Monday, February 26, 2007

Cooking Technology

Technology Review has an interesting article ("The Alchemist") that takes a look at the high-tech cooking techniques used by chef Grant Achatz at his Chicago restaurant Alinea. Achatz uses chemistry techniques more common to industrial kitchens and packaged food products than to gourmet cuisine. Agar agar and Ultra-Tex 3 (modified tapioca starch) are used as thickeners, rather than eggs. A combination of sodium alginate and calcium carbonate is used to encapsulate flavored liquids. His kitchen has used common lab equipment such as circulating water baths and centrifuges in the quest for novel ways to prepare food. Achatz even collaborated with lab equipment manufacturer PolyScience to develop the quick-freezing Anti-Griddle.

The twist is that the article (and accompanying video, "The Elements of Taste") is by journalist Corby Kummar, author of Slow Food and champion of cooking with simple and flavorful traditional ingredients. Kummar approaches the food with an open mind, and ends up enjoying his experience.
Many things yield unexpectedly in the mouth. That's part of Achatz's experimentation with different thickeners, and with making things solid or liquid depending on what you're not used to. A wide red ribbon marches across a long rectangular dessert plate, for instance, looking like melted plastic. The strangely plastic ribbon is the usually runny raspberry puree, blanketing a series of small dots, all of which have a surprise: tapioca pearls in goat's milk; fresh raspberries stuffed with a chewy little bead of taffy made of fresh red peppers; pistachio brittle and crushed pistachios; and lavender made into a tea that holds its shape like a syrup. Lavender is also dehydrated into tiny chips and crumbled over the length of the ribbon. The whole thing is decorative (its horizontal patterning is reminiscent of a Louis Sullivan or Prairie School design), unexpected, and very good.
Chef Achatz says he wants his cuisine to provide an "artistic experience". Based on the photo gallery at the Alinea web site, the food is beautiful. Since the restaurant is 2000 miles away, and expensive (the "cheaper" tasting menu is $135), I doubt I'll ever get a chance to taste it. It does make experimenting in the kitchen sound like fun, though. I wonder if I could pick up a second hand water bath. . .

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