Archive | July, 2012

Between modern and traditional: do I have to make a decision?

31 Jul

After my weeks at the institute, I have not only learned a whole lot about modernist cuisine, but I have also learned about the intense debate surrounding this relatively new way of thinking about food. In the debate, two clear arguments can be found. The critics say that modernist cooking leads to a disregard of the traditional products and techniques which lay the groundwork for most cooking, while supporters argue that the modernist way – with its foams, gels, and liquid nitrogen – is necessary for the evolution of the culinary arts. At a first look, this might seem like one of those small debates that can be found within any discipline. A closer look, however, reveals that this is more than your average debate between progressives and conservatives. In fact, it is larger; it is a dichotomy between two different philosophies about food. As such, picking a side may have become a necessary choice facing many cooks today, including me. After interning at Alicia, one question does not leave me alone. Which way do I prefer?

For centuries, flavor was the by far most important component of food. While sight, smell and other senses were considered, Ferran Adria was the first one who really started to investigate and play with new dimensions of food and cooking. Out of his work and philosophy grew the idea of using textures as a tool to go beyond the conventional, to remove any boundaries for the creative process. Today, texturizer agents and various techniques spearheaded by El Bulli allow chefs to make foams, gels, and emulsions like never before.  Observing the modernist evolution, more traditional cooks have argued that this leads to a disregard of the products, the ingredients, from which the food is made. For instance, why make a mimetic banana if you already have a great banana?

While this question is certainly important, it can easily be misleading, as it can distort the underlying idea behind the dish – that is, the process and philosophy whence it came. In fact, it can easily create a picture of the modernist cook as one who uses no product at all – a desperate alchemist who tries to take on the role of god. If this assumption is taken as true, the modernist cook certainly disregards the product. But this is a logical leap. In one of his 12 commandments, Ferran Adria eloquently describes why, “although the characteristics of the products may be modified (temperature, texture, shape, etc.), the aim is always to preserve the purity of their original taste.” This is a shared truth among cooks, modern and traditional. The mimetic banana, for instance, is derived from a product, and it’s simply a concept, not the respect for the product, that has been played with. The respect remains the same, but the outcome different. As a result, this case appears to me as a choice not between respect and disrespect, but as a choice regarding the creative process and its final outcome.

Yet, more traditional people might question why this development is necessary, why one wants to push boundaries when we have so much to gain from the traditional? Why not investigate and elaborate on the culinary heritage, why not try to perfect the techniques and recipes that we have worked on for so long? The answer is as simple as the question. Modernist techniques and ideas have allowed chefs to not only perfect traditional dishes, but also to reinvent, play with, and perfect the concepts and original ideas behind these dishes. Playing with concepts has become the language of modern cooking, and it has in all truth allowed chefs to really break boundaries, to move beyond the conventional. It has given chefs a powerful tool they can utilize to play with sensations, expectations, and emotions; it has taken cooking and food to a whole new level, an unchartered territory where unfettered creativity, not conformity to the past, is the beacon of development. In many ways, it has given chefs the opportunity to present complexity in simplicity, to carefully blend the profound and subtle.

Ferran Adria introduced a whole new way of thinking about food, he opened the eyes of many people, including me, which allowed these people to see and explore things they would never have otherwise. As a result, cooking itself has moved forward, the landscape has changed. Nonetheless, the rapid development has not ungratefully cast aside the rich culinary heritage and traditions that made this evolution possible in the first place. The Modernist Cuisine books standing as a great example, a more scientific and technological – that is, modernist – approach to cooking can help us really understand not only that certain things happen, but also why and how they happen, on several levels. Even though some people might think otherwise, there is no doubt that this development is as beautiful as it is productive. As such, the debate might not be as polarized as it first appears. The modernist and traditional are inevitably intertwined, although neither side wants to admit it. Knowing this is the key to finding the middle ground. I am glad to be in between.

Culinary progressives and conservatives may not agree on many things, but one agreed upon truth is that food is a language. For most people, food is a way to deliver emotions and feelings; it is a way to bring people together, regardless of their background. It is a way of communicating. Given this, the work of modernist cooks, with Ferran Adria at the forefront, has done for the culinary arts what Shakespeare did for the English language. Similar to Shakespeare, Ferran Adria has added new vocabulary to the language of food. He has added new words and phrases which people can use to express themselves in new and different ways. In sum, Ferran has added a rich vocabulary to the language of food, but has not invented an entirely new language.

Without doubt, the modernist revolution has changed the language of food, both in writing and speaking, forever. Yet, this evolution has not made what was previously known, unknown. Languages are constantly evolving, absorbing new influences while resisting changes that are too sudden. In many ways, languages are bodies of careful change, yet memorabilia of history – within a language, the past and present are closer than time itself suggests. After 6 weeks in Spain, I am glad to have learned some of the vocabulary added relatively recently to the constantly evolving language. I am glad I know words and grammar that many people do not know. But where does this leave me? Do I have to make a decision? After interning at Alicia, I am glad to know that the only decision I have to make is to not pick a side the either-or debate between the modern and traditional. If I do, I risk becoming narrow-minded. As a matter of fact, I risk stopping my own development, because I am evolving, just like the language of food itself.

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Adventures in Spain: part 3

23 Jul

We visited Alicia’s private garden that supplies Alicia and the local restaurants with fresh produce. Headed by a tall man named Bernard, this organic garden is run according to a biodynamic philosophy and features a vast array of species, most of them from Catalonia. While you can find anything from white peaches and potatoes to quinoa and native nuts, the by far most impressive selection was that of tomatoes. The garden features over 20 different tomato species, each one with a distinct taste and look. We picked a fair amount of tomatoes and had a small tasting in Alicia. People loved it. But my favorite was something else. Even though tomatoes tasted really good, they could not compare with the white peaches. I lack the words to describe how fantastic they were; so pure, so fresh, so sweet, without any visual or sensational irregularities. It was as if you could taste the beautiful love and philosophy behind the garden.

I made a mimetic banana. Read the post below for more details.

Spherification: the quintessence of modernist cuisine. This simple yet advanced technique is as beautiful as it is sensational. By combining a liquid with a gelling agent named sodium alginate and then dropping the liquid into a solution with a calcium salt, you are able to create spheres and contain the liquid inside a soft protecting gel layer that explodes as soon as it enters your mouth. In other words, it allows you to create caviar with basically anything. This was first pioneered by Ferran Adria, and has become commonplace in today’s haute cuisine. Common or not, I am always amazed when I get to use this technique and taste the result. In the picture above, me and my colleague made mango caviar.

Two interesting creations made during during the past week at Alicia. To the left you see a mango-hazelnut mermelade served with a chilled grapefruit gel. Really interesting play with contrasts in flavor and texture. To the right is a drinkable rosemary chocolate, made from a recipe adapted from fantastic chocolatier Enric Rovira. The recipe surprisingly simple, the result was very interesting, – the chocolate had a texture somewhere in between melted chocolate and regular hot cocoa. The taste was least said bold, the subtle rosemary flavor being surrounded by the fruity dark chocolate. Incredibly easy to make.

Every year, the ALicia interns go to visit a food factory that produces high-quality fried food sold to restaurants in Catalonia. The visit allows the interns to see the industrial kitchen; how it works, how the food is produced, and how professionals work to balance the ubiquitous dichotomy between quality and quantity. Even though the visit was highly interesting(the company has really strong ties with Alicia), the most exciting part was probably the funny clothes we had to wear inside the factory. Wrapped in plastic, just like the food we later ate, we joked around and pretended we were penguins and polar bears. So much for that visit.

Me and Gashaw had a small presentation about the texturizer project that we have been working on for the past seven weeks. This day, all interns at Alicia were to present their projects. Me and Gashaw, however, went first. As such, we had prepared a very elaborate presentation about the science and practice behind everything from gelling agents to emulsifiers. It is important to note that the presentation was in English. In addition, it is important to note that hardly no one at Alicia speaks English. As you might understand, this was a small problem; the conditions were not ideal for making a great impression on our qualified and attentive audience. As always, though, things worked out very well for us, and in my opinion, the first presentation also turned out to be the best one, even though half the people did not have any idea what we were talking about. Whatever… If they could speak Catalan 24/7 for 7 weeks, I could speak some good ol’ English during 30 minutes… haha

Got visitors from Sweden.. Pelle, a great friend of the family, showed up at Alicia and tried to flip some gluten-free crepes in the pan.

We went to Andorra over the weekend. We climbed a 2800 m high mountain, had a fantastic dinner, and saw a surprisingly large amount of tobacco plants. This was by far the best weekend during my stay in spain. A perfect mix of food, fun and fiesta, the weekend in this tax-paradise featured everything from a local drum-festand a twisted ankle to grilled salmon and late-night singing in “spanglish.”

We visited the fish market in Girona. They had ugly and pretty fish. Whatever the looks, the quality was fantastic, as the fish is delivered fresh everyday from the local fisheries along the Brava coast.

El celler de can roca – the world’s second best restaurant.

This three-star restaurant is  located in the gastronomic city of Girona. It’s owned by the three brothers Josep, Joan, and Jordi Roca, each of wish have different roles inside and outside the kitchen. Privileged as we are at our job, we got an exclusive visit to its wine cellar and kitchen. Those who could afford the 200-dollar tasting menu got to dine at a table that normally requires reservations a year in advance.

Chef de cuisine David gave us a private tour and told us about the machinery behind one of the world’s most interesting kitchens. The senses are at the center of this 3-star restaurant. In the organized kitchen, meticulous preparation takes place in every corner. But, in spite of its high status, the restaurant is very relaxed, surprisingly so indeed.  Both inside and outside the kitchen, everything is carefully calibrated. It’s a place in equilibrium, a place that strikes a perfect balance between the subtle and the profound.  Observing the kitchen and the work taking place therein, I recognized a large amount of equipment and techniques that I have used in Alicia. Together with my growing interest in modernist cooking, this knowledge and understanding really allowed me to make the best out of my visit to the restaurant.

Two recent creations: truffles and decomposed nutella with milk.

Rosemary chocolate from Enric Rovira.  A vanilla-cinnamon frozen pannacotta.

I spent the weekend in Manresa, the small town where we all live. Doesn’t have much to offer except from this massive gothic cathedral. It’s a true beauty, and even more so when situated in an ugly town like Manresa.

Josep Roca visiting Alicia, checking out the freeze-drying machine.

Lately I have been very inspired by the Sempio Jang project at Alicia. This project aims to introduce traditional korean products to european cuisine; to spread knowledge about how and when to use the products. The two dishes above are good examples of what you can use the products for. To the left: pasta Vongole made with a shrimp broth and jang essence. To the right: Norwasian prawn salad with gochu jang marinade.

Fun during work, and after. To the right: me with legendary pastry chef of El Bulli, Marc Puig-Pey, who worked at the world’s best restaurant for 17 years. Amazing chef and personality working full-time at alicia to improve the lives of cooks worldwide. To the left: me and Laia, a food scientist at Alicia, at a gathering after work. The group is becoming really really close now, and I think we are all anxious to leave. I think I might have the most axiety, as I have not been this happy in ages.

Mimetic Banana – a dish that truly captures the spirit of modern cuisine.

23 Jul

“Memory makes pictures” – csikcentmiyahli

Many theories try to explain the psychology of memory – what things we remember, why we remember these things, and how we recall our memories. A common assumption about memory is that it works as a tape recorder that records memories in their full length. This assumption, however, is misleading. Rather, memory makes images; when we recall memories, we reconstruct them in the present, weaving together different parts to create a coherent whole. Within memory psychology, the “peak-and end effects” theory is well-known. In short, this theory states that when we evaluate the emotional character of a memory, we tend to average two elements: the end and the emotional peak of the experience.

Without doubt, this theory can really help me understand how I will remember Alica. As I am reaching the very end of my internship, things are certainly becoming more important, and I am trying to cherish every moment at this world-class institute. The emotional peak of my adventure at Alicia, however, has already passed. “The mimetic banana, “a dish that I and Gashaw made last week in Alicia, was in Pere Castell’s words an “emotional moment at Alicia.”

A mimetic banana? Take a brief look at the picture below. Even though it might look like a banana, it’s not a banana. In fact, it’s a banana-lemon sorbet that looks exactly like a banana, but with a distinct, yet similar, texture to a banana. The original recipe comes from Los Hermanos Torres, but the technique and presentation was entirely ours. Before we made this recipe, people laughed, saying that making this recipe would be impossible, that is would be too difficult for someone like me. After a few hours in the lab, I proved them wrong.

The process involved making a banana-lemon sorbet batter, molding this batter in a real banana peel, and then freezing it down to minus sixty centigrade to obtain the “banana.” The result was stunning. This banana-like structure hides a soft banana-lemon sorbet with a texture somewhere between a real frozen banana and an artesan lemon sorbet. It is firm enough to be cut and treated like a banana, but cold and creamy enough to melt in your mouth as soon as it enters, leaving you with an incredibly pleasant mouth feel. As such, the texture and flavor is hard to define, and at times, even hard to recognize. It is a dish that surprises you at every moment, every revealing something new about the dish or the person who is eating it.

To me, this dish really captures the spirit of modernist cuisine. The mimetic banana is not only a great example of what I have learned during my time at Alicia, but also a creation that showcases the opportunities within modern gastronomy. In essence, the mimetic banana is a great example of how modern chefs and play with and reinvent concepts, and by doing so, move from the bounty of nature to the bounty of imagination. This concept can then be presented in multiple dimensions of sensation and perception.

In this case, the concept is a banana. The chefs have distilled this concept, played with it, reinvented it, and presented it in its original form. In some ways, it’s a profound statement of modernist ideals. In other ways, it’s a careful play with traditions. Whatever the philosophy, the final outcome is clear. The mimetic banana is a play with sensations. It’s a play with expectations. Most importantly, however, it’s a powerful play with emotions. Like a memorable experience, it has a clear emotional peak, and unfortunately, an end. It’s a dish that leaves you hanging; a dish that makes you think twice. For me, it’s a dish that leaves you hungry for more – a dish that makes you want to explore and understand modernist cuisine to the fullest extent. What am I eating? How is it made? Why am I reacting so strongly?

Emotional in its character, this experience was without doubt a highlight during my stay at Alicia. For this reason, it’s a memory that will stick with me for long.  But for me, it’s also more than a memory. It’s an artifact of inspiration that has made me realize the possibilities that lay before me within the field of modern gastronomy. It’s just one of many peaks on my journey.

Adventures in Spain, part 2.

6 Jul

Time really flies when you have fun, huh? Another great week has passed at Alicia and it’s hard to believe that I have already spent 4 weeks here in Spain. Not many weeks left… Since the book on texturizers is almost entirely done, I have moved on to replicate recipes from various famous chefs. These recipes will be featured in the book under the section of the different texturizers. The recipes will be provided as examples of how the texturizers can be used in the professional kitchen. Making these recipes is incredibly inspiring to me, because I get to indulge in the work of some of the world’s best chefs. Below is a small update that features photos and small descriptions of my latest work. ENJOY!

On behalf of the large Korean enterprise Sempio, three fantastic chefs are conducting research on Spanish and Korean food in Alicia. The main goal of the “Jang Project,” as the project is called, is to research Spanish people’s taste for Jang – fermented soybeans in different forms (and Korea’s “fundamental ingredient”). Least said, I am lucky work in the same place as these incredibly talented people. For a brief moment every day, the people in Alicia act as research subjects for the project, tasting and commenting on the food that the cooks produce. This picture is from Thursday’s tasting session. Our task? To taste delicious Spanish classics with a Korean twist. From left to right: Hyun-ju, Yunju, Choi (Korea), me, Gashaw (U.S).

For the past few days I have been desperately trying to make carrot meringues (a foam) by simply whisking air into carrot juice with egg white powder. Although the process sounds really simple, I have failed miserably, no matter how high the concentration of the egg white powder, which is the foaming agent. These pictures really capture how tedious this process was at some points. Or, rather, how tedious it was until I found the carrot juicer and did not have to repeat the process of blanching, pureeing and straining these orange monsters. Juicer or no juicer, the recipe did not work. My brilliant supervisor thinks it is because the fibers in the carrot juice interfere with the foaming process. On Monday we will see if the hypothesis holds true – I will try to make merengues with purified granny smith apple juice.

A beautiful way of obtaining pure, transparent granny smith juice. This was prepared as a part of the experiment that is yet to be conducted on Monday. The process is as fascinating as it is simple. Remove the hearts of the apples, cut into quarts and put into a bath of water and ascorbic acid to prevent the apples from oxidizing (3 g acid per liter of water). Juice the apples into transparent containers of medium size. Put in the freezer at minus eighteen for 30 mins. The fibers will form a thick layer on top of the liquid you want, and once the working solution enters the freezer, these fibers will freeze and “coagulate,” making it super easy for you to obtain the beautifully transparent granny smith liquid. Tomato is the only other fruit this process can be used for. Too bad the wonderful liquid will become meringues (HOPEFULLY) on Monday. RIP.

Yet another experiment with methylcellulose, my favorite gelling agent. While methylcelllose is used in a variety of ways, including as a glue, as a gelling agent, and as a thickener, methylcellulose works equally well as a foaming agent. In this picture, you can see the beauty of its properties. On Wednesday, I made hot whipped cream foam by combining methylcellulose, coffee, sugar and whipped cream. This mixture was placed in the freezer to ensure proper hydration, and was then introduced into a siphon charged with a nitrogenous gas. The result was stunning. Out came a beautiful, creamy coffee-tasting mixture with a texture similar to that of whipped cream from a tube. Despite the similarities, however, this one was clearly different. Just like in the hot cream flan that we made earlier, the whipped cream was hot – a sensation that totally messes with your conception of whipped cream. My co-worker Angel sprayed the hot cream atop a glass of milk, added some sugar and cinnamon, and blow-torched the shit out of the surface. Check it out!

“Air” – the epitome of modern high-end gastronomy. The texture is beautiful, the process simple. This “milk air” was made by introducing air to a solution of milk and sucroester, a foaming agent (called the “xanthan gum of foams,” as it works under not-so-favorable conditions, such as acids, alcohols etc.) After many trials with cold milk, we decided to heat the milk to 50 degrees before foaming with the hand blender. For some reason, this process worked a lot better, leaving us with a light “air” that can be served as it is or frozen. To me, the frozen air provides the most exciting sensation. As it enters your mouth, the air disappears, bursts, leaving you with a clear sense of its flavor.

They make look pretty, but the flavor of these Gan Jang (soy sauce) merengues was so concentrated and salty that the flavor of a nanometer-sized bite would stick with you for hours. Even though the taste left much to be desired, this process provides an interesting take on texturized soy sauce. According to my supervisor, the minerals and chemical compounds in soy sauce makes it ideal for foaming with egg white powder. I wouldn’t suggest anything else; after 10 minutes of whipping, the soy sauce (with the dissolved egg white powder, 5%) became a merengue. Crazy times!

The days go by so fast. Here are some pictures from a “regular” day at Alicia. Top left: At 1:30 on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, all the interns from the two departments go and eat lunch in the dining hall nearby. It’s a short walk, but the beautiful landscape is always refreshing (Bottom left). Top right: Me, Gashaw and Yunju making a recipe – I can’t recall which. The picture really speaks to one of the best things about Alicia: people are always happy and are always willing to help out and engage in different projects, this picture being an example. Bottom right: Today (Friday), Josep Roca, one of the three brothers behind the three-star restaurant “el cellar de can roca” in Girona (one of the world’s best), came to Alicia to chat with the senior staff and the interns. Visits by michelin-starred, world-class chefs are commonplace at Alicia. In the friendly Alicia environment, however,rather superficial measurements such as number of stars doesn’t matter – in Alicia, there is a general sense that we are all on the same level. A love for food is the norm, unfettered creativity is the proof.

As the texturizer book is soon complete, I am moving on to test some recipes by famous chefs. Today I worked on a least said fabulous recipe – a recipe that really captures the soul of modernist cuisine. Just like much of modernist cuisine, this dish reinvents a classic and takes it to a new level at which the texture and flavor sensations are unprecedented. In this case, the classic is penne with tomato sauce – an Italian all-time favorite. Above you can see the “pasta,” which is made from purified tomato water (the transparent, round texture. The gelling agent is the fast-setting Kappa carrageenan). This sweet yet tangy penne-like concoction is served with a fresh tomato puree, almonds and rosemary, and is sprinkled with Himalayan salt and grey cracked pepper. If the dish seems complex in and of itself, it might come as a surprise that the creation only plays a small role in much larger, much more complex, dish, which features monkfish and a vast array of other ingredients.

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