A Cooking Tip from Grant Achatz

October 12, 2010

Grant Achatz

Not long after I complained bitterly about not being able to see some of the world’s best chefs lecture at Harvard, I learned that I had been mislead about the “general lectures.” They were indeed lectures by the same chefs that would present to the students, each preceded by a ten-minute summary of the science that was taught that week. Although I had already missed the Ferran Adriá/José Andrés/Harold McGee lecture, I would be able to attend others if I was willing to show up early and deal with a long queue of the curious.

Yesterday’s lecture was by Grant Achatz of Alinea restaurant in Chicago, on “Reinventing Food Texture and Flavor.” His presentation was primarily videos from the Alinea Mosaic site (signup required), interspersed with commentary about how he arrives at ideas for recipes and food presentation. For example, he demonstrated the evolution of this dish, called simply “bean”:

The combinations of textures and flavors on the plate were arived at through a technique Achatz refers to as “flavor bouncing,” shown in this video:

The slide that followed provided a “map” of the plate, with the explanation that every spoonful should include the three center components (bean purée, pancetta chip, Guinness foam) and one of the components around the rim.

Lest this all be perceived as too cerebral, he also showed a video from his soon to open cocktail bar, Aviary:

Most of the lectures have an audience participation component, and this one was no exception. We were each given a small takeout bucket that held a plastic bag with a thin filmy liquid in it, and a container of powdery brown stuff about which I had some suspicions.

The bag was a sample of distilled essence of freshly cut grass, which is used in the restaurant as part of the service for a summer tomato dish. The smell evokes an entire series of sense memories associated with eating tomatoes at the peak of their season, which Achatz argues would make a crummy winter supermarket tomato taste better.

The other container, as I suspected, contained the dry caramel component of the “Dry Caramel, Salt” dessert that I had made for She Who Must Be Obeyed’s birthday dinner. One of Achatz’s chefs demonstrated the preparation of the dish, which deviated significantly from the cookbook method I had used. Instead of combining cooled solid caramel with maltodextrin, the chef simply piped still-warm caramel out of a pastry bag into a food processor, added the maltodextrin, and gave the ingredients a spin. The result was what we all had in our containers, which was much more homogeneous than what I had been able to prepare.

After the lecture Achatz stayed to talk, answer some questions, and sign copies of the cookbook (which was being sold outside the lecture hall). I already had a book (signed by the whole team, a special gift to the original subscribers), but I had to ask about the recipe:

“I’ve made the dry caramel, and working with the cooled pieces was like grinding up glass in my food processor. The end result tasted good, but the texture was off – it was gritty and had little chunks of varying sizes.”

“Did you use a calibrated thermometer?” he asked.

“Yup.”

“Did you overcook the caramel?”

“Nope.” (Although I might have, now that I think about it.) “But my question is about the version you just prepared. Does it work just as well with warm caramel?”

“Yes, it does. We figured that out after a while.”

“So I can save an entire day’s worth of prep if I make it again?”

“Yes, you can. You’re welcome” he laughed.

I left, went home, and when She Who asked about the lecture, all I could say was “I talked with Grant Achatz about cooking one of his recipes!”

How cool is that?

Update (added 11-16-10):

The full lecture is now available on Harvard’s YouTube page, or you can watch it here.

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