Wednesday, October 13, 2010
Amazing Achatz At Harvard
It was famed Chef Grant Achatz of Alinea in Chicago who was this week's guest lecturer at Harvard's series on Science and Cooking. This was the most interesting talk I've heard since Ferran Adriá visited the campus last year, chock full of exciting and interesting ways that he is deconstructing food and creating dishes that surprise, amaze and delight diners at his restaurant.
Much thinner and with longer hair than his promo pic, Achatz spoke for over an hour on his famous experimentation and the joy of food, detailing techniques with videos and drawings. As is known, Achatz is a cancer survivor, his fairly recent bout leaving him without a sense of taste at one point.
He presented to so much fascinating information it's hard to decide where to begin! For those of you attending, and I should mention that these lectures are free and open to the public, they all begin with the Equation Of The Week, which is briefly explained before the audience applauds. This week's science had to do with the unfolding of protein bonds (which causes coagulation), hydrophobicity, entropy and electrostatics. I know, I am not a chemist or scientist either but they explain it all in relatively simple, understandable terms.
Next, they introduce the Chef and it gets really interesting. Achatz spoke at length about flavoring with aroma, asking the question: Can pleasant memories enhance the flavor of food? As an example, he explained how one of his recipes uses the signature aroma of Autumn, the smell of burning leaves, to make food taste better. He then showed photos of how the Pheasant Breast with Apple Cider Gel and Roasted Shallot is served at his restaurant: accompanied with a vase of burning oak leaves! The room is filled with the unmistakable scent of Fall, recalling the emotional bonds we have with happy childhood memories. Welcome to technoemotional dining.
Reiterating the seasonal theme again Achatz asked: does a tomato taste more like a tomato in the Summer? At his restaurant the plate of tomatoes are served resting on a vinyl pillow that has been hermetically sealed with fresh grass clippings then placed inside a linen case. Once in front of the diner, the pillow is pricked, again filling the air with the scent of a newly mowed lawn. The Chef told us that these experiences are so unusual and visceral that often diners will break down in tears while experiencing it.
I took lots of notes to try and chronicle the many new ideas, concepts and viewpoints on how this Chef is rethinking the entire techno-emotional experience of food. Achatz even showed us how he diagrams recipe ideas, using a sort of mind map drawing to ensure flavors complement one another.
Some of the other incredible ideas and techniques he employs left me absolutely amazed, manipulating all of our traditional ideas of texture and flavor for a unique sensation. The Black Truffle Explosion included a packet of truffle gel cooked inside a ravioli. When you bite into it, the gel explodes, melting into a richly flavored liquid. Then there is the Raspberry Glass, which he invented while smelling raspberries as a server at the restaurant drop a tray of goblets, shattering them to the floor. Achatz asked himself: what if raspberries were the texture of glass? He boiled them with sugar and pectin, spread them on acetate sheets then dehydrated them until completely brittle. The result: Raspberry Glass dessert.
The powdery substance provided to attendees proved to actually be a caramel "sauce" used in desserts at Alinea.
Upon entering the lecture each week attendees are handed a small packet containg some kind of flavor experience. This week we got small take-out boxes filled with the famed essence of cut grass sealed in vinyl and this curious powder which many guessed to be some kind of coconut. It turns out to be the caramel sauce powder he invented. The sprinkled powder turns into a gummy, rich, sweet caramel the moment it comes to rest on the tongue. Amazing!
He went on to discuss how he has distilled pine needles for the creation of a pine sorbet, served with matsetaike mushrooms, which only grow under pine trees. He also cooks with hay. Yes, hay! A hay infused cream which has the flavor of a nutty custard is served as a creme bruleé. In other news, his latest venture is a bar where drinks will be served in powder and solid form, as well as one drink already developed called "Painkiller Pudding." He also showed a video demonstrating the development of a bubble tea drink formulated where the bubbles are actually the flavor of a completely different drink.
Needless to say, it was an evening of thinking so far outside the box that there is not even a box, just limitless possibilities as far and wide as human imagination and science will allow.
So where did the Wizard eat? Chef Achatz dined at Craigie On Main and enjoyed cocktails at Barbara Lynch's Drink after the event.