Back from NYC with a spring in my step
And a new perspective on hydrocolloids
I flew down to the big apple to take an advanced studies class at the French Culinary Institute: Magic Potions: Hydrocolloids. For those of you who don’t know, hydrocolloids are gelling and thickening agents composed of sugar chains basically- things like agar, carageenan, locust bean gum, gum Arabic, cellulose based methocel and xanthan, and gellan. Initially exploited in the food industry, they are now being a
pplied more artfully to fine cooking by chefs for enhanced flavours, new textures and forms. We were also introduced to some enzymes like Transglutimase (meat glue), Corelase and Pectinase (used to clarify), with all the latest technology on display to jazz up the demonstrations and make us envious.
This kind of cooking falls into the domain of ‘Molecular gastronomy’, which by the way is a ‘bad’ word according to just about everyone in the field. But whatever, it is the term that is most widely used to umbrella all these new techniques, you know what I mean.
The class was intense, very high calibre; the teachers were great - tops in the field: David Arnold (the science/tech guy and inventor of some of the tools you see) and Nils Noren (the chef with the mettle, formerly of Aquavit, ‘back when it was great’). My time with them was definitely inspirational; it was a lot to take in, and my brain still hurts. My wining and dining by night probably didn’t help that.
It was a good thing for my faint science background, and that I had read Harold McGee, Hervé This and dabbled a bit, or I would not have gotten much out of the barrage of terms, temperatures, methods and unconventional dishes. Most of the chefs in attendance had significantly more hands on experience than me with this stuff, there to fine tune their tricks and ask specific questions.
Surrounded by this set, I half wondered what I was doing there at all. The thing is, I’ve been gradually moving away from this movement, as my main focus has been on a more natural ingredient driven cuisine with less manipulation. It’s hard to picture ‘Les Jardins Sauvages’ and ‘hydrocolloids’ meshing. Thinking back to my first experiments in ‘molecular gastronomy’ (or whatever you want to call it), although fruitful, I was left with Anne’s voice resonating in my head, ‘mais c’est tu vraiment bon?’ ‘Would you walk a mile on your elbows to eat this?’ (loose translation). After the novelty wore off, I came to the realization that old fashioned mayonnaise was often better than a new fangled one, that a chocolate mousse objectively had better mouth feel with cream than without. Even if I embraced sousvide for certain applications and adopted foams for layering effects when I wanted flavour without fat, I remembered that many cuts are just fine roasted, pan-seared or braised, and that Chantilly remains the best foam of all. I wasn’t inclined to carry on the ‘for chefs only’ somersaults for the sake of it. The fact is the average customer does not care what acrobatics you are doing in the kitchen. They only care if it is delicious or not. Taste should always be the main goal, not presentation tricks. Of course there is a small market for food as theatre (like chez El Bulli or WD50), but we’re not that, our spotlight is supposed to be on the wild stuff. Nonetheless, I always stayed tuned into the scene somewhat out of curiosity, regularly marvelling at what these avant garde chefs were doing. While I shrugged most of it off, I remained intrigued, and aware that the landscape had changed enormously in the last few years. I knew deep down that there was something to this and that I should be paying attention.
But I signed up for this class mainly because I wanted to learn something new, ANYTHING. Of the classes on offer, it was the one fit into my schedule, and the one I knew the least about. Regardless of how rustic our place is, I’m still fancy Nancy and no matter how simple I say I want to cook, it never is, I can’t help it. And I do want to stay up to date with what’s going on on the cutting edge; I don’t want to become a dinosaur. Of course, I’m always looking for a good excuse to go to NYC too. I was dying to be around other chefs, to learn instead of teach for a change, to come back inspired and juiced, which is what any conference, class or trip does for me.
Mission accomplished. This class certainly opened my mind, challenging it to stretch in all directions. All of a sudden, so many different things become mind boggling possible, when you remove the constraints of hot and cold, and stop thinking only along the lines of gelatine, cornstarch and eggs. It requires learning a new language and new rules, retraining your instincts as a chef. With each new ingredient, there is a new set of properties.. While gelatine sets cold and melts at 55C, others melt at closer to boiling or stay solid hot, then run cold. Some don’t work in acidic conditions; others need or are activated by calcium, some set slowly, and others quickly, then stay that way or not. To stir or not to stir; to freeze or not to freeze. Specific dispersing and hydrating become ultra important, grams and degrees too, you can’t hack around. All of this sucks for an old school chef who likes a pinch of this and that. No, this is about scaling and precision and spec sheets. BUT! You can produce air out of essence, clarify a juice or stock without cooking it (preserving flavours), get a sauce to that perfect consistency in a flash, and have it coat a protein hot so it doesn’t slide off. You can turn liquids to solids or solids to liquids on a whim, and serve hot liquids in separate layers. You can deep-fry mayonnaise, brulée foams, serve ice cream hot (this is arguably not ice cream), make hot buttered drinks that don’t separate, and serve carbonated sauces that hold… Talk about really playing with your food.
I can’t help but think I could fiddle with many of my classics to make them better, how I could so simply perfect our wild grape balsamic aesthetically; but then, do I want ‘Xanthan’ and ‘tartaric acid’ on our ingredient list? The acids are not hydrocolloids, but a part of the arsenal and approach, you see. A recipe with apple would be more appropriately boosted with malic acid than lemon juice (as I normally do). And why not? But clients might think the product is less natural or of inferior quality with additives they don’t understand; it’s the wine screw cap phenomenon. And like with screw caps, I’m sold, but not everybody is.
That’s the thing with these magic potions. Despite the reputation of hydrocolloids, it’s not really about adding ‘chemicals’ to food. All of these ingredients are natural in that they are derived from seaweed, cellulose, seeds, tree sap or fermentation, no more foreign than sugar or starch. A few of the latest ones come from microbes. They are also used in such small quantities, and if applied properly with taste as the primary goal (not shelf life or productivity like in industry), it not only allows for prettier plates and surprising textures, but potentially a purer taste, so that a beet taste more like a beet. Our teachers reiterated this, reminding us that hydrocolloids were just innocuous tools that could be used to noble ends or not, treated well or poorly. Their ‘no bullshit’ analysis of each product and what is going on in the field offered me an enlightened perspective on the whole game. Although I would still rather use ingredients in their natural form (say eggs or lemon juice), there is nothing inherently wrong with using a hydrocolloid when these aren't ideal for the task. We use powdering gelatine or sugar or starch (all extracted from their natural form) without thinking twice; it's no different, it's just that these powders are less familiar and have unpronouncable names, poor guys.
Some of these products and techniques make so much sense. I know that many are here to stay, transforming the way we cook in professional kitchens - new tools in our toolbox. Anyhow, it’s about time mainstream cooking evolved beyond the ways of a century ago; especially equipment wise, it can’t hurt.
No matter how seductive these tricks are, I’m not too sure how much of it I will end up using. I will cherry pick. First of all, I can rule a bunch out because I just don’t have the expensive toys or space or staff. François was very scared I would come back with all these costly requests. No, I am realistic. I will be lucky to get a circulator on Ebay.
However, I will definitely revisit agar, for the liquid gels. (I thought I hated agar). I can’t wait to play with my meat glue (I’ve often wished for it, say to make a roast uniform, and this week, I will try it). The methocel for eggless meringue and foams really interests me. That’s because I tasted a brilliant, delicate, shattering passion fruit macaron (dehydrated foam) that Nils made. This is a great example of the hydrocolloid providing a purer flavour that would otherwise be diluted by the egg. I was intrigued by the ‘caviar’, but now, I’m less enamoured since alginate caviar are tricky, need to me made à la minute, and the taste of the product is masked, deteriorating quickly. But then, the reverse alginate method shows promise (that’s the ‘egg yolk’ Bo), so who knows. If I have time to tinker, I could very well get carried away. It’s fun stuff.
Because my heart lies with traditional food, while everyone else in the class wrestled for reservations at Wylie’s WD50, Taylor and other hot spots known for doing these new science tricks, I went to Babbo and Momofuku (to their puzzled looks).
At Babbo, I had a blast, but the food didn’t exactly blow me away. It was certainly very good; zippy, bold flavours and delectable sauces, generous portions (too much for me). I had shrimp with radish, fennel, sea beans in a jalapeno vinaigrette (very nice, except for the swampy tasting shrimp), black pasta with pancetta and parsnips, quail with scorzonera and saba,; I also tasted goose foie gras ravioli and fennel dusted sweetbreads with duck bacon and sweet vinegar onions thanks to my neighbours… Some interesting wines too like a white Nebiolo.
Momofuku Saam Bar was amazing! Surprising, a party in your mouth, great ambiance, super friendly service, very reasonable. Of course, I had the famous pork belly buns (wow), a hamachi dish with edamame, horseradish and peas, some oysters with kimchi consommé, and I loved-loved-loved the calamari salad. The fried brussel sprouts in fish sauce vinaigrette, and the spicy pork sausage, Chinese greens and fried rice cake dish were equally delish, again tasting from my ‘friends for the night’s plates. There were delectable sweetbreads as well, with chestnut and mushrooms. Overall, this food was not incredibly complicated, yet unique, fresh, interesting, and super tasty. I would love to try Ko, his more upscale 14 seat tasting menu place, but for that I would need a serious date, more time and $$.
I also visited a teeny wine bar with loads of personality and tons of good wines by the glass in the East Village called Terroir, owned by the same guys as Hearth (apparently one of the partners is from To.).
As you can see, although I might not have come near a hydrocolloid in my outings, I wined and dined like a queen on my own, but never alone, always surrounded by interesting people who loved food as much as me. At all restaurants, people were so nice, pouring me wine, even inviting me to taste their dishes! I found everyone in NYC so beyond friendly (except for bus-drivers and taxi-drivers – who can blame them?).
Such a mix of sights and sensations, such a treat. So much food for the brain, the heart, and the soul. Gotta love NYC.