take some time to answer. I will probably break it into several parts to help illustrate my points and focus.

The "identifiable cuisine" is in the virgin stages of being created. It is not yet complete because it is new. Look at how slowly the progression of food moves. In the kitchens of the great restaurants in this country, and in Europe, the same basic techniques are still utilized today that cooks used 100 years ago. Styles have come and gone in ingredient pairing, presentation, globalization of cuisines, but little headway has been made in terms of new technique. Roast, braise, sauté, steam, grill have been used by Escoffier and Keller and everyone in between. Of course some new methods have come along, but for the most part cooks have been executing classic techniques and putting their own twists on them for many years. These classic techniques may never go away, but it is refreshing to see developments and more importantly mindsets committed to discovering new techniques.

I feel, and correct me if I am wrong, that the identifiable characteristic you are relying on is regionalism. This is very difficult in the States compared to Europe. Let's use France as a general example. First of all they are their own country and have been for many years. The U.S. has the disadvantage of being the melting pot that it is with much less historic gastronomy to call "its own".

Also in terms of food culture France is less reluctant to advance with the times. Example. From my experiences it is much easier to find a small farmer producing milk from a small herd of cows there than here. That farmer has been on his land for many generations and has sold the milk or cheese to local restaruarants for years. The relationships between small farmer, fisherman, etc. has a long lineage. Therefore cuisine in a certain region of France is shaped more dramatically by society. In the States it is very difficult to establish these intimate relationships because it tends to not be profitable for the small guys to exist.

Define American cuisine? Is cuisine defined by ingredients? I would say so, primarily. I have a hard time with "whimsical" being a type of cuisine.

The use of unusual ingredients is not an attempt to do anything but create a new cuisine, at least for Trio. Not for the sole purpose to surprise. It is surprising because the diner has never sampled this pairing before. I am sure it was surprising when people said there was a machine that moved people from place to place without a horse. I see your point. As a chef, when we come across an unusual pairing, we second and triple guess ourselves. Why are we doing this? Because it tastes good has to be the answer. But it is even surprising to us, and we conceptualized it! If we are confident in a pairing it will be plugged into the repertoire and stay there. For example, Trio feels confident that bittersweet chocolate and Niçiose olives pair well together, as well as Campari and grapefruit, olive oil and green apple, orange and mustard, blue cheese, and white chocolate, kola and caviar, sardines and foie gras. It is our way of advancing the cause of fine dining. It is our way of inventing the wheel.

Advances in technology mean the same thing in cuisine as they do in medicine. With the invention of the Pacojet, and cryovac machine cooks are giving heart transplants to food. It is another tool in the carpenter's belt.

Yes, I feel in today's world of globalization, with the internet, FedEx, and blurred foundation of what is ours, cuisine will move more towards chef brands as cuisine types. If you go to an Alain Ducasse restaurant you know what to expect as well as Thomas Keller, Jean Georges, Daniel Boulud, Pierre Gagnaire, Ferran Adria… All of these chefs use ingredients, and techniques borrowed from other cultures and their peers but, even blindfolded, you know whose restaurant you are sitting in. Because they are the cuisine, just like Monet is to impressionism, and Mozart is to classical.

Describe the year 2004.

Steve Plotnicki

I agree with all of this. But my point goes more to how the cuisine is going to spread, not so much to the actual success factor based on how things taste. There is more to great cuisine then someone creating a recipe. There is bringing the cuisine to a worldwide market. And to do that successfully, one needs to be able to quantify what one ate so they can communicate it to others. If we look at El Bulli, the most famous restaurant in the world when it comes to being creative, they are a phenomenon amongst the trade but virtually unknown amongst the public. There are a number of reasons for this, but probably none greater then people who eat there cannot describe the cuisine adequately outside of the context of describing the chef's technique. This is something new for cuisine as far as I know.

As you stated, for the past century, cuisine has somehow or another been derivative of Escoffier. In reality that means that people have applied techniques derived from Escoffier to regional cuisines. And we can take this approach all the way to Keller being "whimsical" by which I mean, he took some famous American dishes and adapted them to haute cuisine.

This is a particularly complicated issue, and do not take my questions or comments to be criticism. In fact, I am more interested in contemporary chefs getting over what might be a hump because it will make for more interesting eating. And currently I think the expansion of modern cuisine in the U.S. is moving at a snail's pace. But I am not seeing the point as to why the application of new technique means divorcing regionalism from the cuisine? I might have an old-fashioned way of looking at it but, when I go out to the Heartlands from NYC for the weekend, I want to come home feeling like I tasted the Heartlands. Some of the ways you can do that are to eat cultural constructs like Italian Beef sandwiches. But at the high end, diners are looking to see that amazing technique applied to easily identifiable things like lake trout and Wisconsin cheddar. When that happens, it resonates with them in a certain way. Tied to the past and the familiar, but reorganized into and for the future.

If you find the el Bulli conversation I was referring to, you will see the conversation ended up in a discussion of the avant-garde. And why the avant-garde in both classical music and jazz never took hold with the public. I don't think it was discussed there but it occurs to me that unlike art, where museums basically subsidize the exhibition of what we would call the avant-garde, music is more of a business. Like a restaurant which is dependent on customers, it is dependent on a certain level of commercial success from the sales of recordings. And some of us wonder, that unless someone applies the new techniques in a way that is consistent with past applications, the "modern and inventive" can end up becoming esoteric in the way that Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp became esoteric (avant-garde jazz sax players for those who don't know.) Because there will always be diehards like Ryne, Cabrales and me. But we do not make an audience if you know what I mean. Mind you, we are counting on you to make sure this doesn't happen.

Interesting comment on worldwide market, and perfectly valid. I disagree with el Bulli being lesser known than most 3 star restaurants. With the exception of Ducasse who has brought his food to the U.S. I doubt many people could name any 3 star chef dramatically over Ferran. In fact he has received a great deal of press in U.S. magazines within the last 3 years. Gourmet, F&W, Bon Appetit, Art Culinaire, and I would assume the New York Times although I haven't seen any such piece. All of this because he is doing food that nobody else is. He is huge in Japan and even Australia.

I agree, the pace of modern cuisine in the States is painfully slow, or is it? The movement itself just started not so long ago in France and Spain. Think of the 5 most highly regarded chefs at the high end level in the states. They are all over 40 and have been developing their style or "brand" for quite some time. Along comes a more creative approach to food, chefs saying: hey it's OK to take some chances, its ok to develop new techniques. But the chefs here have already made their mold, developed their repertoire, implemented their systems. They are the ones in the public eye, on the TV Food Network, in the Grimes reviews, on the cover of Gourmet. They are the pinnacle of fine dining here.

The new generation or next wave of chefs are just coming onto the scene, and they will bring a more modern cuisine. I feel it will be dramatic. I see it in the cooks I deal with, the ones currently in culinary school, the ones "on the lines" in the kitchens of our best restaurants in this country. They will be the hope for a modern cuisine in the U.S. not the ones that are in the spotlight right now.

New technique does not mean divorce of regionalism. The problem is regionalism itself. What is it in the States? To look at the current menu at Trio, The French Laundry, and Daniel, what ingredients display a sense of regionalism to each respective restaurant? TFL uses Hudson Valley foie gras not Sonoma, lamb from Pennsylvania, Great Lakes whitefish, Cobia from the Gulf of Mexico, French black truffles, yuzu from Japan, hearts of palm from Hawaii, huckleberries from Oregon, asparagus from Jersey, and so on. Trio is the same. Daniel (I think) is the same. Root vegetables dominate all of the menus. Today it seems chefs have the convenience of internet research, FedEx shipping to get any ingredient they desire or prefer the next day. Trio certainly falls into this category, sourcing products from all over. Quality is priority. Trio is sensitive to local products and tries hard to support them, which in turn gives the food a sense of regionalism but not exclusively Midwestern. California seems to have the advantage since they have all the resources at their disposal. Wine, ocean, farmland and most importantly the social awareness to provide the small purveyor-restaurant relationships. At least in northern California.

Your point on the avant-garde is a great one. It was a very thought out topic during the rebirth of Trio 1 1/2 years ago knowing the food would move in that direction. The response has been good to the food, even despite the "comfort food" craze that followed 9/11. Publications as influential as the NY Times recently ran front page (food section) story on no more foie gras, give me a burger....or something like that. When society is bombarded with these messages they will follow. As the more open minded come into positions (chefs, writers) that allow them to shape the horizon of dining, this country will see the change that is sweeping Europe.

RyneSchraw

It seems to me there are two issues being dealt with here: techniques of preparing food and the food itself. My opinion is that what becomes very "modern and inventive" (not only at Trio, but also with Ferran Adrià, Thomas Keller, and hopefully other chefs in other countries more and more now) is focused more on the former category, rather than the later. This deals with the usage of all the techniques mentioned earlier by 'chefg' and also with the way common dishes are deconstructed and presented in new forms. Having eaten at Trio several times and seen the menu change over the months, one thing I've noticed is Chef Achatz does indeed tend to play with "classic American dishes" that he and we all grew up with: hamburger and root beer, milkshakes, pizza, popcorn, ice cream sandwich, potato chips, etc. As you mentioned Keller also does this as well (having grown up with the same things), but in complete contrast, Ferran Adrià's food contains references to traditional Catalan dishes from the areas of Spain he grew up in. A meal at el Bulli will include a tapas section and he seems to focus a lot on sardines, prawns, Mediterranean flavors of the sea, etc. So I do have to disagree and say Trio fits in as a sometimes highly American cuisine, albeit very "modern and inventive." I will also note, that it seems Keller is a bit conservative by comparison, as far as technique is concerned; he seems to favor some of the more traditional French methods of yesteryear, with regards to cooking meats and fish, and does not use a lot of foams, ices, gelatin. But, with these chefs, there are also the global influences, which come up from all over the board. Two good examples from Trio are the passion fruit (or sometimes mango) lassi they serve, a traditional Indian drink and the halibut dish with rutabaga-mustard that maintains the essence of sushi (partly). And finally there are the dishes -- many of them -- which are completely original and new, but still aren't just random flavor combinations; rather, modern approaches to flavors that do work together, or otherwise they would never make it out of the kitchen. And I would be hard pressed to really think of something I've eaten Trio that didn't work. I've had heard rumours that this has been the case of late at el Bulli, but I'm still dying to go!

Still, these three chefs do get grouped together for a reason. They are all doing food that is (to steal Steve's way of putting it again, since it is such an excellent way to do so) "modern and inventive" (and I'll add two more words: fun and entertaining). As 'Chefg' stated earlier, "The days of putting a piece of protein in a hot pan are almost over." I would have to agree. Ferran Adrià also can be quoted as saying "it's over for the French chefs," right after receiving his third Michelin star. As new technology becomes available along with the access to practically any ingredient desired (by the way, what are: paw paws, crosnes, limequats, galangal, cardoons?), why should a chef not use them and only stay true to one region of France or one "identifiable cuisine"?

Steve Plotnicki

Well it's more then just cosmetics. "Modern and inventive" only describes the technique. It doesn't describe the food. Since we are used to describing food from the perspective of regionalism, I'm not sure what is going to happen here. The Spanish chefs have a similar problem, which in part is why they aren't better known in the U.S. among diners. They are chefs in Spain who are known for cooking in a very modern and creative style, not for having created a modern version of Spanish cuisine. My feeling is that if they were known for the latter, you would see it being copied more in other countries.

What I am talking about is how to describe the cuisine. Regionalism makes it easy to communicate to those who weren't at the meal what it is that you ate. To say that Michel Guerard had a modern take on Southwestern cuisine filled in many blanks for those who wanted to know for their own future reference. But for example, even though my meal this past November at Trio was better then almost any meal I have had in the U.S., I am hard pressed to describe it in a way other then "modern and inventive." And if I had an easier way to describe it, I could convince more people to try it. I think this is a slightly larger problem then people give it credit for being. And it is one of the reasons that "modern and inventive" cuisine hasn't had as much traction in U.S. restaurants as one would have expected.

I will agree that the days of putting a slab of protein into a pan are going to end one day, possibly soon by the way we measure time in cuisine. But I am skeptical as to how soon it will be unless someone can describe what the cuisine expresses other then saying it showcases the amazing technique of the chef. That will only take us so far. It has to be part of a greater esthetic expression, whether derived in regionalism or something else. People are used to eating "regionalism." Will that stop because of great technique?

RyneSchraw

Steve does make a very good point. Aside from pulling out all the four-star reviews or explaining how Chef Achatz was sous chef at the French Laundry for several years (and then what that implies), I've found it difficult to talk people into going to Trio for the first time. But once you get anyone in there, it all makes sense. Really the food speaks for itself, but as Steve pointed out, it would be a lot easier to have a concise and precise way to talk about it. But really this almost seems impossible in a way; trying to explain a movement in cuisine that is focused much more on a mindset and approach towards the future, than with any region or ingredient. All regions apply, as do all ingredients (if desired by the chef). Also, there is the point ChefG made, about how it's really the beginning of this type of cooking, so for any of this to become clearly definined...well this may take some time.

Steve Plotnicki

All this talk of eating at Trio has made me have the desperate need to go back there in the near future for another extravaganza. If I might ask, which do you suggest, the spring or summer cuisine as the better platform for the ChefG philosophy?

Trio feels that it displays sound examples of its cuisine in all four Midwestern seasons. Maybe ask yourself what ingredients are more exciting to eat and base your decision that way. Certainly after a long winter it is nice to see things like asparagus, morels, peas, taking the place of root vegetables! It's tough to let go of the truffles though.

Cabrales

Could you discuss whether you see the element of surprise to a diner from receiving a food product in an unanticipated state to be itself a positive effect? How do you see surprise as interacting with taste memory, given that familiar flavors can also evoke taste memory?

Have you considered playing with temperatures that are unnatural for a given food state? In other words, a food state, while it generally has a related temperature when ice or vapour is involved, could surprise if that temperature were tampered with, for example.

Absolutely. The element of surprise can be an incredible tool in a chef's kit, but you run the risk of failing, which makes you look quite silly. Surprise comes in many different forms. Not knowing which you are specifically asking about I will go through a few. At Trio nearly all the food has some surprise value due to the fact that you won't find a dish on the menu that you have seen elsewhere. There is surprise in unique combinations such as bittersweet chocolate and Niçoise olives, actually hiding an ingredient or a large concentration of an ingredient in a dish to be discovered by a diner, like a sliver of raw ginger in the "oysters and beer", as when a diner sees "pizza" on the menu only to be confronted with a stamp size piece of "paper", to see flavors that are familiar presented in an unusual manner like the root beer of beef short ribs, to begin consuming a beverage and feel it drastically change temperature as they drink, the sudden release of liquid in the liquid black truffle explosion and so on. All of these are examples of surprises that I feel add drama, entertainment, creativity, and in some cases flavor enhancement to a meal. It is a strong technique in the highly creatives' separation from their peers.

A chef once wanted to make hot ice cream. It can't be done, although the effect would be amazing. Less dramatic examples are used at Trio all the time. To freeze something that is normally hot or heat something that is normally frozen is easy, but what are you left with? Hot chocolate becomes chocolate sorbet; the difficulty comes in when the original and the manipulated are identical. This is easy: "Dry Martini". What do you visualize? It's in a Martini glass, it tastes like a martini, but you chew it. It is not liquid at all. But how does Trio make you drink something without the sensation of wetness? Is it possible? Not yet.

Cabrales

Could you discuss Chef Achatz's views, if you are aware of them, on the utilization of local produce? Please mention what types of produce would be considered local for purposes of your response. How does the sourcing question relate to Trio's "global influences"?

Produce is purchased on a quality and availability basis. Trio has found that not all "local" produce is better than other sources and sometimes it is impossible due to our geographic location to source the foodstuffs we want locally. It is difficult to find fresh hearts of palm in Illinois. At any given time 50-85% of our produce comes from a organic co-op in Madison, Wisconsin. Our contact has relationships with a group of farmers in the area. He compiles a list twice a week on the products available and drives them to Chicago twice a week. The products are wonderful, the freshness is amazing. Besides the quality of the vegetables Trio feels good supporting local farms that take the integral approach to their craft. Before the season starts the group talks to the chefs and discusses products that they would like to use. So such oddities as skirret, and many other "wild crafted" items such as cattails, wild watercress, morels, acorns, and so on become available. Trio also works closely with a local spice purveyor that works hard to find the chef's unusual requests such as kola nuts, long peppercorns, sassafras root, mallow root, licorice root, fresh eucalypus leaves and so on.

As far as what is local, currently we are using celeriac, burdock root, rutabaga, beets, turnips, potatoes, parsley root, sunchokes, crosnes, radishes, and organic eggs. Trio is not a "locally only" restaurant like some other restaurants in the Chicago area. Some of the more "global ingredients" Trio utilizes are fresh Hawaiian hearts of palm, fresh curry leaves, Mayhaw Berries, tosaka seaweed, yuzu, paw paws, sunchokes, crosnes, black truffles, limequats, anise hyssop, galangal, cardoons, Buddha's Hand, the list goes on but for whatever reason they are slipping my mind.

Cabrales

What is the dish on the Trio menu that you believe is the most delicious? Is that the same dish of which you are most proud, from a culinary technique perspective?

By far the toughest question yet, but at least it was broken into two parts which is very important. Braised Prime Beef Short Ribs root beer flavors gets my vote for the "most delicious", It's winter in the Midwest, you have a luscious, rich, flavorful braise of fatty beef. That is tasty. What separates it from other restaurants short rib dishes, I feel, is the concept of root beer flavors. When you analyze old fashioned root beer you find its components are very easily deconstructed and remarkably well suited to a dark, rich, meat. Burdock root, fennel bulb and seed, prunes, molasses, star anise, sassafras, vanilla, and black pepper. It produces a highly aromatic dish with layers of flavor.

The small dishes that Trio produces tend to be my favorites. It is easier to be creative with smaller bites than with the more substantial courses. Tart apple-olive oil, dry shot, pizza, spice water, watermelon-smoked paprika ice, black truffle explosion are some that fall into most proud category, although their technique is not so complex. They are products of our environment, and awareness of it, that brought them to life. Techniques that Trio utilizes well, that produce complex results are dehydration, sous-vide cookery, gelatin work, sugar work, foams, to name a few.

I feel strongly about the Osetra Caviar kola nut ice dish.

Cabrales

If you are comfortable discussing it, do you dine out at other Chicago-area restaurants, in your free time? How would you contrast the approach of Chef Achatz to, say, the culinary principles prevailing at Tru?

Yes, although my time is very limited, especially since discovering eGullet! The last post addressed to Steve Plotnicki may give you some understanding of my views on the state of restaurants in Chicago. I have dined at Trotter's, Tru, Carlos, Topolobapmo, Spring, Campagnola, Blackbird, Arun's, Le Français, and I am sure more but I can't recall. I don't review restaurants, sorry.

Cabrales

It's wonderful solo diners are always VIP'd at FL. Are you aware of what might have been the thinking behind that? Also, do all VIPs on a given night tend to get the same lengthier tasting?

Thomas assumes solo diners are there to dine. A lot of people frequent high end restaurants. Some are there because their dining partner wanted to go, some because it is the "in place", some because it adds a level of prestige, and others because they like to dine. If you go alone chances are you are into it. From a chef's perspective there is no one I would rather cook for. Not all VIPs get the same menu, depends on your VIP-ness.

Steve Klc

Say something like the pushed foie gras becomes so lauded, so repeated in the media it begins to take on mythic proportions--it comes to be seen as defining your whole approach to cuisine. You know it is just one dish among many and that you could hardly be defined by one dish, any dish.

Would you take it off the menu at the end of this season? Are you already thinking about how to re-work or re-conceptualize it? Unlike the past masters--who wouldn't think of removing their signature dish--or even, it seems, Thomas Keller, who seems to keep signatures on his menu for years--how do you feel about that? Are you closer in spirit to Adria who won't repeat dishes from season to season and in fact, seems beyond the whole "concept" of a signature dish? All his dishes are signature dishes and reflect his process--and that accepting the mere notion of a signature dish would be too limiting.

That said--signatures are something the media can latch on to--like a sound byte--are they a necessary evil?

Trio has made a general decision to not have signature dishes. They prevent further creativity. Some dishes will stay on the menu for long stretches of time, like the lobster with rosemary vapor. Some may go away for long periods and reappear as totally reworked dishes like the "root beer" of beef that is currently on the menu. The kitchen team at Trio gets bored with dishes after a certain period. We often reflect back on dishes that we felt good about at the time but that would not put on the menu now.

I feel we advance at a rapid pace, and it shows in the food. The menus run very seasonally and only dishes that defy seasonality remain for longer than 2-3 months. As soon as a new menu is in place the team begins the task of developing the next menu, it never stops. We do not have the luxury of being seasonal. To be able to take a few months off to just "create" must be wonderful! The development process is lea by the chef, but the kitchen is very collaborative in nature. Discussions are held to brainstorm new ideas and elevate the current set of dishes. The staff is incredibly special in this regard. A think-tank environment is present. The staff is fully aware of all techniques, no secrets are held, they are ones executing the food. As far as philosophy, the team is very aware of our goal, parameters, style, and focus. This is achieved by both being immersed in the environment and through deliberate discussions of it. Even the waitstaff is highly tuned in to concepts of the food and overall method.

Steve Plotnicki

Well those are both marketing issues that restaurants have to deal with. Obviously, the better people can communicate what a restaurant does well, the easier it is to convince people to dine there. Sure you can say that at Trio the food is "modern and inventive," that just won't sell as many covers as "modern and inventive take on Midwest cuisine." And I'm not suggesting that ChefG should alter anything he does. But the market is the market. It's hard enough to change the market's perceptions about tastes and textures, changing the methods we use to communicate how things taste, and why we should go taste them, is just one more burden. When someone first said "Nouvelle Cuisine," everyone knew what they meant. I'm still waiting for someone to describe what is going on in Spain in a more descriptive fashion then "cooking with total and complete freedom," a description which has not exactly made every American jump on a plane to go have dinner there.

There is another aspect to the entire signature dish/masterpiece debate. I mean it is nice to be able to walk over to the Met from my apartment and see Autumn Rhythm. Or to put on the CD and hear Miles still play that great solo on So What Live at Carnegie Hall. And even though it's not quite the same, it is also nice to be able to go to Yountville and have Thomas's White Truffle Custard. And while I understand the concept of progress, I hate to see masterpieces discarded in the name of it. That one doesn't really work for me either.

Cabrales

Apologies for not having information on Trio's cheese plate, due to not yet having dined there. However, to what extent is cheese served at the restaurant sourced locally? A similar question, with respect to US cheese?

RyneSchraw

Cabrales - This is a direct quote from the pastry chef at Trio, Paula Haney: "In addition to planning and overseeing Trio's pastry menu, I am also responsible for designing our cheese offerings. Like my pastry menu, the cheese plate has a strong seasonal focus. While I never put geographic limits on my cheese courses, I usually include one or more American artisanal cheeses." It's from the American Cheese Society website http://www.cheesesociety.org/cgi-bin/membe...ge.cgi?id=00543

Cabrales

Could you discuss whether you see the location of Trio outside of central Chicago as being more helpful or as being overall less desirable? For example, do you see the distance as allowing the restaurant to attract a large proportion of diners who are interested in Chef Achatz's cuisine and travel for it?

RyneSchraw

Trio is inside the Homestead -- http://www.thehomestead.net. It's a really charming inn on a residential street with some very nice homes, lots of trees and some great architecture (a few really huge churches). The area itself is beautiful, a few blocks west of the lake and south of Northwestern University. Also it puts the focus entirely on Trio, as opposed to being in a huge city with a lot of top notch places a few blocks away, and gives it that secluded, quiet feel. Kinda similar in way to the other restaurants that have come up in this thread (FL and el Bulli). People who live in the city have to make somewhat of a "trek" out to eat here. But really, Evanston is such a cool town - it's like my home away from home (but only 20 min. away

Cabrales

RyneSchraw -- Could you discuss the nature of the dish descriptions provided by the dining room team, when you order, and, separately, when a dish is presented? How do the descriptions become provided if the dish is temperature-sensitive or otherwise deteriorates with the passage of time? Do dish descriptions omit new techniques, as one might expect?

To what extent do you see the dish descriptions as aiding diner comprehension of the dishes? Do you believe that Trio diners generally understand at least some notion of what was intended to be conveyed?

RyneSchraw

Cabrales - When ordering the menu is presented and after having some time to think, the staff (who are all extremely knowledgeable and very helpful) will come to answer any questions about certain items. At this point you have a vague, unpolished idea of what you will be eating (if you look at the menu you will understand why - it tells you the elements of a dish, but rarely makes a mention of how they will be used or with what technique). This leaves a ton of room for suprise for when the food actually arrives at the table.

The real description comes when the dishes are presented. Depending on the dish, they first deal with ingredients and the forms they are served in, such as "this is a goat's milk sorbet next to...". The focus is put first on the main element in the dish (the item underscored in my example above) and if a technique warrants mentioning (such as how they poach some of the fish and meat in a vacuum sealed bag at low heat) it will be mentioned. Secondly the other elements of a certain dish are explained, and your attention is expected as some dishes are really complex and you will have no idea what the third layer is if you don't listen. At this point they will answer any questions or repeat anything you didn't catch (sometimes it's a lot to take in). In regards to the stability of certain dishes, the descriptions are never a problem, but there have been times where a question leads to a conversation and after a few moments I'll be told to eat my fish before it gets cold.

After eating in this type of atmosphere, it's hard not to notice it missing immediately (and wish it was there) when you go somewhere else, where it does not exist. It's more than just being a luxury of the meal; it's really an integral part of appreciating and understanding the food. With prix fixe, multi-course menus, it would be impossible to remember what you read a few hours prior about what the course now sitting in front of you really is. This can almost go for à la carte menu's too, and I have eaten in nice places before where you order a piece of fish and it is brought out to you on a bed of something and next to something, but just set down on the table with no explanation. And aside from just explaining what you are about to eat, there is also a sense of story involved with a lot of the food at Trio. For instance the butter comes from Animal Farms in Vermont (The French Laundry also used this butter - extremely rich and a dark yellow color), owned by a woman who only has eight cows and they all have names and she sends notes explaining how each one is doing. So really you are getting both an appreciation of what Chef Achatz is doing in the kitchen and an appreciation of the food itself, and the life it had before it arrived at the door of the restaurant. As far as if other diners get all this, I'd like to think everyone who eats there and commits that much time and money to the experience would care at least this much about it, but then again, people do eat at places like this for many different reasons; and not always about the food. But in general, I do feel the other diners are all really into it and you'll hear gasps and laughs when the "Carmel Popcorn" amuse is served or the hot water is poured over orange peel. People seem to connect with it and have a lot of fun.

RyneSchraw

Thoughts and comments relating to the spread of modern cuisine:

I think Chefg makes a very good point, that anyone out there who's doing these types of things with food is still greatly out-numbered by the stalwarts of the traditional French model. Just take New York for example--there is Blue Hill and Gramercy Tavern, but the focus remains with the French chefs. They are still having their day, and while this is not a problem at all, it's clear their days are numbered. This is not to say there won't be any more traditional French restaurants, but no one can pretend anymore that it all ends with Escoffier. There is definitely a "Food Revolution" going on with high-end dining, and similar to the Industrial Revolution it started with a small few, and will just get transferred on and on and be modified and improved on by the younger cooks who are just starting out now, or are still in culinary school, or who haven't even been born yet, with no end in sight and no way to stop it.

And the press does play a huge role in this as well. The French Laundry really wasn't huge until Ruth Reichl wrote about it as being "The most exciting place to eat in the United States" in The New York Times. El Bulli has collected, over the last 10 years, an almost ridiculous amount of press (I posted a thread earlier on the http://press.elbulli.com and since then they have updated yet again with new articles from 2002, bringing the total to over 400 meticulously clipped and scanned articles.) As a testament to the effect of this exposure, el Bulli filled up for the whole year in one day last month. Which proves that people do indeed enjoy this type of cuisine. So, while el Bulli, Trio and FL all stand on the very edge of cuisine and are all very avant-garde, they are not so in the elitist sort of way that can be associated with avant-garde art, cinema, fashion, etc... Rather the food does a lot to please the people who eat it (not just those creating it), and they do try hard and succeed in making it accessible to the public. I've gone with friends, my sister, mom, etc., none of whom really have any interest in high end dining or food and they have all loved it and all wanted to go back.

I think when it comes down to classifying and talking about this food, it works best to treat it as entertainment, and to communicate it as being that way. You certainly don't eat at any of these places simply because you are hungry--the whole experience goes way beyond that. Really it is food as the show- not dinner and a movie, but rather just dinner.

pixelchef

If I may ask, approximately how many diners opt for the Tour de Force on any given night?

The Tour de Force flucuates between 12 to 20% of covers. January 2003 was the highest number of TDF we have served at Trio since its inception over a year ago. The number of diners that choose that option has steadily risen. This trend is exciting for Trio, as the composition of its guests shift to a more "foodie" clientele. The menu offers the most creative food served at the restaurant and can be ordered spontaneously, although we encourage guests to make us aware at the time of reservation if they have already made the commitment to the. It is currently 22 courses long, course being a relative term for dishes as small as a stamp, but 22 compositions will be consumed by the diner. Vegetarian and no-meat menus have been served, with less enthusiasm from the kitchen due to the limitations on techniques using gelatin and certain animal products. The average diner will take 4 hours to complete the meal, this is variable due to number in your party, how fast you eat, the sense of urgency in the kitchen, and whether wine flights are being consumed with the meal. The menu is composed of dishes both from the four course and eight course menus and items not on either menu. It is designed to flow from beginning to end in a progression of flavors, textures, techniques and temperatures.


Edited by Jonathan Day (log)

Jonathan Day

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

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Here is the remainder of the previous Q&A:

Chazzy

I believe your pastry chef was at Trio before you so I was wondering, if you feel comfortable answering, if when you came to Trio the owner gave you the option of looking for a new pastry chef or keeping Paula or if you insisted that she stay. Similarly, how many of the staff are carryovers from before you were chef and how have these people, Paula included, reacted to the very different and modern cuisine you brought? Would you say some were skeptical (as Mario Batali says his staff was with olive oil gelato), did they find some things difficult or were they generally very enthusiastic and interested in your cuisine and techniques? Finally, have all your staff had your techniques and philosophy explained to them as we're having the pleasure of now?

Michael Laiskonis

I know that a great deal of attention is paid to the dessert courses of your menus. To expand on Chazzy's question, how would you describe the collaboration between Paula and yourself, in general, with regard to the sweet-savory transition and how the final courses play out, and more specifically, the conceptualization of the dishes themselves?

With regard to your cooking in general, a constant need for experimentation and rethinking of old ideas must play a huge role. Are there any generalizations you can make about the progress of a dish from concept through to reality? The discovery process?

You've made statements about where our cuisine is headed, and rethinking the pathways of sourcing ingredients and new cooking methods. How might the organization of the kitchen itself change with the advent of a new cuisine, new equipment, new cooking methods? Will there be any use for the Escoffier model of a kitchen brigade in the near future? Are there already hints toward this direction in your own kitchen?

Cabrales

Could you discuss how Chef Achatz coordinates his dishes with those of his pastry chef? Is the integrating approach explicitly discussed, or more informally coordinated?

Chef Haney was the only member of the kitchen team that stayed during the transition from Chef McClain to the current chef. The two have grown stylistically together and formed a seamless partnership in the voice of the food served at the restaurant. Total creative freedom is given to Chef Haney and she executes the desserts within the given style of the cuisine served by the restaurant. Dish conceptualization is primarily handled by Chef Haney with some ideas given in the creative think-tank of the brigade. As mentioned in an earlier post, every member of the staff is very clear as to the food style and goals we are trying to reach with the cuisine. This makes the transition seamless when creating long tasting menus.

With regard to the discovery process I would reiterate the importance of the brigade and its tireless commitment to the process itself. Once the commitment is made to do highly creative food a huge challenge is placed on the kitchen. The thought processes are longer, more detailed and sometimes fail as you enter unfamiliar territory. It is difficult to generalize the process except to say that it is our goal to create. Dishes materialize from tools, ie: Zyliss grater in the Grated Point Reyes blue cheese dried banana pudding, mint, white chocolate, concentrating on popcorn after an old air popper was brought into the kitchen, to produce the amuse Caramel popcorn, from techniques such as stabilizing the state of a liquid to make it possible to be contained by pasta, sugar or other wrapping as in the Black Truffle Explosion; from reinvention like the Bubble tea sencha, steelhead roe, cucumber, dill a play on the Asian tapioca drink; from specific ingredients like the Bavarios of golden trout roe, yuzu, ginger, mango using the amazing hand made roe from native Michigan brook trout which unanimously drew us to those three ingredients.

The brigade as we know it now will slowly become obsolete with the introduction of the new cuisine. The techniques from savory and sweet and vice-versa become blurred as sugar and ice creams become evident in savory applications, while savory components become more used in sweet dishes. The handling of these interchangeable techniques and ingredients brings a more universal cook. No longer will there be tasks handled by "specialists" in the kitchen. The tasks of the entire kitchen will become more homogenized as techniques and ingredients are spread over the repertoire.

RyneSchraw

Thanks for mentioning the Bavarios of golden trout roe, yuzu, ginger, mango. I had it once last year and could not recall what it consisted of besides roe and ginger. What exactly, is the significance of Michigan brook trout...the golden roe comes from one sole purveyor, correct? (I vaguely remember a story of how this type of fish roe came about by accident, but would be grateful to hear the details.)

The roe is produced by a friend of mine and the first chef I worked for. He harvests the Trout from a natural spring fed body of water in central Michigan. The fish are not fed the typical diet of "pellets" laced with carotenoids, because the water is a thriving ecosystem and the fish have enough natural food to sustain them. Crayfish and insects make up their diet and it shows in the flesh of these beautiful fish. The processing takes place at the water, so freshness is priority. The roe is rinsed with spring water and cured in sea salt, hand sieved and never frozen (a common practice). This is the most amazing roe I have ever seen. It is fresh and clean in the mouth with light popping of the eggs and no bitterness. The salinity is kept at a minimum, therefore it becomes very seasonal, due to reduced shelf life. It is truly one the greatest products we use at Trio.

RyneSchraw

On the topic of purveyors, this seems like a good example of one of the smaller farms Trio deal with. How does the kitchen go about researching and eventually forming a relationship with various purveyors, mainly in regards to the smaller ones (such as Animal Farms in Vermont)? Is this done solely by the chef? Do you find Trio using the same places as other high-end restaurants (French Laundry seems kinda obvious), but I mean more in general? Besides a higher quality of product, does the chef find other advantages in the seemingly more personal relationship between a smaller purveyor and the kitchen? Perhaps a closer knowledge of the food, directly from someone who raises it for a living?

Most of the small farms we deal with come from recommendations of other chefs. The butter from Animal Farm came by the way of Thomas, it is wonderful. 100 % organic, produced like you said, by a woman who owns four cows. It is a cultured butter so it does have a certain tang that is stylistically different than most french butters. In general most "small farmers" produce limited quantities of their products and most of the time they are very expensive due to labor and special care taken. Both of these factors make their products available to only a certain few due to quantity and price. This keeps the circle tight. There are advantages to the small purveyor relationship. Chances are if you are working with a lamber, and you want an artisan butter he will know someone, the circle of farmers and wild crafters is very similar to the circles of chefs. Of course the better your understanding of the product you are dealing with the more likely you will manipulate it in creative, sound ways. When I talk to the lamber he may inspire a dish based on what the lambs feed on, or how they live. He may also set me off on a different or speciality cut that is not commonly produced for the average market. Since he takes the animals down himself it's not an issue to get lamb kidneys, sweetbreads or hearts which would never be available otherwise. Another benefit is custom growing, through conversations with growers different specs or techniques will be talked about and soon the product you get from that supplier will be specific to you.

Cabrales

Have you reviewed the writings of Hervé This or Harold McGee? I recently noticed that This has a surprising number of published small books in French.

I have read McGee but not Herve. I have a problem with these books to a certain degree. We find it easier to formulate a question or problem first, and than research the solution. Often times the writings are not specific enough to help us. For example: We began recently exploring caramelization of all foodstuffs but primarily dairy. We wanted to determine if the browning of sugars could be accomplished at low temperatures. In the past a chef would associate caramelization with a hot pan or a salamander. We have found that many things will brown under consistent low temperature, if it applied for long periods of time. Taking a block of mozzarella cheese and sous-vide cooking it for 22 hours at 185 degrees produced a dark brown and highly flavorful cheese reminiscent to the top of a pizza. These writings can help us in some ways by provoking questions and even answering some, but the most effective way for the Trio team is confrontation of the goal and working backwards. We have also started relationships with food scientists in the area, this is new, but we are excited at the possibilities.

Cabrales

The composition and naming of certain Trio dishes may suggest elements of humor (e.g., the Caramel popcorn, Pizza and Bloody Mary dishes). When you have a chance, could you discuss how you see the role of humor in dishes at the restaurant?

Trio feels the dining experience is exactly that, an experience. As I said before guests are not in the restaurant because they are hungry. Who doesn't like to laugh? When we see guests confronted with an item that is not identifiable by it's name, but tastes of the original, they smile or laugh, sometimes while shaking their head. It is entertaining, thought provoking, and fun. It adds to the overall experience. With the level of dining continually rising, and the demand for services rendered in relation to cost more crucial in today's market, people gravitate towards things that are multi-fulfilling. If Trio can satiate and entertain a guest for 4 hours or longer it is in the minority as far as restaurants go. This is appealing to most, but not to all. While many high level restaurants in this country turn towards comfort style foods in a time of security, we push the other way. Trio wants people to be so involved in the meal, both from a physical and mental state, that all focus is devoted to the experience at hand not the troubles of the world. It's another way to achieve the same goal.

From the kitchen perspective we choose to highlight certain flavors that compose a well known dish carefully. A menu with too many "quotes" and twisted familiar food would be boring and campy.

Cabrales

Have you eaten at restaurants of chefs that subscribe to molecular gastronomy (e.g., Gagnaire, Blumenthal)?

Cabrales

What are the restaurants in Europe that appeal to you? Do you consider dining in Europe significant to the cuisine of which you are a part? What are your thoughts on the respective cuisine of the Group of Eight in France, if you are comfortable sharing your insights (Veyrat, Gagnaire, Bras, M Troisgros, Passard, Roellinger, Lorain, Chibois)?

Three Star Restaurants that I have eaten at in Europe:

Arzak

el Bulli

Georges Blanc

Boyer

Enotecca Pincchiori

Berastugie

el Raco Con Fabes

Taillevent

Restaurants that I am familar with that I feel are a part of the movement:

el Bulli

Berastugie

Gagnaire

Veyrat

Bras

Arpege

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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      Chef Grant processing the broccoli

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      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

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