Articles in Chefs
This summer, I undertook the daunting yet exciting task of cooking for some of my peers. The experience started when I submitted a paper for the 2014 Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery, which was being held at St. Catherine’s College in Oxford, England.
This year’s theme was food markets, and my paper covered my thoughts about Nordic food past, present and future. I wanted to explain the history behind Nordic food and why all of a sudden it is in focus, along with what it has to offer other than just being a new trend.
My paper was accepted, and I was thrilled. I was going to Oxford and staying at St. Catherine’s. My academic career was interrupted a couple of years ago by my love for cooking, but with this experience I could now finally live out my dream of an Ivy League university experience.
No more than a few days after learning my paper was accepted, an email came in from one of the symposium trustees, Ursula Heinzelmann. Would I cook Nordic street food for the banquet Saturday night? I was a little hesitant, as I was excited about pretending to be an academic for the weekend.
Not to mention Nordic street food does not really exist. That’s hot dogs with remoulade sauce or open sandwiches on rye bread — not really material for an Oxford banquet.
After a few hours of in-depth thinking, I decided to accept, but I changed the concept. I wanted to cook the kind of supper I would do in my kitchen at home.
Deciding on a Nordic dinner menu no easy task
My head started to spin. Did I want to come up with something completely new or just cook some of my favorite things and share my love for my own food culture? I decided on a home-cooked Danish dinner, a simple, tasty menu.
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My first menu selection was cured salmon with home-baked rye focaccia served with some favorite July vegetables: radishes and cucumbers. Testing this, I tried to cure the salmon with dry nettles, but it did not work. It tasted like herbal tea. Fresh nettles worked, but the season for nettle is over come July, so I decided on lovage, a spicy herb with an aftertaste of celery. It worked perfectly with the salmon. To accompany that, I thickened some heavy cream with lemon overnight and then added a lot of freshly grated horseradish, a bit of sugar and lots of black pepper to make a horseradish dressing.
For the main course I decided to serve black barley, which is a heritage grain that my friends at Skærtoft Mølle back home in Denmark started cultivating some years back. It’s now growing in small quantities. I wanted to use tarragon, fennel, cauliflower and celeriac. When I create a menu or a new recipe, I always start with the vegetables. For me, the vegetables are the center of the meal.
With that, I decided to serve one of my classic lamb stews with fennel, tarragon, white wine and elderflower cordial (see recipe below). The cheese for the meal I brought myself from Knuthenlund, a small organic producer in Denmark.
The pudding had to be a classic from the month of July: a cold buttermilk soup with cardamom biscuits. I contemplated going the chef way and revamping the pudding using the same ingredients, but I do not cook like that anymore. I cook things in a simple style. I do not plate it too much; I like to keep the food transparent and let the ingredients do the talking, so I stayed with the classic.
With one suitcase full of cheese and the other full of rye flour and black barley from Skærtoft Mølle, I set out for Oxford three days ahead of the dinner to start cooking everything from scratch. The first thing I did upon arrival was meet with and greet the staff and head chef in the kitchen.
That’s always an interesting experience. Head chefs do not in general like other chefs in their kitchen. They tend to compete heavily instead of exchanging ideas. The attitude is often that the head chef knows everything.
I have cooked in many kitchens around the world. First you start out humbly, trying to understand their system. This time was a little bit different because Tim Kelsey, the head chef at St. Catherine’s, and his team do this every year. I believe they both look forward and dread the event, as they never know what is going to happen. But they were very open and forthcoming with me.
I made my plans and started prepping with my new team. On Friday night, my sister Silla arrived to assist me, and on Saturday we worked all day. Silla cut 700 slices of cured salmon and I baked the bread, adjusted the buttermilk soup, cut vegetables, prepared the fresh herbs and made the stew. By about 6 p.m. Saturday, all 220 salmon dishes were lined up. The kitchen was 100 percent calm, and we were ready to get the food out.
This is the moment of bliss: You have worked for days and are just waiting for the action. You know you’ve put all your love into it. This is the moment I love the most in the kitchen; it’s the calm before the storm.
We ran a smooth service that night. I was happy with everything, but also apprehensive. Before the guests start eating, there’s no way to tell whether they will like it. I had high hopes and butterflies in my stomach. I mean, I was cooking for Claudia Roden! That doesn’t happen every day.
The meal was indeed very well received — people complimented us and asked questions about the flavors, the grain and how I had cooked the celeriac. I believe the dinner was a success, and I was overwhelmed and very proud as I went around the tables and talked to people. I had shown a corner of modern home-cooked Danish food.
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 2 pounds lamb, cut in cubes, from shoulder or leg
- 3 leeks
- 2 whole fennels
- 4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon fennel seeds
- 2 bay leaves
- 10 sprigs of tarragon
- ½ cup elderflower cordial
- 2 cups white wine
- Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- 2 tablespoons fresh tarragon leaves
- Heat olive oil and butter in a large sauté pan and brown the meat on all sides. Do this in two batches if necessary. Do not boil the meat.
- Chop the vegetables. The leeks should be in 1 inch pieces, and the fennel should be in ½ inch slices.
- After the meat is browned, add the garlic, fennel seeds, bay leaves and tarragon to the sauté pan and mix well. Then add in ⅔ of the leeks and fennel, reserving the rest for later. Allow the mixture to sauté for a few minutes.
- Pour the elderflower cordial and white wine over the meat and vegetable mix, then sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Stir well and bring to a boil.
- Skim off any froth that rises to the surface, then turn down the heat and let it simmer for 45 to 55 minutes.
- When the lamb is tender, add the rest of the leeks and fennel and let simmer for 5 minutes more, then add more salt and pepper if necessary.
- Sprinkle with fresh tarragon before serving. The dish can be served with boiled barley or boiled new potatoes.
Main photo: The cured salmon dish served at the dinner. Credit: Susan Haddleton
As this best part of summer delivers a ready-to-eat bounty of fresh vegetables to the kitchen, Luigi Fineo, executive chef at West Hollywood’s RivaBella Ristorante, shows off a large bowl of Iowa yellow corn. With one taste, Fineo knew what he would do with these fat sun-ripened kernels. He would make a healthy, sweet tasting soup.
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The youngest of five, Fineo grew up in southern Italy in Gioia del Colle. Like many chefs, he learned to love cooking in his mother’s kitchen. Helping to prepare the family’s meals, she taught him the basics. That early training would serve him well as he worked in demanding restaurants around the world from Francesco Berardinelli’s Shooeneck Ristorante in Falzes, Italy, to Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif..
From the outside, RivaBella has the appearance of just another upscale restaurant. Inside, the sprawling interior is set-dressed to look like an elegant version of a rustic Italian country inn. Full-sized trees and a 7-foot tall brick hearth dominate the interior. During the day when the retractable ceiling is open, the bright blue Southern California sky hangs overhead.
The current menu recalls the kitchen of Fineo’s mother and the refinements of his colleague, owner-chef Gino Angelini, who helped popularize quality Italian cooking in Los Angeles. The entrees include fine-dining versions of Italian classics: risotto with porcini mushrooms, spinach lasagna, Veal Milanese and pasta with broccolini and salmoriglio.
Reflecting his time spent in Santa Monica’s La Botte where he earned a Michelin star, Fineo also enjoys using the high-tech tools that are popular in many contemporary restaurant kitchens.
For his slow-cooked lamb shoulder ragù, he adds summer flavor with peaches he dehydrates, then rehydrates in a white wine bath flavored with cinnamon, anise and bay leaves. The handmade pappardelle he serves with the ragù is made with flour, flavored with a fine pistachio powder that is first frozen in liquid nitrogen before being ground into the fine powder.
Of the corn, by the corn and for the corn
When I first tasted the corn soup at RivaBella, it was so velvety, I asked if heavy cream or butter were used. The answer was neither.
In his kitchen for the video demonstration, Chef Fineo explained that he did not need cream or butter to create his soup. All he needed was farm-fresh Iowa corn, a little water, a pinch or two of salt and a lot of stirring.
Usually when Fineo makes soups, he begins with a sauté of shallots and aromatics. Cooking with corn, he’s inclined to roast the kernels. But with this sweet corn, he decided he didn’t need to add flavor and he didn’t need to employ any high-tech machines. To prepare his corn soup, he would return to the basics he learned from his mother.
Because, essentially there is only one ingredient, use high quality, fresh corn to create a soup that is healthy and delicious. When picking corn, choose ears that have green, healthy husks and kernels that are plump. If the kernels are indented or the husks are brown, choose different ears. In the restaurant, the soup is served with fresh crabmeat to enhance its upscale qualities. But Fineo recommends that the soup is a treat served entirely as a vegetarian or vegan dish.
- 12 ears yellow corn, shucked, washed, pat dried
- ¾ cup water
- Sea salt to taste
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh chives
- ½ cup crab meat, preferably crab leg meat (optional)
- 1 tablespoon butter (optional)
- 2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil (optional)
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper (optional)
- Using a sharp knife, cut the raw kernels from the cobs.
- Working in batches, two cups at a time, place the kernels into a large blender and blend with just enough water, about one tablespoon water for each cup of kernels. To create a vortex, if needed, add more water.
- Blend each batch about 45 seconds.
- Again, working in batches, strain the resulting corn mash through a chinois or a fine meshed strainer, capturing the liquid in a large bowl. To release all the liquid, press on the corn mash gently, using the back of a large ladle or large kitchen spoon.
- Transfer the corn juice to a large saucepan or small stock pot and place uncovered on the stove.
- Using high heat, bring the liquid to a boil and then lower to medium.
- Using a wire whisk, gently stir the liquid 30 to 40 minutes until reaching the desired thickness. Very importantly, the liquid must be stirred constantly to prevent the corn’s sugars from sticking to the bottom and burning.
- As the liquid thickens, lower the heat.
- Taste and add sea salt as desired. Serve hot, topped with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of finely chopped chives.
- Optionally, in a non-stick pan on low heat, sauté the crab pieces in olive oil or butter until crispy on all sides, then place one or two pieces on top of each bowl of soup and garnish with chives and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Instead of crab, Chef Fineo also recommends using shrimp or scallops.
- Season with a pinch of sea salt and black pepper. Drain the crab on a paper towel. Place on top of the soup. Drizzle with olive oil and finely chopped chives.
Main photo: Yellow corn soup with sautéed crab and chives. Credit: David Latt
Chef Josefina Santacruz loves more than anything to eat. With an avid interest in Mexico’s traditional cooking, what she likes best is “street” or common, casual food. “I love garnachas, sopes, tacos — above all I like anything as long as it’s good, clean and high quality,” she says.
While she cooks for a living, she considers herself a professional eater. A capitalina — born in Mexico City — Santacruz studied at the prestigious CIA (Culinary Institute of America) in Hyde Park, N.Y., and worked kitchens at home and abroad, notably as executive chef at New York’s Pámpano. She also has hosted Spanish-language television cooking programs.
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Maintaining an avid interest in Mexico’s traditional cooking, she is a vocal proponent and aficionado of street food. Currently she runs the kitchen at Sesame, located in Mexico City’s fashionable Roma neighborhood. Sesame’s eclectic menu features simple street food-style items from Asia. Classic dishes such as pho and siu mai are neither toyed with nor deconstructed, just artfully and lovingly reproduced. It is a kitchen without precedent in previously Asian-food-starved Mexico. We sat for a chat out on the sidewalk terrace one quiet, breezy afternoon, surrounded by turn-of-the-century mansions and passers-by walking their dogs or returning from a yoga class at the nearby Buddhist center. A far cry from the urban chaos people associate with the world’s fourth-largest metropolis. Santacruz doesn’t see Mexican and Asian cuisines as all that different as our conversation reflected.
With a background in Mexican and classic European cooking, and a strong political interest in our traditions, how and why did you get into Asian cooking?
Well, I went to CIA and studied classic European techniques and traditions. But I always loved my national cuisine and missed it when I lived in New York. Being in New York and London, I discovered Asian food — I was especially taken with Thai and Indian. And I took a class at CIA in Asian techniques. Then after traveling to Asia, I realized that its food has many similarities to Mexican cooking, most importantly that the best food is found on the street and is cheap. That’s something I really believe about our cuisine!
How is what you cook related to traditional Mexican cuisine?
So many ingredients used are in common, like cilantro, chilies, ginger, many spices, fruits. It’s the way of combining them that makes things taste different.
What are your favorite dishes at Sesame?
Ay, ay, ay! That’s like asking which is your favorite child! I do love the dumplings, the lettuce “tacos” of beef, and a dish I invented that’s kale with tofu. Mostly I try to reproduce typical street food that we don’t have here in Mexico as “authentically” as possible, that is, true to how they are done in their countries.
People here are only just learning about Asian food that isn’t sushi or American/Chinese. And they’re open to it. I’ve been to India, Cambodia, Vietnam and China and am planning to go to Thailand this year, but I’ve had amazing Thai food in London and New York.
What is your latest ingredient obsession?
I think it must be kaffir lime. It’s the queen of herbs, so unique and perfumy! And something we don’t know here. Once again, in Mexico we use many unique varieties of citrus including lime and orange leaves, so the idea of using leaves to flavor sauces is similar to our traditions.
Where do you like to eat when you’re not working?
On the street! Without a doubt, it’s street food. I don’t eat Asian, nor, for the most part, in fancy places. I love Mexican street food — it’s the best.
What’s your ideal meal?
You mean like your ideal last meal? Well, it wouldn’t be caviar or foie gras or any of that. Maybe some amazing quesadillas. Definitely a bunch of small plates to share. I like the idea of tasting many unusual flavors.
What’s the most memorable meal of your life?
I would say the first time in my life I walked out of a restaurant and thought “Oh, my God, if I die now I will go happy!” was at Daniel in New York. I had eaten an amazing risotto with saffron and lobster. That was definitely it.
Where do you see the restaurant scene headed here in Mexico City?
It’s getting much better. When I was a kid, it was mediocre Italian, French or Spanish food. There were hardly even any nice Mexican places! Now, there is much more variety, and more important, the chefs are finally recognizing the incredible riches we have as far as local ingredients, and taking advantage of them. Also, although a few more pretentious restaurants are more concerned with the “look” than with taste, we’re returning to the idea that eating is to enjoy, it’s about pleasure. There are so many new places opening up that there’s fierce competition amongst them, which is a good thing.
And in Mexico in general?
Although the best restaurants were always in Mexico City — we are, after all, the center of everything commercial, economic, cultural — it’s great to see all these great “chef” places happening in the provinces. Monterrey, Guadalajara, Puebla, Mérida, Oaxaca, Tijuana — they all have very good restaurants, often celebrating their local regional cuisines. This is a great thing; it makes me happy.
And what are your life plans?
Ha, to keep cooking! I’m involved in a new place nearby called Barra Criolla. And I’d love to have a place that serves small plates of interesting things. I don’t know, couscous, dumplings, like “Around the World in 80 Days” kind of cooking. I don’t do fusion: To “fuse” two or more cuisines well you have to master all of them. I don’t pretend to do that. What I do do is interpret. Of course, no matter how traditional the recipe for a dish I make is, it’s going to be my interpretation of it that I end up with. I want people here in Mexico to be able to taste foods from other countries and have the experience you would have if you were there. That’s my dream.
Main photo: Josefina Santacruz cooks Asian food in Mexico City. Credit: Peter Norman
Of the American cities traditionally associated with cake — New Orleans with its King Cake, St. Louis with its gooey butter cake, Boston with its misnamed cream pie — Denver has never rated particular mention. But when that changes — and it will — it will be thanks to native daughter Heather Alcott and her extraordinary efforts to bring Baumkuchen to the U.S.
Though Baumkuchen has ancient roots and a long history in Europe, the concentrically layered cake has become a phenomenon in Japan in recent years. That’s where Alcott discovered it a few years ago, on a visit while living in Singapore, and immediately “fell in love,” she recalled.
Bringing Baumkuchen to U.S. proves to be no easy task
“It’s cooked on a rotisserie, so it isn’t fried, yet it has this doughnut-type texture. … I went back to the hotel and started doing some research that evening,” she said. Upon learning “everyone has had a hand in this cake — the Romans, the Germans, the Romanians — I thought, ‘This is something pretty special.’ And I knew I wanted to be the first person in the country” to offer the commercial Japanese version.
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She became just that in February 2013, when she opened Glaze: The Baum Cake Shoppe — the name by which the online-retail business is still known, though the brick-and-mortar eatery is now a sushi-and-dessert lounge called Glaze by Sasa, in partnership with local Japanese eatery Sushi Sasa. Centered around the Red Dragon, her nickname for the 2,200-pound, custom-built oven outfitted with six spits, Alcott’s success has captured the attention of national media, including NPR. But the sheer lengths she went to to realize her dream make for a story in themselves.
Consider that the seemingly straightforward first step, signing a contract with the oven manufacturer, took more than two years. Even learning the name of the family-run company took some legwork, Alcott said. To this day she prefers to maintain its anonymity, and her first overture, by email in English, resulted in a flat refusal.
“I got a one-line response that said, ‘Thank you for your interest, but not right now. We’ve got a lot of growth already, and we’re just not ready for the USA.’ ” So she hired a translator and tried again, this time in Japanese. Clearly, her gesture was appreciated, as the team continued to respond, but there were “a good eight months of going back and forth” before a meeting was agreed to, and a year after the initial contact before it finally occurred.
“I took my husband with me to Japan,” Alcott explained, “because he has business experience there; he knows their style. First you go out for drinks and see if you even like each other. They hired a translator, and we could tell there was something there, so — many sakes later — we arranged for me to show them my business plan the next day.”
The result? “They ended up rejecting me. They didn’t understand Denver at all.” But they asked her to come back in a couple of months; by that point, they’d done some research on the market. “This time, they said, ‘Why not New York or San Francisco or Seattle?’ I said, ‘You have to trust me with this.’ They could see it in my face; I loved this product. But Denver is my home; I had to make it work here.”
Still, another no. Alcott admits that if she’d been living in the States, she’d have given up at this point. But because she was “on their back doorstep in Singapore,” she pushed onward — and finally, the company president agreed to build the oven.
“I’ve since been told that the Japanese reject you three times before they accept you,” she said, laughing.
Getting the Baumkuchenmeister seal of approval
The second step was for Alcott and her pastry chef to go through the certification process, training with the manufacturer’s Baumkuchenmeister and not only learning the recipes but adapting them for use in a high-altitude American kitchen. That meant more international flights, more translators and months of ingredient adjustments as Alcott began her search for the perfect organic cultured butter, matcha (green-tea powder) and so on.
“They flew over here to test and weigh my eggs! They had to be fresh and just the right size — not too large, not too small. I had to fly over my almond flour, cake flour, sugars. It probably looked like we were shipping cocaine,” Alcott joked.
But every little detail made a difference: “If the batter’s too runny or too thick, it won’t stay on the spit.” In the midst of all this, she received a call from the president: “They said, ‘The oven just isn’t perfect enough. We have to take it all apart and start over.’ ”
Eventually, of course, that darned oven did arrive in Denver. “I actually hugged it before it got on the boat from Japan,” Alcott said. Once it was installed behind glass in her Congress Park space, “the president, his top engineer and his top chef all flew out to turn it on for the first time,” per a contractual agreement. “We all cheered.”
It’s hard to believe that the drop-dead gorgeous, luscious-but-refined Baumkuchen cakes Glaze now turns out are infused with such blood, sweat and tears. Each takes 24 hours to make; the pastry chefs shoot for 21 layers, but the final tally can depend on everything from the base flavor (“the chocolate is so fluffy, it sometimes has to be pulled earlier”) to local weather conditions.
They also experiment with new flavors, such as orange and pumpkin. Surprisingly, “the Japanese are so supportive; they love the innovation,” Alcott said. “We have become the test kitchen for Baumkuchen in this country.”
While we Denverites are lucky to have them, you can purchase Glaze’s products too. But don’t hold your breath for a brick-and-mortar outpost anytime soon. As Alcott put it, “I take this opportunity I’ve been given day by day.”
Main photo: Baumkuchen is cooked on a rotisserie. Credit: Adam Larkey Photography
What can a home cook take away from the Modernist Cuisine’s food movement? Personally speaking, I have not bought a Pacojet or a whipping siphon, though I know one or two home cooks who have done so. I did find a kit online that included lecithin powder (for foams), agar agar (a forerunner of gelatin made from seaweed), calcium lactate and sodium alginate (for balloons). One hilarious afternoon was spent concocting Balsamic Pearls and Mojito Balloons, but that was as far as it went.
A two-part series
It has inspired in me a new Modernist “Ten Commandments,” motivated by the version that journalists Henri Gault and Christian Millau laid out more than 40 years ago on the fundamentals of nouvelle cuisine. My first five Modernist commandments appeared in Part 1 of this series. These are the final five:
Rule VI: Explore fantasy. Symbolism is a recurrent theme in Modernist Cuisine. Modernist chefs love to turn the world upside down and you never know what you may find. Ferran Adrià’s giant white globe, when cracked, shatters like an edible eggshell, but what looks like white chocolate proves to taste of gorgonzola cheese. At Alinea restaurant in Chicago, ayu tuna is perched on a giant, dense black morel mushroom, the ocean and the earth. Amid the drama and intrigue of Modernist dishes, appearance is often left to speak for itself. You can take or leave Adrià’s desiccated Braque-like skeleton of a real fish on your plate; it has no garnish at all. (“Ugh,” a friend said.)
Rule VII: Be inventive. Modernist Cuisine is certainly amusing. Who could not smile at Alinea’s bottomless “plate” supporting a liquid truffle ravioli, a single, earthy bite that explodes in the mouth. Often in Modernist Cuisine, things are not what they seem — at the U.K. restaurant The Fat Duck, a trio of tiny retro lollipops proves to be an apple sorbet with walnut and celery; a chilled mousse of foie gras; and oddest of all, a striped ice cream of avocado and salmon flavored with horseradish. Modernist cooking implies a sense of adventure. I cannot honestly say that I enjoyed Red Cabbage Gazpacho with a Grain Mustard Ice Cream at The Fat Duck, but it sure made me pay attention.
Rule VIII: Play with temperature. Only in the last 100 years have chefs been able to play with hot and cold when cooking and serving food. Today’s precise temperatures and timings have opened a whole new world. Professional kitchens have become laboratories demanding a new approach to cooking. This leads to playful presentations such as Adrià’s white chocolate soufflé that evaporates into thin air within five minutes, or the Roca brothers’ anchovy stuffed olives dipped in caramel.
Rule IX: Avoid static presentation. For Modernist chefs, presentation can be a challenge. The landscaped plates of nouvelle cuisine, and the towers on the plate that came later, are gone. Today’s eyes are sated with the movement and color we see on all sides at all times. In the dining room, the solution seems to be a return to nature with wood, slate, green leaves, trees, rocks and pebbles; glass is a strong component that extends to the table itself and the general surroundings. Many chefs opt for simplicity, with small plain white plates (often in curious shapes) geared to tiny portions that speak for themselves. At Spain’s elBulli (sadly now closed), even the flatware was miniature.
Rule X: Keep the diner busy. Finally, expect to participate in a Modernist meal. You will be asked to stir, crush and crack the food in front of you, and often to eat it with your fingers. You may be blindfolded, or asked to lick the anonymous purées in an array of tiny spoons. At Alinea a balloon floated to my table and it was an effort of will to pop and devour the sphere of apple taffy tied with a fruit leather string, as instructed. I’ve always been an inflator, not a popper of balloons.
Reflections on the Modernists
The Modernist Cuisine’s practitioners are an odd lot. Most stay behind the scenes, sometimes greeting at the door, more often leaving a more personal relationship to be established by the server.
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In Europe, service tends to be discreet, so on a recent visit to Alinea I was touched that chef Grant Achatz himself created a chocolate pie with a sweet pastry crust on our tabletop. This gave us a chance to talk, a pleasure he repeated for every table, not just for special guests.
Just three days after my visit to Alinea, I heard the grand master of them all, Adrià, speaking in Chicago. He is credited with originating the whole Modernist movement and has trained many of the younger exponents. Adrià is a communicator, a ball of fire on the podium and in the kitchen, and he is the inspiration behind an online culinary encyclopedia to be called the “Gastropedia.”
What is there to be taken from all of this? Just as nouvelle cuisine is now long forgotten, it may turn out that the abstract, technically tricky concepts of Modernist chefs never have wide application. But right now, their vision and enthusiasm is trickling down to the tables of every hot spot in Hollywood. Their small plates and global ingredients are already creating a new world of cooking and eating. We are more adventurous and more curious. We are better informed about food. Cooking is becoming more a part of our lives, and a mom or pop actually cooking in the kitchen is coming closer to reality. Or so I would like to think.
Main photo: Lollies from The Fat Duck restaurant. Credit: La Varenne archive
It was almost 40 years ago in Paris that I opened La Varenne Cooking School, and the nouvelle cuisine movement was sweeping France. Today we’re in the midst of similar radical change, and novelties are exploding, literally, on our plates in the movement called Modernist Cuisine. To be asked to taste pop rocks in the palm of your hand that turn out to be Parmesan cheese is really very odd — and provocative. So is a pocket watch, marked with the hours, that is designed to dissolve in a bowl of hot consommé.
A two-part series
A dozen top chefs around the world — José Andrés and Grant Achatz in the U.S., Heston Blumenthal in England, the Roca brothers and Ferran Adrià, the father of them all, in Spain, together with a handful of others — share the same culinary principles, and often the same ideals. The original fundamentals of nouvelle cuisine were laid out by two journalists, Henri Gault and Christian Millau, who named them the “Ten Commandments.” It inspired me to consider the Ten Commandments of Modernist Cuisine. Here, in Part 1, are the first five, and in Part 2, we’ll look at the final five.
Rule I: Appeal to all the senses. You can count on a Modernist chef to tickle every sense. Tastes roam freely among such favorite ingredients as sea urchin, anchovy, olive, wild game, liver, blood, lemon and honey. At the table, we’re kept busy, mixing and matching mysterious seasonings, dried powders, foams, marinades and dips. Our Modernist noses tingle as casserole lids and glass bells release the pungency of fresh truffle or the lemon vapor from a single whole scallop in its shell. We listen too to the crack of a breaking crust, or the snap of shattering ice. At Achatz’s Alinea restaurant in Chicago my ears perk up at the trickle of water beneath the mini-iceberg sheltering foamed-topped Kumamoto oysters. The same multi-sensory appeal is true of our favorite traditional foods. Modernist cooks are simply exploring more ways of doing it.
Rule II: Explore the global cooking landscape. Modernist chefs are global players; they seek ingredients, staff and, most important, inspiration from all over the world. Often they themselves have trained away from home, gathering knowledge of new techniques and multinational styles of cooking. Top kitchens welcome bright young people who are willing to learn new ideas and work hard, and many have waiting lists of applicants.
Leading chefs have always enjoyed passing on their knowledge to the next generation, but today it is different. The students come from all over the world, they are younger and half a dozen languages may be used in the kitchen. This means that culinary knowledge — techniques, ingredients, cultural backgrounds — is now flying around the globe. At the very top restaurants, the diners too come from a multitude of countries, lining up for a year or more for a table.
Rule III: Create another world. All four of the Modernist restaurants I’ve visited pulled me into their own world before I’d even stepped inside the door. In a couple of cases it amounted to a long, featureless entrance corridor cutting off the outside from the splendors to come. Britain’s The Fat Duck lives in its own environment, surrounded by cottages in an archetypal English village. The now-closed elBulli in Spain involved a minor pilgrimage up and over a deserted hillside (except for the sheep) to arrive at an unobtrusive seaside villa on the Mediterranean.
Rule IV: Escape into a new landscape. The Modernist menu is formless with little sense of beginning or end and you will have no written list as guide. In a while, after say eight courses of what may become 15 or even 30, the meal becomes a timeless fugue, an ebb and flow of blending and contrasting dishes. In principle, fish comes first and sweets last, but this pattern is interrupted all the time. Japanese kaiseki banquets follow a similar theme. Indeed there are many parallels with the Japanese and Modernist tradition, particularly with the unobtrusive decor, designed to focus on the food itself.
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Rule V: Take advantage of technology. New techniques are so much a part of the Modernist movement that it is often referred to as scientific cooking — or even less accurately, molecular gastronomy. Both terms are nonsense, Blumenthal and I are in agreement here. “Science is not the point,” he declares. “Today’s cooking has not come from nowhere. Everything has roots including science in the kitchen. For instance, there was a Futurist Cuisine movement in Italy led by Filippo Marinetti in the 1930s and today’s Modernist Cuisine has clear links with that.”
In contrast, Blumenthal is completely at home with the term “Modernist Cuisine.” The successful chefs of today are far more than scientists. They may use modern techniques such as slow cooking in a vacuum pack, controlled dehydration, or the low temperatures created by liquid nitrogen, but they display the same originality as Futurists and other innovative cooks of the past.
Main photo: A beautiful rose is shaped with a knife from a single apple at elBulli. Credit: La Varenne archive
The revolution in food we’ve been witnessing for decades — the chefs, the farm-to-table movement, the pop-ups, the food trucks and all that — has spurred eateries galore featuring good food. Often awesome food.
Usually it’s urban food. A friend who just returned from Brooklyn told of how wherever she looked there was exceptionally good food to buy and eat, and how much of it she sampled.
My own recent experience in Portland, Ore., was similar. It was impossible to walk down a street without being tempted by good things to eat that were beautifully prepared and presented. My friend and I ate food when we weren’t even hungry simply because it was so enticing.
A tiny shop across from Ace Hotel on Stark Street had but a few small tables, excellent brewed loose tea and a very small number of perfect pastries — from homey oatmeal-date bars to an exquisite Paris-Brest. Who could resist? We couldn’t and we didn’t, even though we had just had a very satisfying lunch at Clyde Common.
In the very short time we spent in this city, we ate much, drank much and spent much to support Portland’s edible economy. And it was all worth it.
Good food making its way out of the big cities
But what I really value about the sea change in cooking is not so much the excess of goodness on a city street, as gratifying as that might be, but what you might find in a small town, away from an urban center.
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Take McMinnville, Ore., an hour away from Portland and a place that qualifies as a small town. On this trip, it was the Red Fox Bakery that seduced us. I’d been there before and especially enjoyed the sandwiches. They don’t read as if they’re going to be exceptional — it’s the usual sandwich fare presented on the bakery’s sliced bread. But the bread is so good and so fresh you can’t believe how delicious what seems to be an ordinary-sounding sandwich can be.
Not only are the sandwiches tasty, but they are substantial without being heavy, and it feels like a meal. Real food. Nourishing. The macaroon that comes with each sandwich is a generous nod to dessert, although you might be tempted by a fruit pastry as well. I always am.
Because it was chilly and wet when we arrived in McMinnville, we first paused at the Red Fox just for a look, but the look turned out to be for a cup of hot soup to warm us, a thick slice of that good, fresh bread and then a rhubarb galette.
The next day was Mother’s Day, and although they said they’d open at 8, so many people came by to pick up pastries for their wives or mothers that they were serving by 7. That day our breakfast was a galette as well, this time filled with the blackest of blackberries. And a cup of Illy coffee.
Red Fox cares about its wheat more than forming the perfect croissant. The pastries may look a little funky, but they’re good to eat. Not only do the bakers bake with the best local wheat they can get, they sell it at the counter in flour sacks printed with flowers, the same sacks of wheat we had encountered at the farmers market in Portland. Red Fox is a farm-to-table establishment and not that unusual except for being in McMinnville rather than Portland. As it says on its website, “We’re an artisan, small-batch bakery that specializes in unique flavors, wholesome and all-natural ingredients, and that strives to support locally grown produce and agricultural goods.” And so they bake with this local wheat. It’s not necessarily old-variety wheat, but it’s good wheat. And they use the good local fruits that grow so well there.
The building that houses the bakery is the kind you can find only in small towns and big cities that haven’t yet “arrived” on a food scene — a barn-like space that hasn’t been touched by a designer of any stripe. There’s the big stack oven, the sacks of wheat on the counter, the racks of bread behind, a menu board, a few tables and stacks of cups for the Illy coffee brew.
The tables are mismatched, which hardly matters, but my favorite touch is the bumper sticker slapped on the door that reads “Grateful for gluten,” a courageous statement in a day when so many are, or claim to be, gluten intolerant. Again in the owners’ own words, “… We believe the healthiest sweets and baked goods aren’t necessarily low-fat or gluten-free. … Cost and profit isn’t the bottom line. Seeing a person’s eyes light up as they bite into one of our cupcakes is.”
I like that sentiment. Both of them. It sounds big city, but it’s actually small town.
Another good little find in McMinnville is Thistle, a restaurant with a window facing a side street that recalls the mood of Kinfolk magazine — a small wooden work table, some old equipment, the stove in the background, the promise of something “artisanal.” The small bar (“… an ode to the pre-Prohibition era, a time when the cocktail was king …” its website says) and few tables provide space for some very good wines and farm-to-fork food that rivals any Portland restaurant. No doubt other treasures like these are around, but for a short visit — less than 24 hours — these were good to find and ones to return to.
I love that good food is not just stuck in urban areas but is showing up in smaller places more and more. This is hardly the only example of that, but being such a recent experience, it reminds me how good it is to be able to eat well in small towns too. And shouldn’t this be the ultimate result of all those kids going to culinary schools?
Now, if we could just find this food in our schools, I might be tempted to think that all is well, or at least getting there.
Main photo: A Grateful for Gluten sign hangs in a window at Red Fox Bakery in McMinnville, Ore. Credit: Deborah Madison
Chef’s Table: As the Latin-American food movement continues to gather pace, and cities such as Lima, Peru, and Sao Paolo, Brazil, are joining the world’s hottest foodie destinations, it’s time to ask what contributions Latin America is making to modern cuisine.
“I would say unique ingredients and flavors,” says Emilio Macías, one of Peru’s rising stars. “Many young chefs from South America have traveled and worked in kitchens the world over learning about techniques and modern trends, and now they’re back cooking in their native countries. We’re cooking to raise awareness about the value of our native products and setting up direct links with their producers.”
The first in an occasional series about the food and ideas of today's most influential chefs.
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Macías was born in Mexico but trained in Japan and Europe (including at Mugaritz and Santi Santamaria in Spain). He was drawn back to Latin America by the successes of the Peruvian leaders of the movement, Gastòn Acurio and Virgilio Martínez Véliz — both ranked in the top 20 of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Macías opened his own restaurant before taking a leading position in 2012 at Acurio’s award-winning Lima restaurant, Astrid & Gastòn, in the gastronomic and development kitchens. He recently flew to Faenza, in Emilia-Romagna, Italy, to cook two meals at Postrivoro.
“Postrivoro is not a pop-up restaurant but a nonprofit association that creates occasional ‘itineraries for gastro-pilgrims’ by inviting talented young international chefs to cook for just 20 paying guests seated at a communal table,” says Enrico Vignoli, its co-founder, who works in Modena with 3-star Michelin chef Massimo Bottura. “The chefs are usually employed in the kitchens of trend-setting restaurants or are in the process of starting their own. We want to tell stories through food and share gastronomic experiences.” For each of Postrivoro’s six events per year, the chef is paired with a sommelier or drinks specialist and an artist to decorate the space.
Macías’ dinner and lunch were held in the crumbling medieval cloister of Faenza’s Chiesa della Commenda. Each course was matched with a drink created by bartender Oscar Quagliarini, who is famous for his imaginative cocktails. The Goth-styled “mixologist” seems more like an alchemist than a barman. He spices his drinks with exotic but home-made ingredients such as yellow sandalwood syrup, or seaweed, eucalyptus and ylang ylang tinctures. The décor was by Fototeca Manfrediana, a cooperative of young photographers shooting on film.
An inspiring lunch with Emilio Macías begins
Macías brought many of his principal ingredients and seasonings from Peru in his luggage. He complemented them with seasonal foods from Emilia-Romagna. Sunday’s inspiring lunch began with three irregular crispbreads arranged like natural elements on a plate of branches and leaves. Each was topped with the chef’s interpretation of a Latin American speciality, from a fiery mole con pollo (Mexican chicken with a sauce of 100 ingredients, including chocolate), to verdolagas y tuetano (purslane and bone marrow with Mexican salsa verde), to shredded cuy pibil (slow-roasted Peruvian guinea pig) accented with pink pickled onions. Cuy is popular in Peru for its tender, nutritious meat. “I wanted to bring one very special ingredient from Peru, as well as a little transgression,” says Macías.
Macías’ elegant Peruvian ceviche of tiny raw oysters, Adriatic scallops and cactus followed, in a refreshingly sour leche de tigre: a cool fish broth lifted by lime, ginger and chilies, topped with fresh acacia blossoms and cinquefoil (or potentilla) leaves. In esparrago y hoyas de mais, crisp local asparagus, grilled on one side only, gave focus to herbaceous poblano pepper couscous sprinkled with dark Peruvian Sacha Inchi nuts and spooned into a charred corn husk, its smokiness reminiscent of fire-roasted corn.
Memory featured in the dish called Papa Genovese too. This came from Astrid & Gaston’s recent tasting menu, “The voyage from Liguria to El Callao, 100 years of flavor,” which focused on the gastronomic influences brought by the thousands of Italian immigrants to Peru in the early 20th century. The dish was a visual and cultural play on pasta al pesto. In the original Ligurian version, diced potato often accompanies the pasta in the green basil sauce. Here, spaghetti-like strands of potato starred with toasted pine nuts in a pure-flavored extract of basil and spinach chlorophyll. They produced a new, but equally soulful, version of the classic dish.
“We tried to imagine how Italian immigrants felt about Peruvian food before they made their long journeys in the 1900s,” Macìas says. “Were they afraid of what they might have to eat there? Our dishes stir emotions as well as appetites.”
Other courses featured langoustine smoked a la Veracruzana and slow-roasted Mexican pork neck in salsa roja. The meal ended with a delicate, chilled peach stew strewn with elderflowers, raw bitter almonds and rose petals, and a crisp chocolate ball stuffed with the makings of a tiramisù scented with charred guajillo chilies, mescal and sal de gusano de maguey: ground agave worms spiced with salt and chilies.
“Gastòn Acurio has been inspirational in the Latin American movement, moving private and government people to raise awareness about the value of our native products and setting up direct links with their producers,” says Macìas.
Concentrating on local products
“The result is that we now can go straight to the fishermen, requesting, for example, only large-size fish. They release anything smaller back into the ocean. They’re paid well for the adult fish and simultaneously safeguard fish stocks.”
How does this apply to farmers? “Potatoes are a big staple in Peru: There are 3,000 known species with more being found all the time. Some only grow above 3,000 meters of altitude, far from the cities, with short seasons and limited yields. Demand from restaurants and enthusiasts can create fair distribution and markets while teaching people in the cities about the value of these ingredients.” Other foods being developed this way are quinoa, amaranth and some corn varieties.
“Peruvian food events such as Mistura, now in its seventh year, where farmers and chefs meet and exchange ingredients and information are helping spread the word about our continent’s gastronomic riches.”
So are memorable meals such as this.
Main photo: Chef Emilio Macías in the cloister in Faenza. Credit: Carla Capalbo