Also, "What the f*ck is wrong with this guy?"
Plate Magazine (via Eater) brings us this gem of a moment where chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten recounts his experience at Alinea at Eleven Madison Park (where Achatz brought his team and menu to New York), and ends with, "What the f*ck is wrong with this guy?" The guy being Grant Achatz, and the question being totally complimentary, of course.
After coming away from the meal, Vongerichten had one question for Grant Achatz: "Between Alinea and Next, I want to know what you're smoking. Let me know."
Naturally, Plate had to get Achatz's response (Who wouldn't want to know what Achatz, The Daily Meal's chef of the year last year, is smoking?). Achatz takes a while to figure out an answer, but ultimately he decides on the best stoner response ever: "Chef, I'm smoking dreams, man. I'm smoking dreams. That's it."
Watch the question, and the best reaction ever, in the video from Plate below. If this Burning Questions series continues in the same fashion, it'll be a new favorite.
We’ve been big fans of Food Arts for a long, long time. And, we get especially excited when they join in the effort to celebrate hospitality tabletop! Once again, who has done more? For as long? As Marvin Shanken and his collection of terrific.
Mega chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten dined at Eleven Madison Park during the switch with Grant Achatz’s Alinea and gives his recap of the meal in this Plate Magazine video and asks Chef Achatz a final burning question…….Grant Achatz continues to push.
Nick Kokonas, CEO of the restaurant reservations platform Tock, is meeting a handful of new employees over Zoom for the first time. The latest hires of his rapidly growing Chicago-based company are tuning in from their apartments. He’s logging in from a house in Lake Tahoe that he’s rented for a few weeks in January in an attempt to take a vacation after an extraordinarily busy year. The plan is to welcome his employees to the company with an introductory pep talk. He’ll explain how his 6-year-old reservation system is designed to help chefs manage both their dining rooms and kitchens more efficiently. He’ll go on to tell them about the way it threw a lifeline to independent restaurants during the pandemic by allowing their kitchens to offer take-out and delivery service on better terms than other platforms. And then he’ll explain how the 140-person company is now taking on some of the biggest industry players with a tech platform that gives more control to chefs and restaurateurs. He is, after all, co-owner of Chicago’s renowned Alinea restaurant, along with several other eateries in the city, and has spent the past decade and a half thinking about what a restaurant needs to survive and even thrive. But before he begins, Kokonas wants to set one thing straight: He did not purchase the large wooden yin-yang that hangs above his head. “This is not my house. This is not my yin-yang,” he tells his new hires. “This is T. Harv Eker’s house, who wrote a terrible book called The Millionaire Mindset. I rented his house.” Yeah, Kokonas has some opinions. He also has a track record of being right. His strong views on everything from menu items to food delivery have helped upend the hospitality industry several times already. The Chicago-based entrepreneur arrived on the food scene 16 years ago as an outsider: a former derivatives trader who was looking for a new career and had a few thoughts on what a great meal should taste like. After eating a couple of meals cooked by Grant Achatz, he offered to give the young chef a restaurant. When it opened in 2005, the now three-Michelin-star Alinea changed fine-dining forever by taking cues from Spain’s legendary El Bulli to turn meals into spectacles (edible balloons, olive oil lollipops, scented pillows to infuse a dish) and dining into an experience. Kokonas took the concept of dining as theater even further in 2015 by launching the restaurant reservations platform Tock, which pioneered the notion that restaurants should charge diners a deposit to hold a table (or even have them pre-pay for their meal) and use dynamic pricing for more coveted tables. Within a few years, Kokonas had signed on some 3,000 restaurants in 28 countries and was managing both his Chicago restaurant empire and a burgeoning competitor to OpenTable.
But it was during the pandemic that Kokonas may have struck upon his most industry-transformative idea yet: Tock To Go, which helps restaurants offer now-essential takeout and delivery meals, but doesn’t charge the onerous fees of services like Seamless and DoorDash, which can take up to 30%. Instead, Tock charges restaurants a flat monthly fee of $199 plus 2% on orders, or just 3% on orders without a subscription. (The service offers a “pro” plan for $699 a month, charging nothing for bookings and 2% on Tock To Go orders.) Tock also, crucially, lets restaurants retain their customer data, so they can establish their own relationships with diners. The platform presents a compelling alternative to the third-party booking and delivery services that have been eroding restaurants’ revenue and autonomy in recent years—a trend that has been exacerbated by the pandemic. A July report from food services consultancy Technomic and Uber Eats found a 27% increase in restaurants using third-party delivery services since the pandemic began. As restaurants that are new to these platforms wrestle with how to stay in the black while paying such high commissions, regulators in cities across the country have responded by placing temporary caps (usually 15%) on the fees that third-party services can charge. Pre-pandemic, most restaurants using Tock were on the higher end, but as Tock To Go came online, the platform brought on neighborhood gems and even dive bars looking to stave off closure. In 2020, Tock more than doubled the number of businesses that use its services to roughly 7,100 restaurants and nearly 1,000 wineries. It expects to hit $1 billion in gross merchandising volume in 2021. “What makes Tock such a strong player is that they’re both on the reservation side and the delivery side,” says R.J. Melman, president of Lettuce Entertain You, which owns and licenses more than 100 restaurants across the country and was an early investor in Tock. “So when things open back up and take-out business becomes a lower portion of what you’re doing and your reservation business will increase, [Tock] will help you on either side.” He says that 40% of his company uses Tock for reservations, while between 80% and 90% use Tock To Go.
For Kokonas, who expresses frustration with people who complain that restaurants are a bad business, the hospitality industry may be challenging, but it’s not impossible, even in a pandemic. “If you’re [a restaurant] owner who says, ‘We could barely make it [in 2019],’ to me, that says you weren’t running it right. You’re saying it was boom time and you could barely make it,” he told me last spring. “I want these restaurants to reopen in a sustainable manner.” Restaurant owners, in other words, need to take better command of their businesses, whether they’re running a beloved local joint or a Michelin-starred, travel-worthy establishment. And Kokonas is positioning Tock to be their essential tool.
THE PANDEMIC PLAN
Kokonas knew that 2020 was about to go off the rails when he saw, last February, reservations for the 60 or so Hong Kong restaurants on Tock go to zero in a single week as the island struggled to contain COVID-19. It was clear: Once the novel coronavirus spread to the States, the same would happen here. A few weeks later he noticed the same pattern in Seattle, one of the first cities hit by the pandemic. Then it spread to the rest of the country. When Illinois issued stay-at-home orders in late March, Kokonas and his team had already worked out a plan to turn Alinea and the other restaurants in the Alinea Group into carry-out places. He furloughed some 300 restaurant employees, but remained hopeful about rehiring them. After all, the appetite for restaurant food was still there. Those meals just needed to be consumed at home—and Kokonas needed to adapt his technology to enable that. He pulled together a team of nearly two dozen engineers and designers, who worked around the clock to transform Tock into a platform to book and process carry-out orders. Within eight days in mid-March the team had a working prototype of Tock To Go and started piloting pickup orders at fine-dining restaurant Canlis in hard-hit Seattle. Three days after Chicago shut down, Alinea was selling takeaway Beef Wellingtons for $35—an unheard-of price for the establishment. Kokonas had figured out that customers uncertain about their futures did not want a $375 meal they wanted comfort food. He pushed Alinea’s chefs to create a simple carry-out menu with the price of each meal under $40. By April, the restaurant was selling 1,250 meals a night, making about 75% of its previous revenue, and it had rehired 62 of its 85 employees. Alinea hosted diners in an outdoor rooftop space over the summer but closed those operations in the fall as the weather turned and COVID-19 rates rose by the end of 2020, it had served 135,587 to-go meals via Tock. As restaurants throughout the country began closing their doors last spring and the pandemic’s grim toll on the hospitality industry became evident, Kokonas was advising chefs on Tock to lean into takeout and delivery. For many of the fine-dining places on the platform, creating meals to be eaten at home—something previously inconceivable—became essential for survival. Chef Kyle Connaughton, of Healdsburg, California’s acclaimed SingleThread Farm-Restaurant-Inn has used Tock To Go as a stopgap to keep his luxury restaurant afloat, offering more affordable take-out meals through the service. “When you go from a $500 checkout to a $50 checkout, it’s hard. We can’t support a 75% reduction in revenue. But this has allowed us to stay open.” Tock To Go has also allowed Kokonas to expand his company beyond its fine-dining base. Pat Odon, the owner of Chicago’s oldest sports bar Nisei Lounge near Wrigley Field has used the service to sell mixology kits and to manage reservations as indoor dining opens up. “Tock’s fee is better than the cut other apps take,” he says. He plans to keep using the service to generate extra revenue even after the pandemic recedes. Tock also partnered with the city of Chicago in October to offer Tock To Go for free to restaurants in low-income neighborhoods, to help retain the city’s small-business fabric. Tock To Go is different from services like Seamless, Postmates, and DoorDash in two crucial ways. First, instead of taking up to 30% in commissions, which can break a restaurant’s margins, Tock charges between 2% and 3% on all orders. On the back end, while other delivery services submit orders as they come, Tock asks users to select pickup and delivery times in 15-minute intervals. It’s the same way that Tock schedules reservations: to prevent kitchens from becoming overwhelmed. Since Tock To Go has launched, the service has added even more features, including two-way texting from within the dashboard to limit face-to-face communication. It also integrated last-mile deliveries with DoorDash and Postmates—charging diners the delivery fee. Just as important, the platform allows restaurants to keep their customer data. Noticing the negative impact that platforms like Booking.com have had on the hotel industry, Kokonas is wary of restaurant reservation and delivery services that insert themselves between chef and diner, making restaurants subservient to their brands. One of his “core beliefs” about the hospitality industry is that “businesses should ‘own’ their customers, not rent them from third party middle persons.” He compares Tock to a company like Shopify, the commerce engine behind many direct-to-consumer brands that is increasingly positioning itself as a platform for entrepreneurs. It’s known as the anti-Amazon. “Tock empowers restaurants to actually sell what they produce,” Kokonas says. If there’s one class of professionals that Kokonas dislikes, it’s intermediaries. He has a history of avoiding them. When he and Achatz published The Aviary Cocktail Book in 2018, a gorgeous tome with photos and recipes from their boundary-pushing Chicago cocktail bar, they produced the book entirely themselves. Kokonas just couldn’t stomach the terms that most cookbook publishers offer authors: They put the risk entirely on the chef, while reward goes almost entirely goes to the publisher—a fact that Kokonas laid out in a popular blog post at the time. Kokonas and Achatz found their own graphic designer and visual artist, raised funds on Kickstarter, and went from there. The result: They have kept most of the profits of book sales and pulled back the curtain on the publishing industry. Likewise, after corresponding with Kokonas for a while, I realized that unlike most restaurateurs I’ve emailed, he doesn’t have a press person. “A PR person from a firm has several clients, and they have to please all of them,” he explained to me when I asked about it. “So they might pitch publications in a very rote way. I figured I could just do that outreach myself.” The man behind the curtain of the Alinea Group and Tock’s press releases is, well, just him. It’s also clear that he has little patience for restaurateurs who don’t prioritize their finances. (Another of his core beliefs. “Art and commerce are necessary for one another and improve each other. “) While Kokonas supported Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans to help restaurants weather the pandemic, he’s openly critical of owners who didn’t use that financial support to plan ahead. “They had no expenses for two months. No rent, no payroll. If you’re doing any carry-out business at all, you did really well those couple months,” he says. “When I see some of the chefs on TV and they’re now going, ‘The PPP is terrible. It doesn’t work.’ What they’re really saying is ‘The PPP didn’t work for me because I didn’t do anything [with it].’” At the start of the pandemic, he joined the leadership team of the Independent Restaurant Coalition, a trade group formed last year to lobby all levels of government for restaurant relief, serving alongside the likes of chefs Tom Colicchio, José Andrés, and Nancy Silverton. But he has not been active in the group since the early days of the outbreak. He’s been increasingly vocal about supporting the $15 minimum wage and the elimination of tipping in restaurants, which puts him at odds with some members of the group. He’s also “not a huge fan” of the 2021 American Rescue Plan, which includes putting $25 billion towards grants for struggling independent restaurants and bars. His assessment: “Too much pork, no accountability.” When it comes to delivery, he’s equally blunt. If a restaurant is paying a third-party service too much, it’s choosing cheap convenience over price. It’s up to the restaurant to switch to another service. He doesn’t believe cities should step in to set price caps on delivery fees. When Jason Heltzer, a managing partner at Chicago VC Origin Ventures looked at his portfolio last March as the coronavirus began rolling across the country, the company he was most concerned for was Tock. Heltzer should have known better. After all, as he told me, he liked the product, but he really bet on the founder. “[Kokonas is] a contrarian, but what I have learned over time—and he’s demonstrated this over and over again—is that he knows the restaurant business. He can figure it out.”
NOT ALL SEATS ARE EQUAL
Kokonas has always had an appetite for fine food, but his tastes can be particular. His Wikipedia page prominently mentions that he “finds peanuts and peanut butter to be repulsive.” Though his father owned a grocery store and diner, Kokonas didn’t come from great food—he describes his mother’s cooking as “terrible, so bad”—or wealthy background. He recalls that when his terminally ill father came to visit him in New York, he was blown away by a bowl of soup served as an appetizer at a tony restaurant. Then he saw the price: “He was like ‘$18 for a bowl of soup! What is in this soup?’” Now Kokonas owns a restaurant where meals go for hundreds of dollars ahead. Kokonas’s path to restaurants was anything but direct. After majoring in philosophy as an undergraduate at Colgate University, he turned down a spot in a JD/Ph.D. program at the University of Pennsylvania to sell posters to sororities and small businesses—which turned out to be surprisingly lucrative. “I was a 22-year-old dude in a van, going sorority to sorority,” he recalls. “I sold hundreds of thousand dollars worth of posters.” He followed up with a stint as a derivatives trader, then, in the early ’90s he started his own firm, Third Moment Trading when he realized the system could be optimized to be even more profitable. He installed the first closed-cellular network so that his firm’s traders in different cities could speak directly from their respective stock exchange pits, giving them a split-second advantage over others in the pit who relied on hand signals to communicate. But when his wife told him he was “at risk of turning into an asshole,” Kokonas quit and put his money toward traveling and dining at some of the world’s best restaurants. His meeting with chef Achatz is now something of a legend. After enjoying a couple of meals at Trio Restaurant near his Chicago home, Kononas asked to meet the chef—who was then on loan from Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry. Kokonas offered Achatz his own restaurant on the spot. In 2007, less than two years after Alinea opened and a year after Gourmet named it the best restaurant in America, Achatz developed Stage IV tongue cancer. Miraculously, he recovered after undergoing an experimental treatment at the University of Chicago, though he was missing his sense of taste. Slowly, it came back. While Achatz was battling cancer, Kokonas was learning how to run a restaurant. He approached it like he did a trading floor: finding patterns in what might seem like chaos and then optimizing the operations. Alinea was a hot restaurant as soon as reservation times were released, the phones, which were manned by a staff of three, would ring off the hook. Even so, some customers wouldn’t show up. This was an industry-wide trend—according to Kokonas, typical no-show rates are between 15% and 18% in normal restaurants. He looked at existing reservation solutions, like OpenTable, but determined they weren’t actually helping restaurants. To his mind, they were just wrestling away control of the customer relationship and not delivering much in exchange. “[OpenTable’s relationship with customers] bodes well for the business selling the software, but very poorly for any future innovation or features,” Kokonas wrote in a 2014 blog post. He decided to expand on these thoughts at the 2014 Tech Table conference—sponsored by OpenTable. While Kokonas says he dislikes conflict, public feuds with Iron Chef host Cat Cora and Esquire food writer John Mariani might suggest otherwise. Perhaps a better way to put it is that he dislikes conflict, but he really, really, really loves being right. At the conference, speaking to an audience of restaurateurs and OpenTable execs, he brought up how “a clusterfuck of bad software” can destroy a restaurant’s efficiency. Then, he outlined his plans for a rival restaurant reservation service (eventually Tock) that would share customer information with restaurants and structure reservations to make it easier for the kitchens to manage orders. He also introduced his idea for prepaid reservations and dynamic pricing. Next interior At Alinea, dining is experienced like a theatre. And as in a theater, not all seats are equal: Some are closer to the door, others are near the kitchen. On top of that, demand changes depending on the day, rising on weekends and falling midweek. Kononas reasoned that the best tables at the most popular times should cost more money. He had begun testing the idea of variable pricing at his restaurant, Next when it opened in 2014. When prepaid reservations on the rudimentary system he had built in-house sold out, he knew he was onto something big. Tock launched in 2015, backed by investors that included chef Thomas Keller, former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, and Kimbal Musk. The app took root among restaurants that valued its novel embrace of ticketing and dynamic pricing, its informed approach to scheduling reservations in a way that’s mindful of how a kitchen works, and its customer relationship management assistance. Early adopters included some of the world’s most prominent chefs and restaurateurs, such as Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. SingleThread’s Connaughton built his three-Michelin-star restaurant with Tock running in the background. “I had worked in restaurants and could understand how it solved the challenge of booking,” he says. “When we opened in 2016, we used it to book seats all prepaid in advance.” Though it only had a small fraction of OpenTable’s 60,000-strong clientele, Tock commanded outsize attention, thanks to the caliber of restaurants on it and Kokonas’s one-man PR show. It was poised for even more growth after announcing a deal with Chase in February 2020 that would allow cardmembers to book Tock restaurants through a dedicated dining page and access exclusive pop-ups and dining experiences. (The hub launched in October.) Then COVID-19 hit, and Tock became two killer platforms in one: OpenTable meets DoorDash.
THE SAUSAGE FACTORY SUCKS
The person responsible for much of Tock’s growth over the past several years is chief operating officer Jeff Kaplan, who joined the company in 2017 after founding and selling two healthcare startups. He quickly set up Tock’s formidable sales and customer service teams. Asked about what attracted him to Tock and what made him stay, Kaplan delivers an almost Frank Capra-esque speech, “I believe in capitalism. I believe in it in the sense that I enjoy creating jobs for people, and making money for the business, and doing right by the customer. I believe you can do all of those things.” In less than a year, the company has found success doing just that. It has also tripled its number of employees. (Kokonas admits that he used to know everyone’s names.) Wineries, ski resort operators (including Vail Resorts), and even car dealerships are now using Tock for bookings. Kokonas is looking to expand the number of restaurants and purveyors that use Tock as a marketplace to sell meal kits and other goods. He’s even toying with a Spotify Wrapped-style service that would recommend experiences based on users’ dining habits. But Kokonas has never run a company so big or for so long. He admits that he might sell Tock. “We get inquiries every day, and I have investors. If I never sell it or liquidate part of it, then I never get their money out. They had faith in me and they deserve that return.” (Tock’s current valuation is private, but a source close to the company puts it about $500 million.) Kokonas seems to love big-picture problem-solving more than the daily grind of managing employees. He offers a story, by way of explanation. “In 1996 Wilco’s Being There came out, and it was punk, country, and bluegrass. I listened to it three times and threw it in the garbage. I was so angry at myself. I was thinking you’re never going to make anything that good in your life. I eventually got to know [bassist] John Stirratt. When I told him I loved the album he was like, no aspect of doing that was fun. And I was like, ah, that’s the part you don’t get to see, right? Nothing’s like it seems. The sausage factory sucks. That’s true of Tock and that’s true of the restaurants. It’s true of everything.” It makes me think of the book and film script that Kokonas told me he was working on in one of our first conversations. (Several people have told him not to write both simultaneously, but he won’t be deterred—besides, as he explains, he wants his book to read like a movie.) In it, a man wakes up from a coma and realizes his wife has been cheating on him with his best friend. He decides to leave everything and travel the world. One day, as he rests his head against the swirling marble pattern of some shower tiles in a Florence hotel, he wakes up in a hospital and realizes . . . it was all a lucid coma dream. And having dreamed about the alternative life he could be living, he embarks upon it for real this time, leaving his wife and setting off. Sometime later he ends up back in the shower in Florence, looking at the swirling marble pattern and it hits him: What if this was all a dream again? There’s always another problem to figure out, whether it’s the most efficient way to get posters to college students and messages to derivatives traders or how to maximize profit on book sales and restaurant tables. Perhaps the most intriguing question when it comes to Nick Kokonas is which one he’ll decide to solve next. A quote about author T. Harv Eker and a Wilco album title was updated. Additionally, a description of Next was updated to reflect that it is a restaurant. To see Fast Company’s list of the Top 10 Most Innovative Companies in dining for 2021. –Source: Fast Company.
Want to try some of chef Dan Barber's Row 7 vegetables? Head to Vicia
Look for the Row 7 Seed's Koginut squash as the first course on the current tasting menu at Vicia.
Eight years ago, Chef Dan Barber of the world-renowned Blue Hill NYC and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, New York, was joking with vegetable breeder Michael Mazourek about butternut squash. Holding one up, he asked Mazourek if he could somehow make the humble, clunky squash taste any good. From there, the story goes that Mazourek developed the seeds that would produce the Honeynut squash. Significantly smaller in size, it was both nutrient dense and contained less water than the butternut. Most importantly, it was created and bred specifically to be flavorful and delicious.
Chef Michael Gallina of Vicia who cooked at Blue Hill in Manhattan for four years and then at Blue Hill at Stone Barns for five, where he served as chef de cuisine, was part of the process of creating this new squash. “We were going up to Cornell pretty often," he says. "We’d drive up on Mondays and have these in-depth discussions.” Gallina compares the creation of the Honeynut to online dating. “Breeding the squash was kind of like match.com. Basically you’re looking at qualities of one kind of squash and the qualities of another kind of squash and trying to pick out the best from both to combine them.”
Over the next few years, Barber enthusiastically shared his flavor-focused Honeynut squash with other chefs and the combination of word of mouth, articles in Vogue and the now-shuttered Cooking Light, and a robust social media campaign paid off, garnering attention from people important in the realms of both seed and produce distribution. Today, you can find the Honeynut in Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods across the country.
Barber was eager to re-create the Honeynut experiment with other vegetables, and early this winter he introduced the epicurean community to his new seed company, Row 7 Seed Company. The company had bred seven new seed varieties including the Badger Flame beet, a beet so mild and sweet it is meant to be eaten raw. Upstate Abundance potatoes are creamy and have a natural buttery flavor. Habanada peppers (pictured above) look and smell exactly like a habanero pepper but, when eaten, lack all of the heat while retaining the pepper’s incredible floral notes. And then there is the 898 Squash (pictured below), which is an improved version of the Honeynut.
As part of the launch of the company, Row 7 distributed their seeds to an extraordinary list of the world's most renowned chefs, including restaurant icons Thomas Keller, Grant Achatz, René Redzepi, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Dominique Ansel, and St. Louis’ own Gallina. Now, many of the vegetables have been harvested and put in the hands of these chefs to experiment with, to put on their menus, and ultimately, spread the word.
Gallina plans on using guest’s experience dining at Vicia to introduce and inform the public about these new vegetables. “I just want to get people to taste these vegetables and really become involved with them. The average person isn’t going to necessarily know about the Honeynut squash, so when they come into Vicia and see the Honeynut on the menu or the Habanada peppers, it gives us a chance to get people excited about them by teaching them what these vegetables are.”
Gallina sees Vicia as an important part in creating a local demand for the new vegetables. “When a customer comes in and asks us what the 898 squash is, or the Honeynut, or they want to know what a Habanada pepper is, it gives us here the opportunity to share that story. Then maybe the customer goes home and looks into it even more and starts wondering where they can get more,” Gallina says. “It all starts with demand. The more and more people are excited about something, the more the demand increases.” If Row 7 is successful in creating demand for their vegetables, Gallina predicts that “hopefully you’ll be able to go into your grocery store and find a really nutritious, delicious, awesome variety of vegetables. But right now grocery stores are looking at the most economical way to offer their produce.”
Some of the vegetables have already made their way onto Vicia’s menu, and the dishes Gallina created with them were not only delicious but played on their unique qualities such as size and natural sweetness. “We used the Delicata squash for a dessert similar to an éclair. The skin of the squash is completely edible, and the flesh is super-sweet. We filled it with a popcorn pastry cream.” Gallina smiles and says: “It was a hit or miss thing. Some people hated it and some people absolutely loved it, but it was on the tasting menu so we forced people to try it.” Gallina treats the 898 squash simply. “Right now we’re basically roasting it whole and splitting it in half, adding just a little bit of salt and a splash of butter. We’ll serve it alongside a presentation of a meat with a little sauce and a small bowl of really flavorful polenta. That will all be served together on a platter meant to serve two people. They can scoop out some of the squash and add a bit of polenta and eat that with a little bit of meat.”
Gallina explains that at Vicia the goal is not to overcomplicate the ingredients. “The Honeynut is so good on its own," he says. "If a farmer is working his ass off maintaining soil health and growing these delicious vegetables, who am I to slather it up or transform it into tasting like something it’s not. Something like this squash or a really incredible carrot can be eaten with something like the polenta, and it all ties together between different components in a dish.” Gallina’s face lights up and his speech gets a little faster when he talks about the ingredients that he gets to use. “I’m excited about what we can do with each of these vegetables. We did this little pumpkin fondue last year where we served little pumpkins, roasted them whole and stuffed them with cheese. I think we’re going to do something again like that. Roast and stuff these with something—whether it’s a stew of the squash or a cheese, we’ll use the pumpkins as their own vessel.”
Look for Row 7 Seed's pumpkin-esque Koginut squash (pictured above) as the first course on the current tasting menu at Vicia (see lead image). The squash is roasted and then served with squash purée, compressed apple, fennel, candied pecans and seeds, feta, and grated raw chestnut.
New Era of the Recipe Burglar
Pete Wells explores the mysterious world of kitchen spies, copycat chefs and copyright lawyers who might, one day soon, change the way we eat.
I want to be there on New Year’s Eve when they seal the 2006 time capsule, because I’ ve found a restaurant dish that will tell future earthlings everything they need to know about what happened to food this year. It comes from Chicago𠅏inally, improbably, the most talked-about dining destination in America. It’s the creation of Homaro Cantu of Moto restaurant, one of a handful of avant-garde chefs who believe they are leading cuisine into the future, and it looks like something Rosie the robot might whip up for snack time at the Jetsons’ . It’s an image of cheerful pink cotton candy printed on a tiny sheet of edible paper that tastes like cotton candy. The paper measures roughly two-by-2.75-by-zero inches, so it won’t take up much space in the time capsule, and, as far as I can tell, it won’t suffer at all from rot or mold over the next hundred years. But none of this explains why this morsel ought to be preserved for future generations. The truly historic feature of Cantu’s two-dimensional treat is the legal notice printed beneath the cotton-candy image:
Confidential Property of and © H. Cantu. Patent
Pending. No further use or disclosure is permitted
without prior approval of H. Cantu.
Consider your typical transaction as a restaurant patron. You choose something from the menu, it’s brought to your table, you eat it, and, if it was prepared adequately, you pay for it. Under those circumstances, you𠆝 probably say that you had bought the food. But here is a chef claiming that he still owns the food you’re swallowing. This is something new. Inarguably, Cantu’s gonzo innovations place him among the shock troops of American cuisine, but it’s possible that a more significant legacy will be his efforts to own the ideas that are born in his kitchen. He has already filed 12 applications for patents, including one detailing the process for making cotton-candy paper, and says there are more to come.
For all his originality, Cantu is not the only one who thinks that the ideas born in a restaurant should belong to the chef. There are at least two ways to claim legal protection for intellectual property. One is Cantu’s route, through patents, but another, copyrighting a dish, could have much more far-reaching effects on the culinary world. Chefs have traditionally worked on an open-source model, freely borrowing and expanding on each other’s ideas and, yes, sometimes even stealing them outright. But some influential people are now talking about changing the copyright law so that chefs own their recipes the same way composers own their songs. Under this plan, anyone who wanted to borrow someone else’s recipe would have to pay a licensing fee.
Would this lead to greater respect for chefs as the "authors" of their cuisine or would it clamp down on the free exchange of ideas? Would they be set free to invent at will, or would the fear of lawsuits cause them to stick to tried-and-true formulas? If intellectual property notions take root in the culinary sphere, the implications for those of us who enjoy restaurants will be enormous.
That’s why I𠆝 like to nominate the cotton-candy paper for the 2006 time capsule. If chefs in the future call their lawyers every time they change their menus, we’ll be able to look back on this two-dimensional treat and say, "This is where it all began."
For some time after I first read it, I scratched my head over the little prose poem that begins "Confidential Property of and © H. Cantu," trying to figure out what it meant and why Homaro Cantu wanted people to eat his words, literally. Unfortunately, the words themselves, which seem to have been pulled from one of those endless legal notices that pop up when you install a new Microsoft product, didn’t do much to clear up the confusion. Finally, I got Cantu on the phone and asked him why he printed that boilerplate right on his food.
"Because my lawyer’s really paranoid," he said.
Cantu may talk to his lawyer more often than John Gotti, Jr., does. Together they have filed patent applications for a fork that adds flavor to food and a polymer box with walls that, once heated, retains enough energy to cook a fish filet. Application number 20060081619, "System and methods for preparing substitute food items," describes the process for making cotton-candy paper. The application notes that edible paper has certain advantages over ordinary food: "Food items are typically prepared through the application of one or more food preparation techniques or cooking processes to one or more food components including slicing, peeling, grating, mashing, aging, fermentation, cooling, freezing, warming, steaming, boiling, roasting, sautéing, frying, grilling, barbecuing, or broiling. While a consumer may wish to ingest the food item, the consumer may be unable to do so because the consumer does not have the necessary food components or the time, means or skill to apply the necessary techniques to prepare the food item." In other words, if people can’t shop or cook, let them eat paper.
Getting a patent can take years and many thousands of dollars, mostly in legal bills, but the owner of Moto is bankrolling Cantu in exchange for a stake in the inventions. His hope is that big food companies will be willing to pay to license some of these ideas. Cantu says he has been approached by "dozens of food companies" as well as NASA’s Institute for Advanced Concepts. The space agency is interested in the technology "as a way of printing an apple that you can hold in your hand and take to Mars," Cantu says. "We have a machine that lets you push a button and out comes a picture of an apple. What we don’t know how to do yet is make it three-dimensional—how do we make an apple?" Cantu has contacted the American Red Cross about using edible paper as a lightweight form of famine relief he is tinkering with his invention so he can "print" paper with amino acids, complex carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and even medicine. If he succeeds, relief agencies might be able to airlift a strip of paper instead of bulkier and heavier foods like MREs or bags of rice. The paper could even be printed with instructions in any language saying, in effect, EAT THIS AND YOU WON’T STARVE.
Clearly, Cantu’s imagination revs high, and some Moto diners have suggested that they feel like guinea pigs for his patent-creating factory. But he sees things differently. In Cantu’s view, licensing his intellectual property is a more efficient way to tap new revenue streams than opening a casual Moto brasserie across the street. "That would take up all my time and I couldn’t think about food—I𠆝 just be thinking about what color chairs we were going to have," he says. "I guarantee you that going this route can be as or more profitable than doing a restaurant empire."
This was an argument I could get behind. I like chefs. I want them to make money. But it bothers me that the easiest way for them to pad their incomes is by branding, expanding, franchising and striking deals with casino kingpins. I𠆝 be happier if they could get rich staying in one place where they𠆝 devote their attention to coming up with new things for me to eat. Cantu may have found a way out of this dilemma𠅌hefs can sell their ideas instead of selling out. The world would reward them for thinking, not for running high-end chains.
Soon, though, I spotted some flaws in that model. To start, I wasn’t sure anybody but Cantu could turn a profit that way. Patents go out only to people who come up with a genuinely new device, method, process or substance. Cantu is a leader of the culinary avant-garde, but that’s just a small sliver of the fine-dining scene, which is itself a sliver of the restaurant industry. The average kitchen generally doesn’t see great technological leaps forward it’s outfitted with equipment that, with the exception of a few advances like the food processor, hasn’t changed much since Escoffier’s day. Most chefs aren’t trying to layer edible substrates on paper or build transparent heat-retaining ovens they’re too busy dealing with the table for eight that walked in unannounced 30 minutes ago. It’s hard to imagine what use they would have for patents.
And then there’s the suspicious atmosphere that a think-tank kitchen would have to adopt. When you rely on your intellectual property for income, you suddenly become Bill Gates, building walls around your inventions to keep thieves away. Cantu requires almost everyone who enters his kitchen to sign a four-page nondisclosure agreement. He says he runs background checks on some potential cooks to make sure they’re culinary school graduates and not corporate spies, and he uses caller ID just in case that party of two looking for a table next Thursday night is phoning from Burger King headquarters. Cantu says his closed-door policy mainly applies to big business. He’s generally happy to talk techniques with fellow chefs. Sometimes, though, even they can’t be trusted.
Last winter, the chef at a Melbourne restaurant called Interlude began serving food so complex and imaginative that few people in Australia—or anywhere else, for that matter—had seen anything like it. Pureed prawns had been bound with transglutaminase and extruded through a steel die to make spaghetti. Yogurt tasted like bacon, the result of spending time in a smoker. Pickled cucumber and pressed, dehydrated mango were wound together in a pale-green and orange spiral. One of the most elaborate dishes was the poached squab. Thin slices were served in little indentations on top of a glass tube, and inside the tube were two sticks of burning cinnamon that sent curls of spicy smoke into the air. Interlude’s chef, Robin Wickens, had been named one of the country’s best young chefs by an Australian magazine, but these dishes were unlike his previous inventions. The reason, it would soon emerge, is that these were not his inventions at all. Wickens had copied the dishes and a dozen or so others from a number of American restaurants.
Wickens hadn’t just lifted the recipes he𠆝 copied the way they looked, down to the highly unusual service ware. The glass tube, for instance, is sold by Crate & Barrel as a votive-candle holder, which is presumably how Crate & Barrel customers used it until Grant Achatz bought some as presentation pieces for Alinea, his restaurant in Chicago. Wickens had a chance to study Achatz’s dishes during the summer of 2005 when he volunteered at Alinea for a week, making notes and taking pictures, before returning home to overhaul the menu at Interlude. Wickens re-created the Alinea dishes so precisely, in fact, that in photos, the originals and the imitations are virtually indistinguishable. "He copied them so well I was almost impressed," Achatz says.
The charge of plagiarism was first raised on the Web site eGullet in March. Three weeks later, eGullet reported on a second copycat chef, this one in Japan. The Tapas Molecular Bar inside the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Tokyo was offering a tasting menu that appeared identical to one originally served at a Washington, DC, restaurant called Minibar, run by avant-garde chef José Andrés. Once again, the chef who seemed to have stolen the dishes𠅊t least 15 of them—had worked at the restaurant where they were invented.
The eGullet discussion revolved around different ways of describing this copying. One was plagiarism—presenting someone else’s ideas as your own. This is an ethical infraction, not a legal one. Newspapers fire plagiarists until now, the worst thing a chef might suffer was a snide put-down. The second was copyright infringement. On the surface, this made even less sense than calling a chef a plagiarist. Copyright law protects "original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression." Achatz’s dishes are original and tangible, so they ought to be eligible for copyright, but the law specifically excludes ingredient lists and recipes. A cookbook can be copyrighted𠅋ut as a literary work, not a culinary one. Fergus Henderson could sue me if I nabbed his fetching description of roasted marrowbones from The Whole Beast, but if I opened a marrow-themed restaurant and served his recipes every night, he𠆝 be powerless to stop me.
When Steven Shaw, eGullet’s cofounder, first weighed in on the site’s discussions, he felt the best way to deal with food forgery was through public shaming: Put the evidence out there and let copycats feel the heat. After a few days or so, though, he had a change of heart. Shaw, a reformed lawyer, learned in law school that recipes can’t be copyrighted. "Then one day I was sitting there," he says, "and I thought, Why not? It doesn’t make any sense. The assumption is that a list of ingredients is like a formula, as opposed to literature or art or craft. But I think serious recipes really are a form of literary craftsmanship. You can copyright the world’s worst photograph, but you can’t copyright a recipe, or its expression as food? That’s absurd!"
Shaw told me he hoped to convene a summit meeting with some of the smartest people in the food world to hammer out a workable model for copyrighting food. First, he𠆝 propose changing the copyright code, possibly by making cuisine a subdivision of the existing category for sculpture or acknowledging recipes as a form of literary expression. For enforcement, Shaw leans toward creating a system like ASCAP, an association that collects composers’ royalties for public performances of songs—on the radio, in nightclubs and so on. He doesn’t want to do this work himself, but he’s got someone in mind who’s smart, rich and powerful enough to get the job done: Nathan Myhrvold, the former Microsoft executive and amateur chef who is now a kind of intellectual-property entrepreneur, registering new patents and buying up existing ones at an aggressive pace.
Copyrighting recipes may be the most radical idea to hit the food world since the invention of the menu. Such a system would apply to all chefs, not just those in the avant-garde to qualify for a copyright, a dish would have to be original, but it wouldn’t have to redefine the very notion of food. Yes, Shaw agrees that the law would need to carve out a huge number of dishes in the common domain. Like Shakespeare’s plays, classics such as French onion soup would belong to everybody. But a chef who came up with a new soup could copyright it and demand a licensing fee from anybody else who served it. Shaw thinks this would spur creativity if there’s money to be made from new kinds of soup, then more chefs will make soup. It might even lead to a split in the job market between thinkers and doers. Chefs would operate like Andy Warhol, getting rich off ideas executed by others. "Something would be lost," Shaw concedes. "You won’t be experiencing the handiwork of a great chef. But that’s mostly a fantasy these days anyway. I’ve been to Jean Georges dozens of times and I’m pretty sure Jean-Georges Vongerichten has never cooked a bite of my food. So I have no problem with him going into research mode."
As a writer, I rely on copyright law for much of my income, so I’m already sympathetic to Shaw’s argument. People who sweat over new ideas deserve compensation. And there’s a sense in which rewriting the copyright code to include food seems like the ultimate acknowledgment that chefs have arrived. Once they were seen as tradesmen, like carpenters and plumbers. Now we treat them as creative artists—shouldn’t the law see them that way too?
The trouble, as even Shaw will admit, is that many chefs don’t like the idea. Even Grant Achatz, who says that the Interlude Web site showed 17 dishes he invented, is against a copyright system for food. "Chefs won’t use it," Achatz says. "Can you imagine Thomas Keller calling me and saying, ’Grant, I need to license your Black Truffle Explosion so I can put that on my menu’?"
Even if chefs did support the system, it’s not clear they would benefit from it. Shaw compares chefs to musicians, who have generally profited from the copyright law. My fear, though, is that they are more like newspaper reporters, who typically surrender ownership of their work. If a reporter writes a story on the company’s clock, that story belongs to The Man. If copyright law were extended to restaurants, it seems quite likely that proprietors would lay claim to any dishes invented in their kitchens. What about the sous-chef or line cook whose brilliant idea this afternoon landed right on tonight’s menu—what are the chances he𠆝 see any royalties? Restaurateurs would stockpile the rights to scads of recipes with the hope that one of them will turn out to be the next molten chocolate cake. Only chef-owners would retain their rights, and chef-owners are already the elite of their profession.
Since I started writing this, my two-dimensional cotton candy has suffered the ravages of time. More precisely, it’s suffered the ravages of my two-year-old, who grabbed it off my desk, crumpled it in his hand and ran gleefully around the apartment in a one-sided game of tag. The legal disclaimer is still legible, but the image of the cotton candy has a few holes in it. The paper’s no longer suitable for a time capsule, sadly, so I’ll just have to eat it.
Who's on your Top Chef Masters Dream Roster?
So I just got blown away by the chefs participating, I would say I agree to most of the decisions but then my mind started mixing my Fantasy Baseball and Basketball league with Top Chef.
Dare I ask who would be on your Dream competition roster?
For that magical show in my head I'd want to see these chefs:
In addition to the current roster of
and Doug Rodriguez.
After that there would be a special 4 week run of a special edition called Top Chef Legends where you'd pit chefs:
and Jacques Torres against each other,
Farm-to-table advocate named nation’s top chef
NEW YORK &mdash Dan Barber, a pioneer of the so-called farm-to-table restaurant movement, was named the nation’s top chef Monday by the James Beard Foundation.
Barber was lauded for using his New York restaurants &mdash Blue Hill New York and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills &mdash to highlight the difference that seasonal and sustainable agriculture can make on the plate.
Barber sees his cooking, which he calls American seasonal, as an effort to raise awareness about everyday food choices. At Stone Barns, which is set on a working farm, the menu is a simple list of fresh ingredients.
The James Beard awards are the Oscars of the food world and honor those who follow in the footsteps of Beard, considered the dean of American cooking when he died in 1985.
Michael Pollan, a vocal critic of conventional agriculture, got a similar nod from the foundation Monday. His “In Defense of Food,” an examination of the American diet and food system, won a Beard book award.
Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s New York restaurant Jean George was honored as the nation’s top restaurant.
David Chang, who has received numerous accolades for his Momofuku Noodle Bar and Momofuku Ssam Bar restaurants in New York, earned Best New Restaurant for Ko, which has been celebrated for its tasting-menu-only offerings.
The foundation’s award for rising star went to San Francisco chef Nate Appleman, whose restaurant A16 features the foods of Italy’s Campania region.
In the cookbook categories, Jennifer McLagan’s “Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient,” won two awards &mdash cookbook of the year and single-subject cookbook.
Last year’s top chef, Grant Achatz, won a book award for “Alinea,” a cookbook based on his Chicago restaurant of the same name. The book won in the professional cooking category.
The organization’s Lifetime Achievement award went to Ella Brennan, whose family has been a virtual dynasty in the New Orleans restaurant scene for decades.
Winners of the 2009 James Beard Foundation Awards
The winners of the 2009 James Beard Foundation Awards include:
RESTAURANTS AND CHEFS (NATIONAL)
Outstanding Restaurateur: Drew Nieporent, Myriad Restaurant Group, New York
Outstanding Chef: Dan Barber, Blue Hill, New York
Outstanding Restaurant: Jean Georges, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Phil Suarez, New York
Outstanding New Restaurant: Momofuku Ko, David Chang and Peter Serpico, New York
Rising Star Chef: Nate Appleman, A16, San Francisco
Outstanding Pastry Chef: Gina DePalma, Babbo, New York
Outstanding Wine Service: Le Bernardin, Wine Director: Aldo Sohm, New York
Outstanding Wine and Spirits Professional: Dale DeGroff, Dale DeGroff Co., New York
Outstanding Service: Daniel, Daniel Boulud, New York
Best Chef: Great Lakes
Michael Symon, Lola, Cleveland
Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic
Jose Garces, Amada, Philadelphia
Tim McKee, La Belle Vie, Minneapolis
Gabriel Kreuther, The Modern, New York
Rob Evans, Hugo’s, Portland, Maine
Maria Hines, Tilth, Seattle
Paul Bartolotta, Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare at Wynn Las Vegas, Las Vegas
John Currence, City Grocery, Oxford, Miss.
Mike Lata, Fig, Charleston, S.C.
Douglas Keane, Cyrus, Healdsburg, Calif.
Jennifer McLagan, “Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, with Recipes”
Cookbook Hall of Fame
Jane Grigson, body of work including “The Art of Charcuterie,” “Good Things,” and “Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book”
Martha Hall Foose, “Screen Doors and Sweet Tea: Recipes and Tales from a Southern Cook”
Shirley O. Corriher, “Bakewise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Baking”
Steven Kolpan, Brian H. Smith, Michael A. Weiss and The Culinary Institute of America, “WineWise: Your Complete Guide to Understanding, Selecting, and Enjoying Wine”
Cooking from a Professional Point of View
Mark Bittman, “How to Cook Everything (Completely Revised Tenth Anniversary Edition)”
Ellie Krieger, “The Food You Crave: Luscious Recipes for a Healthy Life”
Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, “Beyond the Great Wall: Recipes and Travels in the Other China”
Photographer: Dominic Davies, “The Big Fat Duck Cookbook”
Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg, “The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America’s Most Imaginative Chefs”
Jennifer McLagan, “Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, with Recipes”
Interview with Grant Achatz
Grant Achatz incontestably is one of the top chefs in the country today. His progressive cooking style extends to providing diners with a unique experience that includes every aspect of the meal, from their surroundings to the food itself. In just three years, his Chicago restaurant, Alinea, has found a place among the most sought-after dining destinations in the world.
Prior to owning his own restaurant, he was the executive chef of Trio in Chicago, and spent four years at The French Laundry, working under Thomas Keller. The list of awards Achatz has received is seemingly infinite it includes James Beard Awards for Best Chef Great Lakes in 2007 and Rising Star Chef in America in 2003, as well as a nomination for Best New Restaurant for Alinea in 2006. Food & Wine also chose Achatz as one of the Best New Chefs of 2002. Achatz is not taking any of these accolades for granted, however, and continues to push the envelope towards a greater level of perfection and more delicious food. He will release the Alinea cookbook in fall 2008, along with a companion website called Alinea Mosaic. The Main Course recently spoke to him via phone.
Why did you become a chef?
I was born in a restaurant family. My mother and father owned a restaurant. My grandmother owned a restaurant. A lot of my uncles and aunts owned a restaurant. I grew up in the environment. It just felt very comfortable. It wasn't like this great epiphany where as a 15-year-old student I said, I want to become a chef someday. It was just growing up in the kitchen, learning the culture and understanding it, and doing it.
And then ultimately trying to push beyond the experiences that I had as a young teenager in the restaurant, deciding to go to culinary school and finding out that food can be kind of an artistic medium versus just feeding people. That's what my family's restaurants were. They were just about feeding people and being a pillar, a social meeting place in the community. They weren't artistically fashioned. Once you're exposed to that potential, it's very exciting.
What types of foods were they cooking?
Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Mashed potatoes and meatloaf and omelets and eggs and burgers and fries. People went and filled their stomach.
What does your family think about what you're cooking now?
I think they're proud. I think they enjoy it. They've been here several times. It's much different. It's a big departure from what they're used to, but they certainly are proud, I suspect.
What do you call your style of cooking?
Break down each term for me. What do you mean by progressive, and then what is characteristically American in your dishes?
Progressive being the utilization of cutting-edge technique and the exploration of creativity. And American being eclectic ingredients and regional items, and more of a global melting pot of cuisine styles. European countries have a very long-rooted tradition. France and Germany and all the European countries have just a much greater history than the United States.
The United States is a combination of people from all of those countries. That's how this country was founded. So there hasn't been one common cuisine in this country like there is in France or like there is in some other countries. What people don't realize is that, in fact, American cooking is influenced by all of these European-type cultures. It's a natural thing for us to take themes from different countries and incorporate it into our own cooking style.
How did you become interested in the progressive aspect? The technology, the different techniques.
It's just a matter of being curious. I was always somebody who was interested in art and construction and emotion, and then just always trying to push the envelope no matter whether I was in culinary school or working for other chefs or, ultimately, trying to create my own style. I don't think it's anything in particular other than just a personal characteristic.
What differentiates you from other chefs who use technology, such as Ferran Adrià or Wylie Dufresne?
Each of us certainly has our own style. We always get lumped together, but each one of us has our own individual style. We all share certain types of techniques, and we all share certain aesthetic emotions. But we definitely are all our own individual mind and we're not trying to emulate each other. It becomes a very personal thing when you're cooking and creating your style. Homaro [Cantu] at Moto has a very scientific approach that he actually likes to show, for example.
Here at Alinea, we probably use all of the same technologies and techniques, but we keep them more in the kitchen and make it more of a mystery for the guests. Whereas, he likes to kind of incorporate that as part of the experience, the actual science of it. Wylie certainly has his own style, based on his experiences from working with Jean-Georges [Vongerichten] and his influences from certain Spanish chefs. Conversely, I have my past with Thomas Keller. So that's a great influence for me. The problem is that whenever a new style of cuisine comes forward, it's always hard to define it.
And right now, what people don't realize is that this modern gastronomy movement really just started between five and 10 years ago. It's relatively new and people have yet to kind of have the opportunity to really analyze it and see how it's going to mature and then, therefore, define it. It's too early to define yet because you don't really know what's going to stick and you don't really know how it's going to trickle down. I mean, you certainly see it trickling down already. But you just don't know how far it's going to go.
At the same time, the media want to define it, obviously. They want to talk about what you're doing.
Well, then they should define it. That would be great. That's their job. If you look at a bunch of impressionist painters, do you think that back then they all got together and said, "hey, we happen to be all influenced by the same things and we happen to be about the same age, and we're all painting something stylistically similar, let's define our own movement?" No way. They're just painting, man. They paint and they let other people judge.
And it's the same thing for us. We're not sitting around going, "we have to come up with a way of defining our cuisine style." No. We live in our little bubble. We're cooking every day. I'm spending 14 to 16 to 17, 18 hours a day in this restaurant. I couldn't even tell you what Wylie's doing right now. I have no idea. Nor does he have any idea what I'm doing because we're too busy doing our own thing. It would be fantastic if somebody with an open mind and a very strong knowledge of food could actually sample Ferran's work, and Heston's [Blumenthal] work, and my work and Homaro's work and Wylie's work and make a really serious attempt to try to analyze it and define it. That would be great. I don't have time for that. But don't just do it like this. Don't say, oh, they're all performing molecular gastronomy. That's not correct.
But generally, the media label you as doing just that, without trying to understand what the term means.
Nobody's really realizing what that term means. Nobody ever looked at that term and said, "when I put molecular and gastronomy together, what does that mean?" They just start lumping all of us into the same pool. And it's just not correct. What is more definitive, in my opinion, is finding the essence of what the restaurant is trying to convey. What is the experience that the restaurant offers? That is the defining element of what it should be labeled as. Not because I use sodium alginate and so does Ferran Adrià, and therefore, we're all cooking the same way. That's just not fair. That would be like saying, this architect decided that he was going to use concrete stands and that architect is going to use concrete stands. That's absurd.
You're a painter using oil paint and that painter is using oil paint, and therefore, they're both the same. Come on. You don't see [the media] do this for anyone else, but they do it to chefs, and I don't know why. It's just incorrect. It's really unfortunate that people who are actually conveying the information to the public don't have a base knowledge or the dedication or integrity to really look at what is going on experientially at these restaurants and separate them and talk about them in intelligent ways. It's just easier to say here's a bunch of mad scientists, radical chefs out there and they're all cooking the same way. That's just silly. There. That's my little rant [laughs]. It's really frustrating. We're all different.
An Australian chef spent some time in your kitchen and then famously went on to copy your dishes. He got caught thanks to images posted on the Internet, but has this experience affected who you let into your kitchen, or if your cooks have to sign anything?
No. I find that silly. Look, the guy came over here and blatantly ripped me and Wylie off. He copied the dishes verbatim. He took them back to Australia. He put them on his menu. The wording on his menu was exactly the same as the wording on our menu. But you know what? He got caught. There's no way that you can get away with something like that. How can you feel proud doing that? I don't understand.
You're taking the essence right out of creativity and what we do. If you go and copy somebody's food, then really, what are you doing? You're really belittling yourself to just a rudimentary cook. You're no longer any type of artist. You're not constructing anything. You're just copying. So no, long story short, we still have an open-source policy, we still post photos on our website, we still allow people to come in. We don't make them sign nondisclosures or anything silly like that. If they want to try to steal it, let them steal it. They're not going to get too far.
Who are the people who work for you? Do they come because they really believe in what you do? I imagine you're not just attracting someone who's looking for a way out of college.
No. The kitchen environment here is very intense. It requires a great amount of discipline, a great amount of fortitude. They get here between 11 o'clock and noon, and they're here until two in the morning. It's an immense amount of work in a very strict, almost military-like, environment. It's difficult. We're trying to perform at the highest level with an extreme amount of professionalism. We get people from all over the world, and from all over the United States, the East Coast, West Coast.
The ones who really understand what we're trying to accomplish here are excited by the use of making new techniques in an effort to bring forth some creativity in cooking, but yet they also understand that our primary focus is to make food that's delicious and in a way that's very appealing. A lot of them end up try to apply and get a job here after they've eaten here because the overall experience, the architecture of the restaurant, the design of the restaurant, the way the service interacts with the guests, the food, the wine pairing, everything creates this experience that, hopefully, is very enjoyable and very unique and very original. That's ultimately what I think wins most of them over and they realize that we have something here that is largely different than what they can find in too many restaurants in this country.
I was impressed at the attention to detail, when eating at Alinea. Nothing was left to chance.
It's critical. When your ambition is to try to be one of the best restaurants in the world, and that's what we aim for, imagine the competition that's out there. Imagine the French Laundry, Per Se, El Bulli, Pierre Gagnaire, Noma, just all these great restaurants that are best in the world right now. It's a great, friendly competition to try to aspire to be as great as some of those restaurants. So you don't want to let any detail go to the wayside. You really have to try to pay attention to everything.
Why is it important to you to be among one of the best restaurants in the world?
That's just the competitive nature of my personality. It's something that I've always aspired to. I think if I wasn't cooking, I would be an architect. And if I was an architect, I would always want to aspire to be the best architect that I could possibly be. I've always had that personal trait. Whenever I played sports when I was young, I always wanted to win. It's just a drive. It's just this internal bug that you have that keeps pushing you forward. And it can be a very positive thing. The result of that is attention to detail and, hopefully, a really unique experience. I don't think it's a bad thing. Sometimes, it can become very frustrating because you realize that you can never create a perfect restaurant. You can never create a perfect dish. So in some cases, it becomes a little bit more frustrating than anything. But I think the goal to try to be a great restaurant is a very ambitious one, and I think it's commendable. I think it's very difficult.
Does that make you difficult to work with?
No. I don't think so. Not if you, yourself, kind of buy into that philosophy. If you fight the system, then you shouldn't be here anyway. You have to believe wholeheartedly in what we're trying to accomplish. And if you do, then you're actually energized by it. You're actually excited and invigorated and you're glad to be a part of it. But if you're a person who really, it doesn't matter much to you if you work in a great restaurant, you can just go work anywhere and make your money, punch in, punch out, and go home, then this restaurant's not the place for you anyway. So then, yeah, if you have that attitude, then I'm pretty difficult to work with.
Do you have people who've started working for you and it just didn't work out? Or are you able to screen early on?
I think we do a pretty good job of screening people. We make them come in and work a couple of days before they're hired. And either they realize that it's going to be too much work and too intense and they don't want to do it, it's not a good personal fit, or we realize that they should probably go work somewhere else. So usually we do pretty well at finding the right people.
You've talked a little bit about what has influenced you and all that or what makes a restaurant unique. How do you define your cooking philosophy, if you have such a thing?
That's always the most difficult thing to answer because, for one, it often changes. But like I said before, what I'm interested in is creativity, constant pushing of the new, constant evolution, not sitting still for us, and creating an emotional experience. We want people to come in and feel a certain way about eating. I love it when we can make people think about food differently. When they pick up something that is aromatic and they eat it and they have these nostalgic feelings about their childhood.
It's just maybe give it a more cerebral level, where they're actually thinking about what they're doing as opposed to just this monotonous action of consuming food, which we do three or four times a day all of our life. It just becomes so repetitive that you really don't even think about it. It just becomes this natural thing. What we're trying to create is much more than that. We're trying to make you stop and take notice. And certainly, it has to be delicious and we want you to enjoy it and it has to be fun, but maybe it should make you feel a certain way. Maybe you should giggle. Maybe you should be intimidated by food. Maybe it should make you think about it before you eat it. Kind of our whole thing is that people take it for more than just food.
You used the word “artist” before. Do you consider yourself an artist?
Yes. I don't think there's anything wrong with considering people who cook a certain way or for a certain reason artists. Art, to me, is anything that creates an emotional reaction or response. And I think that by crossing the line of just feeding people for satiation, what we have done here, all of the aspects that we've incorporated, add up to a sum of an artistic presentation. The collaboration with [designer] Martin [Kastner], making food almost an edible sculpture, having this industrial stainless steel sculpture come together with an organic-looking piece of food to form this one object that is homogenous and has function and purpose, and then being able to consume part of it, to me, it is art.
I maybe use the term a little bit too loosely. I don't know. But, to me, certain things are very artistic. The way people move, there's a certain level of finesse. People think of art and they just think of photography and paints and drawings and that's simply not the case. There can be artistic qualities found in many, many things. It doesn't have to be just your common forms of artistic construction. Why can't an architect be an artist? If a particular building makes you take notice and feel a certain way because of the stylistic forms and the lines and the materials and the textures and the colors, certainly, that's art.
But some people might just say, oh, he's an architect. A fine craftsman, a fine carpenter who creates this beautiful table or beautiful cabinet with creative lines and beautiful textures, that's art too. So, to me, the whole debate of whether cooking is a craft or an art simply boils down to the focus of the person executing it. If it's my grandmother and she's making meatloaf to feed her 11 kids in 1965, I doubt very highly that there was too much artistic focus going to there. Conversely, I think if you look at what Ferran does on a nightly basis, I think you have no choice but to consider it art. It's not just about the high concept nature of it it becomes very obvious which people are actually trying to express something with food as a medium versus just giving people something to eat. It becomes very obvious when they're trying to communicate through their food.
Accusations of elitism appear around the type of cooking that you do. How do you respond to people who tell you that it's not accessible to all, perhaps even strictly financially speaking?
That's unfortunate. I agree with that. We're an expensive restaurant. There's a reason why we're expensive, because it costs a lot of money to do what we do. People think that we're expensive because we can charge it and people will pay it because of our reputation or the awards that we have won. No. Anybody who walks in the restaurant and looks into that kitchen realizes that there's 26 people back there and they're all getting paid [laughs].
No one's ever working for free. People expect and demand high-quality ingredients, organic ingredients, ingredients that come from a farm that only produces five pounds of butter a week. People love that. They expect it. They demand it. They also don't know what that costs. With all of these things come high cost and high overhead. So you have to charge for it. That's one disadvantage of what we do, is that it does cost a lot and we do have to charge a lot. You exclude a certain amount of people. However, what people don't realize is that when you walk into this restaurant, you don't need to be a foodie in order to enjoy it. You don't need to have this great understanding of gastronomy in order to really understand what we're doing, because we're trying to speak to people on a more emotional level.
Everybody's going to have their own feeling about what they're experiencing. A couple months ago or half a year ago or something, we had a woman who was celebrating her 80th birthday come in. And her daughter asked her, "Mom, where do you want to go for your birthday?" and she goes, "I read about this restaurant in Lincoln Park called Alinea that's really doing some interesting things. I want to go see that. I want to go experience that." So this 80-year-old woman came in with her daughter and her granddaughter for dinner and she came back to the kitchen to meet me after her meal. She said "I've lived for 80 years and I've never experienced anything like that before. It was the most memorable meal of my life."
She's not a foodie. In her life, she's seen everything. She's seen the Great Depression. She's seen the onslaught of American cooking through the '50s and '60s. She doesn't bounce around at Trotter's, Avenues, Alinea, or Moto. She's not one of those people. She just sat down and had an experience that spoke to her because she was willing to let it come to her, willing to soak it in. People have this conception that you have to be like an academic foodie in order for you to enjoy what we do, in order for you to understand it. That's just simply not true.
That must make it so worth it to do what you do when you hear those types of stories.
I would rather hear those than the guy who was in last night, who flew from New York yesterday morning, landed in Chicago, at 5:30, he went to Moto and had dinner there. He came over here at 9:30, straight from Moto, and had dinner here. He had 25 courses here. Then he got up today and flew back to New York. The whole reason for his trip was just to eat at these two restaurants. He talked about how great it was and all of this and that. And that's great. I'm glad we can appeal to that person, too. But it's almost more rewarding to hear the woman that's 80 years old say it's the best meal that she's ever had in her life. That's pretty cool.
Why is it important to have your menu broken down into 26 or so dishes, rather than just 5 or 10?
It's a matter of telling a story. People can come here and order 12 courses if they want. It depends on how long you want to be here. How long do you want the story to last? How long do you want to sit down in that chair and experience the movie, quote unquote? If you want it to be two and a half hours, then get the 12 course. If you want to spend four hours here, then get the tour.
Obviously, the more courses we give you, within reason, the more expressive it's going to be, the more opportunity we have to show you different things and different techniques and different sensations and emotions and flavors and textures. I think it makes it a more complex experience. But that's really the choice of the guest. If we did a three course meal, if I gave you two savory courses and a dessert, I couldn't possibly tell you the story that you want to hear. It just would be impossible.
How do you decide on the progression of the menu?
It's largely based on a synergy with the wine pairings. We start out by the understanding that it's good to go from sweet to savory, from sweet to savory, from sweet to savory instead of just going all savory then ending with sweet. It breaks up the monotony. Physiologically, it works because your body needs sugar at certain points. So if we interject some dessert courses in the middle, it'll actually make you a little bit more alert and awake and feel less full. It's just that varied approach, that breaking up the monotony. If you're sitting down for dinner for four hours, that becomes important. We really want you to be alert, to feel good about what you're doing as opposed to just slogging through another savory course and one after another after another.
And then, like I said, the synergy with the wine pairing is very important. The bridging of courses, the flavor profiles, the repetition of certain techniques and textures, that will all determine how dishes are presented together or paired next to each other. There are many, many reasons why we choose to organize the menu the way we do. All of these things kind of collide together and help shape the menu.
Do you ever turn over the menu all at once?
No, that would be impossible. Right now, we're starting to transition and do some more spring-like dishes---slowly because it's not really spring here in Chicago, unfortunately. So this week we introduced three new dishes. We do one a day, basically. Because there's so much training that has to go into it. Literally, we have to come up with a dish. We have to conceptualize it. We have to refine it. We have to get it to the point where we feel it's ready to serve to the customer.
Once we get it to that point, we have to give it to Joe [Catterson], the wine director, so that he can pair an appropriate wine with it. He orders the wine. Once the wine arrives, then we have the green light to serve it to the guest. But first, we have to train the front of the house because, as you know, some of the food requires explanation not just basic explanation. Everybody should know every element that's in the dish so they can explain it.
But some cases, we can tell people the best way to eat it to get the maximum satisfaction out of it. So then we have to actually have the front of the house team taste it so that they can get a better understanding of what we're trying to accomplish. So that takes a couple of days. And then, finally, we put it on the menu. Then it goes through a period of refining at that point as well. So it's a tremendous amount of work just to get one new dish on the menu. It takes us a couple of weeks to get an entirely new menu on.
Are you at the origin of every new dish, or how does that work?
Primarily, how it works is that I will come up with an idea, and I'll write down some details, some notes on a notepad. I'll sketch out how I think it's going to look. And then, typically, I'll work very closing with my chef de cuisine, Jeff [Pikus], and he'll start working on the components of the dish. Once he has all the components, we'll get together and create the dish in its entirety for the first time together.
Then we'll just communicate and continue that with dialogue and refine it until we feel it's ready. So, really, my role now is more of kind of the idea generator and kind of the creative kind of supervisor. I have the initial vision for the dish. I have the initial creative concept. Then I'll try to delegate some of the actual cooking and technique to him or to one of the sous-chefs and then we will all get together and talk about the result and how we can refine the finished product.
And how does the collaboration with Martin play a role in each new dish? You can't just pick up any plate in your kitchen and serve that dish.
Right. The collaboration with Martin and I, basically, if I am visualizing a dish that I know is going to require a certain service piece that we don't currently have, then I'll go to him and say I need something that is going to support the function of this food. Like, it needs to stand vertically. Or it needs to help this dish or this bite of food remain very cold for a long period of time.
So then he attacks it from a functional design standpoint and comes up with a solution. Or I'll go to him and say look, I have this unique new food combination let's try to create a service piece around it to support its esthetic or to make it interact with the guest or force some interaction in a certain way, make them eat with their hands or make them not eat with their hands at all or whatever it is. That's kind of how our collaboration works. At times, he'll come to me with an idea. He'll say, "I have an idea based on just the mechanics of eating. I've been thinking about table service and eating and I have this idea for a service piece. What kind of food do you want to put on it?" Sometimes, it happens like that as well.
What inspires a particular dish?
Everything. The world. I think being creative, to me, is about being very aware of your surroundings and being very aware of what's going on in the world. We can have an organic farmer from Michigan walk in the back door with a case of beautiful tomatoes, and that might inspire a dish. Or, I might be listening to a particular song, and hear a drastic tempo change, and that might generate an idea for a dish. Or be walking outside in the fall and walk on some dead leaves that crunch under my feet, and that might inspire a dish. I might be walking through an art gallery and see a particular texture or a particular form that might inspire something. Martin might inspire something with the service that he comes to me with. It's just endless. It just comes from everywhere. There's no real template or documented way that we come up with dishes. It's just random. It's spontaneous.
It's great to hear you talk about farmers from Michigan for many people, it's either technology or local ingredients. They don't understand that if you don't start with a good product, you're not going to have a good dish at the end.
Right. In today's day and age, if you're a chef and you don't source high-quality ingredients, you're behind the times. People who talk about organic and sustainable and artisan, those are all passé. Who doesn't do that now? Sure, when Alice Waters was doing that in the late '70s, it was revolutionary because people didn't do that then. But now, in 2008, if you don't spend an enormous amount of your time trying to source quality ingredients from artisanal producers, it's just strange to me. I think everybody does that now. Or, at least, they should. Whether you're cooking like we cook or whether you're cooking like Paul Kahan at Blackbird. It's all about starting with the ingredients.
There's a cluster of people doing really interesting and innovative things that are not taking place elsewhere around the country. How do you explain Chicago?
There are a lot of reasons, I think. One is that for whatever reason, people tend to forget that Chicago has a history of being a city that supports its restaurants. It always had a history of being a great restaurant city, whether people want to believe it or not. Going back to the late '70s when Jean Banchet opened Le Français, it was considered the best French restaurant in the country. It wasn't anything in New York. It was Le Français, just outside of Chicago. And then, in the 80's, you had Jean Joho open Everest, and you had Ambria.
And then you had Charlie Trotter come into town in 1987. He's still considered, 20 years later, one of the best chefs in the world. That's unbelievable. What we have here is a combination of things. We have a history. We have a precedent set by some great chefs. We have an approachability and a dining public that is willing to accept restaurants for what they are and their vision. And then there's a certain coincidence to it. When I landed at Trio in 2001 and started cooking like this, nobody in the country was really doing it. Wylie wasn't open at wd
50. Homaro wasn't open at Moto. It was really just us at Trio who were doing kind of modernized cooking.
So then, eventually, Homaro decides to open a restaurant. Is he going to put it in New York, where it's a huge risk? Is he going to go to San Francisco where they're typically more rooted in the kind of farm, sustainability-type cuisine? Or is he going to put it in a city where he already knows from watching us cook at Trio that the local tradition, the local dining public are going to support this type of cooking? Well, he's going to put it here.
And then when Graham Elliot Bowles decided to open a restaurant or come to Avenues, of course, he's going to choose Chicago because he's watching Alinea, Moto become successful. It just kind of goes on and on and on. And then you have people like Paul Kahan doing Blackbird. You have people like Shawn McClain being incredibly revolutionary when they did Green Zebra. There's no other place in the country like Green Zebra. And it's going to get even more interesting. You have Schwa that just reopened. My old chef de cuisine, Curtis Duffy, went and took Graham Elliot Bowles' old spot at Avenues, and Graham is going to open his own spot in May. So it's getting even bigger, and better.
Do you have time to hang out with other chefs or culinary people?
No. Nobody has time. Occasionally, you'll see them out and about whether they're at the farmers' market or at some bar after work. But no, nobody really has time to hang out or share ideas or talk about stuff. Usually we see each other when we're cooking for events.
But is it important for you to know what other chefs are doing?
Absolutely. You have to try to pay attention to it. If nothing else, to avoid what they're doing. It would be really embarrassing if myself and Wylie were working on some technique that neither one of us know we were working on and then coincidently put out a dish that was very similar. You have to keep an eye on what people are doing and there's always inspiration in that, too.
Tell me a little bit about your cookbook and the website that goes with it.
It's going to be pretty interesting. The book is due out October 15, so you'll see it on bookshelves and in stores then. It's a large book, about 450 pages long. It's going to be basically over 100 dishes straight out of the Alinea kitchen that are going to deal with recipes that are adapted a little bit to the home cook but primarily set up more for the restaurant. They're going to be scaled in grams. The techniques are not really changed much they're pretty much straight out of the kitchen.
We want you to really get the essence and understand what it's like to cook in the kitchen and create the food the way we do here at Alinea. The companion website, the Alinea Mosaic, is going to have recipes that we chose not to put in the book, which will be quite a few. It will have demonstration videos, which we've been filming here for about a year, compiling certain techniques and further explanation. For instance, if you're doing a recipe in the book and you're confused as to what the end result should look like or how a particular technique works, there'll be a companion demonstration videos on the Mosaic where you'll go and click and watch in real time kind of make the dish from start to finish, and it might give you a clear understanding.
There'll be additional writing. There'll be a blog where you can write in and ask us requests about the recipe or about the book or anything that you don't understand and we'll answer it. I think that web component is going to be very unique and very interactive. It should bring a great deal of that value and understanding to the book. A lot of times, when you get a cookbook and you're trying to cook all of it, you just don't really understand. This might help that. And it might make people attempt the dishes a little bit more frequently.
In general, can technology be used in the kitchen? In home kitchens, I mean.
Sure. There are certain things that we don't expect people to have in their kitchen. I don't expect you to have a $5,000 Pacojet in your kitchen. But it's not out of the ordinary to go buy a $40 nitrous siphon or go to the corner ice cream shop and get a block of dry ice, which can work just as well as the AntiGriddle. There are only a couple of pieces of equipment that we have in the kitchen that you won't have in your house. People expect the Alinea kitchen to be like a laboratory, but again, there's a Pacojet. There's a rotary meat slicer. Everything else should be able to be purchased. Even when we cook sous vide, now you can get a food saver for $100. You can get a dehydrator for $100. It's really not that prohibitive.
Foodie Phrases: Sous-vide!
Welcome to our newest segment on The Glamorous Gourmet - Foodie Phrases! Similar to our Wine Word of the Week series, I'll now be demystifying various culinary terms as well to help you empower your palate and master your culinary domain. Our first Foodie Phrase is "sous-vide," a method of cooking that has been implemented by some of the world's best Chefs."Sous-vide" literally means "under vacuum" and is a method of cooking fооd (seafood, steak, eggs, vegetables) in a ѕеаlеd, air tight рlаѕtіс bаg that is then submerged in a temperature-controlled water bath. The fооd is сооked аt much lоwеr temperatures then conventional methods like roasting or grilling, resulting in cooking times that can range anywhere from 4 to 72 hours. or longer! Why go through all this trouble you might ask? The goal is essentially to produce an "item" that is evenly-cooked regardless of its shape or size and has also retained much of its natural moisture making it incredibly succulent and delicious.Although sous-vіdе wаѕ dіѕсоvеrеd by Sir Benjamin Thompson in 1799, Amеrісаn аnd French cooks didn't really start uѕіng the technique with any соnѕіѕtеnсу until thе 1960'ѕ when it was implemented аѕ an industrial food рrеѕеrvаtіоn mеthоd. In 1974, Georges Pralus of the legendary Restaurant Troisgros in Roanne, France аdорtеd the mеthоd, developing it as a way to cook foie gras. Pralus found the foie gras was losing 30-50% of its original weight during the traditional cooking process, yet when it was cooked "sous-vide," it kерt іtѕ оrіgіnаl арреаrаnсе, hаd bеttеr tеxturе and dіdn't lоѕе a lоt оf fat. Brunо Goussault also pioneered this cooking technique and as Chief Scientist of Virginia's Cuisine Solutions, he fосuѕеd оn the various cooking tіmеѕ аnd temperatures fоr different foods. He also co-authored a study which discovered that cooking beef shoulder sous-vide extended its shelf life by up to 60 days.For years since, sous-vide has been implemented by some of the world's most well-known and respected Chefs including Thomas Keller, Heston Blumenthal, Joël Robuchon, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Daniel Boulud, Grant Achatz to name a few. The technique was also recently featured in the foodie film Burnt, starring Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller. Cooper's character in the film is a down-on-his-luck, motorcycle riding, fresh out of rehab Chef trying to make a comeback howeve, first he must master master sous-vide in order to create cuisine worthy of his ultimate goal - three Michelin stars! The film's soundtrack even features a 24 second "song" by Cooper entitled, "Ode to a Sous Vide." Clearly, the technique left an impression!Advantages of sous-vide include food's ability to remain succulent, since it retains its natural aromas and juices which would otherwise be lost during traditional cooking methods. Overcooking is less likely since the temperature of the water bath is precisely monitored and food does not generally exceed the set temperature. Because sous-vide utilizes an air-tight pouch during the cooking process, cooked items can also be refrigerated for extended periods of time as long as they remain sealedDisadvantages of sous-vide include the cost of equipment which can be upwards of $300 and the inability of the technique to "brown" meats (aka the Maillard reaction) which can only be achieved by pre- or post-searing. Because lower temperatures are used, cooking can take many hours and safety is also a concern since certain bacteria can propagate at these lower temperatures. Fооd сооkеd and served wіthin a fеw hоurѕ іѕ considered ѕаfе but fооd сооkеd for longer periods muѕt achieve a tеmрerature of over 135 dеgrееѕ for about 4 hours in order to prevent any harmful bacteria from growing.Cooking temperatures and times vary widely depending on the item being cooked and the desired end result. A protein such as an egg or steak will have a very different protocol than vegetables, which can also be successfully cooked sous-vide, remaining firm and crisp in the process. Sоmе thіn сutѕ оf meat such аѕ fіѕh may only cook for mіnutеѕ while certain cuts of rеd mеаt саn take 2-3 days. Thomas Keller's cookbook, "Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide," is an excellent resource for anyone interested in learning more about this cooking method and if you're interested in implementing it at home, please click here for a sous-vide cooker we really like and highly recommend.I hope you enjoyed our new Foodie Phrases segment and if there's a word you'd like to learn more about, please leave it in the comment section below. I'd love to hear from you!Bon appétit,
Super-chef Vongerichten goes Korean in new series
The dollop of spicy hot-pepper paste is hard to turn down, coming as it does from the blender of Jean-Georges Vongerichten, one of the best-known chefs in the world, not to mention the owner of 31 restaurants and the man known for basically revolutionizing fine dining in New York.
And we’re in his own home kitchen, yet. So the pinky-finger slurp is gratefully accepted. “Full flavor, no?” he asks. That’s an understatement.
Vongerichten is famous for the variety of his dishes and the magic he creates by mixing unusual and exotic flavors. But today, in an airy, open kitchen that looks out over a pond in suburban Waccabuc, N.Y., what’s being served is outside his comfort zone and experience: Korean food, prepared not by him but by his wife, Marja.
In July, “Kimchi Chronicles,” hosted by the Korean-born Marja, debuts nationwide on public television. (Marja’s husband will be her celebrity sidekick.) The show is part travelogue, part cooking show, and aims to introduce viewers to a cuisine that, while on the rise, has yet to make strong inroads in the United States.
Even Vongerichten himself, whose empire includes 10 restaurants in New York alone, among them his flagship Jean Georges and the Asian-themed Spice Market, spent five formative years in Asia but was still unfamiliar with Korean cuisine until recently.
“I didn’t know anything about it until I met Marja,” he says. His wife of six years has been cooking Korean more and more since the show got under way, vying for kitchen space with her husband.
There are a number of reasons Korean food has not become nearly as prominent in the United States as some other Asian cuisines. Most Korean restaurants are small places in Koreatowns geared toward native Koreans, says Wendy Chan, a food consultant who has worked to introduce the cuisine to Americans. There’s little explanation of the menu and often perfunctory service, she says.
But it’s also the nature of the food itself that’s difficult for Americans to understand, even if they may have encountered kimchi (spicy cabbage), or barbecue or bibimbap, a bowl of rice with stir-fried vegetables, and often meat and an egg on top.
“People are confused,” says Chan. “They go into a restaurant and before they even order, they’re presented with a dozen different little dishes. These little side dishes - maybe vegetables of the day or pickles of the day - are very important in Korean cuisine. But they confuse people - often there isn’t even a name for them.”
Also, many people mistakenly assume all Korean food is spicy and red - like the gochujang, or hot pepper paste, that Marja Vongerichten has prepared today, a Korean staple used to give zest to countless dishes, almost like a ketchup. But that’s inaccurate, says Chan.
A big hope for Korean cuisine in America, she notes, is the rise of several Korean-born chefs introducing their talents to the restaurant world: David Chang, for example, at Momofuku Ko in Manhattan, Akira Back at Yellowtail in Las Vegas, and Roy Choi, known for his Korean taco truck in Los Angeles.
There’s also a well-orchestrated effort by the South Korean government to aggressively promote Korean cuisine in the United States. At this summer’s Fancy Food Show in Washington, D.C. the Korean section will be the largest of any Asian cuisine, says Chan, and will include a pop-up Korean restaurant.
Indeed, the South Korean government is among the sponsors of “Kimchi Chronicles,” says executive producer Charlie Pinsky, a longtime producer of TV food shows. He explains that the idea for the show came one evening at dinner at Jean Georges with some Korean businessmen.
“We suddenly realized Marja was the ideal person to host, and with her husband they made a great team,” he says. “And her personal story was perfect.”
For 13 episodes, Marja Vongerichten and the crew made two long visits to South Korea (her husband came on one of them.) Each episode focuses on one key element of Korean cuisine - such as rice - and involves trips to markets, restaurants or homes. An accompanying cookbook, “The Kimchi Chronicles,” provides recipes adapted for the American palette.
But back to that personal story: Marja was born to a U.S. soldier and a Korean mother. She was adopted at age 3 by a northern Virginia couple.
At 20, then a student, she tracked down her birth mother, who had settled in Brooklyn with an American husband. When Marja (then named Marja Allen) got the phone number, she stared at it for hours. Then she called, and her mother fainted straight away on the phone.
Marja flew up to New York and reunited with her mother, who, as mothers do, immediately fed her - Korean food, of course. “All these flavors came back to me,” she says.
In her Westchester kitchen, Marja Vongerichten takes out some sushi rice and rinses it it will accompany the chicken dish she is serving, dak bokkeum, basically chicken in a big pot with carrots, onion, potatoes, and lots of gochujang. Her husband picks up the lid of a pot steaming on the stove and beckons: “You have to smell this,” he says.
He’s also making sure no one is hungry or thirsty as they wait. “The chicken will take an hour - how about some strawberries and cream?” he asks those standing around the kitchen, starting to whip the cream already. That snack will be accompanied by espresso, and then later a little sake.
Finally Marja’s chicken is served, in two firepots, one version exiting a bit spicier than the other. “Hot pepper is good for losing weight,” notes Diana Kang, co-executive producer and a food expert on Korea.
The stew is accompanied by Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s perfectly prepared asparagus. A friend tries to dump several stalks, willy-nilly, onto the chef’s plate “No,” his wife says of her famously exacting husband. “He won’t accept it that way.” She lines up a few stalks, just so.
Over in another room, the couple’s young daughter is eating Chinese takeout with a friend - “this is a little too spicy for her,” acknowledges her mother, although she does frequently cook Korean for her daughter.
Marja Vongerichten hopes viewers will learn from her show that Korean food is much more diverse and interesting - “a whole culture,” she says - than they thought.
“I hope people get more adventurous,” she says. “I hope they learn that Korean food is more than just barbecue and bibimbap.”