Pasta My Prime

September 28, 2014 · 2 comments

Pasta Flyer

I‘m something of a Kickstarter junkie. I’ve backed projects as diverse as interacive fiction games, immersion circulators, titanium collar stays, graphic novels, music, and more. When I saw the campaign for Pasta Flyer, I practically screamed SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY! How could I not contribute? I would get a chance to work with chef Mark Ladner of New York’s Del Posto restaurant (part of the Batali/Bastianich empire), work on a food truck, and determine once and for all if it was possible for gluten-free pasta to not be an abomination. And, of course, I would get to work in a restaurant-like setting, even if only for a few hours.

My education began on Tuesday in the kitchen of Alden & Harlow in Harvard Square, where prep started at 8 AM. We were sharing the space with A&H’s morning crew.

Prep Kitchen

After a quick introduction, chef Ladner put me to work. For the next two hours I blanched basil and parsley for pesto, chopped roasted onions, poached eggs, ran tomatoes through a food mill, resuspended cheese in an Alfredo sauce, and cooked off a whole lot of diced pork belly.

Pork Belly

By 10:30 it was time to head to the truck, which was parked in front of Harvard’s Science Center. (What’s the difference between MIT and Harvard? MIT has a Humanities Department, Harvard has a Science Center.)

Unlike the bog-standard refitted step van, the Pasta Flyer “truck” is a restored 1970 Airstream Nomad outfitted with a Garland cooking suite.


The propaner-stove and flattop were dedicated to keeping pots of water as close to a boil as possible. Ladner’s original plan was to par-cook the pasta in water, then finish individual portions in a microwave, a technique he had tested extensively. Unfortunately, using the microwave in addition to all of the other appliances on the truck tripped the circuit breakers, a result with which I was all to familiar. Plan B was par-cooking the pasta, portioning it out, and then giving it a quick dunk in boiling water to finish when ordered.

The menu presented on the Pasta Flyer site was deemed overly ambitious for the truck’s maiden voyage (Harvard was the first stop on a month-long cross-country tour), so the ordering matrix was reduced to three pasta shapes (screws (fusilli), tubes (rigatoni), and elbows (elbows));  three sauces (tomato, Alfredo, and pesto); and three toppings (meatballs, crispy bacon (the pork belly), and truffled poached egg. That’s a lot of possible combinations, all of which were tracked from the cash register, which generated the expedite ticket for each order.

There was also a table of garnishes: roasted onions, sautéed chard, peperonata, chick peas, ricotta, crispy capers, grated parmesan, sriracha, Frank’s hot sauce, and olive oil:


Five people filled that tight space: the cashier, the pasta dunker, the expediter, the assembly chef, and me, who tried to keep out of the way while still making myself useful. Orders would come in, the expediter would read off the paste type for the dunker to finish, cups of pasta were set in bowls for assembly, and the chef would build the order. His station consisted of three large rice cookers which kept the sauces warm, and three slow cookers that held each of the toppings. Pasta would get tossed with sauce in a mixing bowl, then toppings would be added before being served up. Here’s a bowl of screws with tomato sauce and meatballs:

Screws, tomato sauce, meatballs

Simple sauce, flavorful beef meatballs, and pasta cooked just al dente – proof that gluten-free product can hold its own as long as it’s not overcooked.

During my three-hour shift I wiped countertops, cracked eggs, restocked garnishes, portioned pasta, and expedited orders once the lunch rush had passed. We did 150 covers in three hours – almost an order a minute.

I took a break in order to see chef Ladner’s lecture to the students in the Physics of Soft Matter class, where he demonstrated his gluten-free pasta method.

Pasta Demo

And, of course, pictures or it didn’t happen, so here’s the Instagram post from Erin, the social media manager:


The other fellow is Greg, another Kickstarter pledge. And, yes, chef Ladner is very tall.

What did I learn? That serving food to a lot of people in not a lot of time is hard work. I didn’t embarrass myself in prep or service, so I consider the experience a minor victory, but it convinced me (again) that restaurant cooking is a young(er) person’s game.


Lunch at The Fat Duck

September 21, 2014 · 0 comments

The Fat Duck

Our August trip to attend Loncon 3 was a thinly veiled excuse to get together with overseas friends, visit three countries, and, of course, eat. Thanks to the efforts of gourmand extraordinaire Scott Edelman, one of our eating destinations would be The Fat Duck. To say that I was excited about the meal would be an understatement. By the time the appointed day arrived I was quivering with anticipation. We took the train out of London to Maidenhead, and then a short cab ride to the village of Bray, home of chef Heston Blumenthal’s culinary empire. Was it quaint? You be the judge:


From the doorway of the restaurant you could look across the street at the unmarked building that houses Blumenthal’s research laboratory, and around the corner at the Hind’s Head, his pub:

The Hind's Head


Once inside, our meal began with an amuse of crispy beet foam with horseradish cream, a single bite that dissolved instantly in the mouth.


Nitro Poached Apertifs

Vodka and Lime Sour, Gin and Tonic, Tequila and Grapefruit

Our server brought out a cart with foam chargers and a dewar of liquid nitrogen. After selecting one of the three apertifs, she piped foam into a spoon and dunked it into the nitrogen.


The result was a fragile frozen puff of foam that had to be consumed in a single bite.


The predictable (and unphotographable) result was puffs of fog escaping from everyone’s mouth and nose.

Red Cabbage Gazpacho

Pommery Grain Mustard Ice Cream


Blumenthal was one of the early pioneers of savory ice creams. This dish was a sophisticated take on peasant borscht, much less sweet than I expected.

Jelly of Quail, Crayfish Cream

Chicken Liver Parfait, Oak Moss and Truffle Toast

Quail Jelly, Crayfish Cream

This was a study in layering. The spherical dish had a rich, jelled quail consommé at the bottom, with a layer of crayfish cream over the top, garnished with chicken liver mousse. The other plate was truffle-topped toast.

The presentation also included a centerpiece:

Oak Moss

The moss-filed box was topped with moss-scented “breath strips,” which we were instructed to eat before trying the jelly or toast. Once we tucked in, there was another surprise: The server poured a pot of water over the moss, which created a cloud of moss-scented fog.

Moss Fog

Snail Porridge

Iberico Bellota Ham, Shaved Fennel

Snail Porridge

Exactly what it says on the tin: oatmeal porridge prepared with a parsley-infused snail stock, topped with escargot, Iberico ham, and fennel. Complex, earthy, and not enough of it.

Roast Foie Gras

Gooseberry, Confit Kombu and Crab Biscuit

Roast Foie Gras

A beautiful preparation of foie gras with the requisite sweet accompaniment (in this instance, gooseberry jam) and two non-traditinal components: oil-poached seaweed and crab crackers for an extra hit of salt and umami.

Mad Hatter’s Tea Party (c. 1892)

Mock Turtle Soup, Pocket Watch, and Toast Sandwich

Blumenthal’s interest in historic recipes led him to the creation of Heston’s Feasts, in which he recreated entire dinner menus from different historical periods. His Victorian feast was a menu inspired by the food described in Alice in Wonderland, with this dish making the transition to the permanent menu. We were presented with what appeared to be gold pocket watches at the ends of tea bag strings, which we had to dunk into the teapot at the top of this serving piece:

Pocket Watch

The hot water dissolved the watch, revealing it to be a disk of demi-glace covered in gold leaf. When fully dissolved, we poured the stock into the bottom half, creating mock turtle soup.

Mock Turtle Soup

The soup was accompanied by this tray of tea sandwiches:

Tea Sandwiches

There was a surprise in the sandwiches as well, a middle slice of toasted bread for an unexpected crunchy texture to the traditional cucumber filling.

“Sound of the Sea”

This course began with a non-food item:

Sea Sounds

The shell contained an iPod Nano playing ocean sounds. Once we all had the buds in our ears, the rest of the course arrived, presented on top of a tray of sand.


Raw octopus, tuna, sea beans, and salmon roe were garnished with seaweed foam. The illusion of eating on a beach was complete.

Salmon Poached in Licorice Gel

Artichokes, Vanilla Mayonnaise, and Golden Trout Roe

Poached Salmon

This one took a bit of sentence parsing to figure out. What at first appeared to be salmon poached in something dark – presumably licorice – turned out to be salmon that had been wrapped in a licorice-infused heat-stable gel and poached. The gel kept the salmon moist while adding just a hint of anise flavor to the dish. The pink garnish was individual pink grapefruit pips.

We had chosen to skip the three possible wine pairings, opting instead for a glass of white to go with the first half of the meal, to be followed by a red. Our white was a mersault:


The red that followed was a Portuguese douro:


Lamb with Cucumber (c. 1805)

Green Pepper and Caviar Oil

Another historic recipe, lamb loin with grilled cucumber.


There was a second plate with lamb marrow, crispy skin, and lamb consommé topped with spherified peas.

Marrow and Consommé

Hot & Iced Tea

A lovely stunt that marked the transition from savory to sweet, this was a glass of tea that was hot on one side and cold on the other. Because the glass was double-walled, you couldn’t detect the temperature differences by touch. It’s is prepared by pouring hot and cold teas made with different densities of gellan gum into either side of a divider in the glass. When the divider is removed, the teas remain separated for about a minute before they diffuse int each other.

Hot and Cold Tea

Macerated Strawberries

Olive Oil Biscuit, Chamomile and Coriander Jelly, and Ice Cream Cornet


A perfect sumer dessert made with baby strawberries. The “tablecloth” is a printed rectangle of white chocolate. We were also handed two cornets of nitro-frozen ice cream.

Ice Cream

Botrytis Cinerea


This may be the best dessert I have ever eaten. The plate is mean to represent a bunch of grapes infected with botrytis cinerea, or “noble rot” fungus, which is responsible for concentrating sweetness in grapes used to create the great Sauternes and Tokaji dessert wines. Each “grape” was a different preparation: sorbet, mousse, jelly, chocolate, and a gold spun sugar sphere filled with citrus cream. The “stem” was cinnamon pastry, the “leaves” were molded sugar, and the “fungus” was Roquefort powder. It was a complex, but successful balance of sweet and savory flavors.

Whisk(e)y Wine Gums

Whisky Gums

This map of Scotland – and, strangely, Tennessee – held five bottle-shaped gums, each tasting of its regional whisky. They used a rotary evaporator to distill off the alcohol and concentrate the flavor components, since alcohol would have prevented gel formation. A very clever concept.

“Like a Kid in a Sweet Shop”

Sweet Shop

Our final course was a sweet shop bag with three treats and a scented menu. The bonbon was aerated chocolate surrounding mandarin orange jelly, the caramel was apple pie in an edible wrapper, and the playing card was a white chocolate-wrapped strawberry pop tart. The wax seal on the tart envelope was also edible.

That was the conclusion of our four-hour lunch.

I had read The Big Fat Duck Cookbook when it was published, so I was already familiar with about half the menu (Gazpacho, Porridge, Sea, Tea), but that didn’t prevent me from being completely surprised by the intensity and complexity of flavors in each dish. Much like my dinner at Alinea, the menu was designed to appeal to the mind as well as the mouth, and it succeeded beyond my expectations. As one of our table noted a few days ago, “I keep having weird fever-dreams about the grape dish. It was quite something.”

I have to agree. It’s been a month since I ate there, and day doesn’t go by when I don’t think of one of those dishes.

And it wouldn’t be my last meal at  Blumenthal restaurant, but that’s a story for the next post.

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