Archive for the ‘Food Alert Trends’ Category

2012 Top Five Food Trends That Are Now Permanent

Posted 31 Dec 2011 — by S.E.
Category Food Alert Trends

Wegman’s Supermarket

Culinary Science: The modernist cooking movement, mostly driven by Modernist Cuisine patron Nathan Myhrvold and coauthor Chris Young has energized a changed craft where culinary science reigns supreme. This isn’t molecular gastronomy, it is the chemistry and physics of food that underlies all we do in the kitchen. Chefs are using the science of cooking along with an improved understanding of agriculture and nutrition to innovate and improve their practice.

Small City High Quality: As a national traveller there was a time when it was hard to find great fine food in smaller markets like St. Louis, Orlando, Birmingham, Denver, Salt Lake and Phoenix. Today, there are excellent restaurants in these and other small markets that mirror the major national food cities like Chicago, San Francisco and New York in quality and relative creativity. A good example is ChoLon bistro in Denver where Chef Lon Symensma performs his trade. After working with Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Steven Starr at Buddakan in New York Symensma could have found a home in New York but chose Denver as his new home base further elevating the food scene in that city. Chef Kevin Nashan is doing the same in St. Louis at Sidney St. Cafe. What a wonderful evolution.

Chef Inspired Culinary Media: According to some, food is second only to sex in occupying the human mind. The decade long radical expansion of food related media and entertainment commercializes this phenomenon but is all too often driven by media executives who are outside the realm of the professional chef. In 2011 chefs continued to create their own media opportunities and it is likely that some will continue to grab hold of and direct media in the year to come. A good example is the emergence of David Chang and writer Peter Meehan’s irreverent food journal Lucky Peach. Chang, the incredibly gifted (both in an out of the kitchen) owner of the Momo Fuku empire attracted Anthony Bourdain as film critic and some of the best chefs in the country contribute recipes. It’s worth a subscription. I also like the videos chefs like Mark Ladner (del Posto) and  Daniel Humm (Eleven Madison Park) post on YouTube. Makes me wish YouTube would create a food channel of its own so these videos are easier to find.  

Quality Chef Driven Food Manufacturing: In case you missed it, the products manufactured under the brand name of chefs like Emeril Lagasse, Mario Batali and Norman Love have earned first place in their respective categories as noted by Consumer Reports magazine. Emeril’s cookware even out ranked (paced first) the Culinary Institute of America’s line of cookware (placed last) in Consumer Reports. This emerging trend suggests that professional chefs have moved beyond simple brand marketing and co-packing of products and are focused on producing high quality food products and hard goods that consumers will genuinely appreciate. Perhaps the era of simply selling a face is giving way to a real focus on quality.

Fine Supermarket Prepared Food: To be sure, I listed the supermarket trend last year and thought it was maturing. However, just when it appeared that supermarkets had fully evolved their prepared foods departments Wegman’s, a regional chain in the North East, raised the bar an developed a massive high end global food court with hundreds of seats and amenities and rolled out the concept to huge success. Supermarkets like Wegman’s are leveraging their brand position, buying power and raw ingredient costs, vertical integration, culinary talent and product quality to produce restaurant quality food on location. According to insiders, the revenue per square foot earned in these high end prepared foods departments exceeds most other departments in the supermarket and the trend to push food preparation up front so its visible to customers (think chefs in whites cooking as you watch) is driving sales growth. Keep an eye on supermarkets in 2012, they have the revenue and resources to push into foodservice even deeper, much deeper than even I predicted in 2011.

2012 Top Five Food Items and Ingredients

Posted 31 Dec 2011 — by S.E.
Category Food Alert Trends

Mark Ladner’s Vitello Tonnato

Hand Rolled Rustic Pasta (Strozzapreti, Trofie, etc):  Menus across the country feature these simple, fresh pasta preparations and it is the simplicity in preparation and diversity these pasta’s allow that drive the expansion of their use. My favorite rustic pasta dish of the past year is Barbara Lynch’s Rabbit Strozzapreti at Sportello in Boston. Look for these rustic pastas on more restaurant menus in 2012

Cauliflower: Cauliflower is making a comeback. Michael Solomonov at Zahav serves it as a Mezze and fries it crispy with chive oil, mint and garlic. Rasika in Washington D.C. prepares traditional cauliflower (Ghobi) Manchurian Calcutta style with spicy Chinese sauce so delicious you won’t want to share. Chefs are serving it pureed with garlic, olive oil and lemon until silky smooth, roasting it, and slicing it whole to cook sous vide. The mundane is now interesting.

Sablefish and Clean Oysters: Sablefish (Black Cod) is a sustainable seafood species mostly found on the west coast that has gained traction on menus from Seattle to Chicago. With a light white flake, wonderful rich flavor and firm texture Sablefish is a leader in the seafood category. My favorite of the year was the Black Cod prepared by Chef Jason Freney at Canlis in Seattle. In addition to Sable Fish clean oysters are the rage. Ever since American Mussel Harvesters figured out a way to eliminate bacteria from shellfish by soaking them in sterilized running sea water for 24-48 hours the results have been industry changing. Back in October I feasted on a raw bar buffet of AMH’s oysters along with Chef Thomas Keller at an event in Newport Rhode Island. Keller was inspired to hear how AMH purges the oysters and a week later connected his culinary director at Bouchon with AMH’s sales office. The increased safety of these oysters and clams is motivation enough to pay the slightly higher cost.  

Vitello Tonnato: This veal and tuna dish is old school Italian and gained popularity after Sam Sifton wrote a story about the dish in the times back in August 2011. Over the past couple of years I found the dish on occasion usually at an established Italian restaurant in one of the larger metropolitan markets but it wasn’t until I visited Del Posto and sampled Mark Ladner’s version back in May 2011 that I gained a full appreciation. On my second visit to Del Posto, I had the dish again and it was even better. This is a fantastic dish and I a wonderful alternative to the ubiquitous Ahi tuna on so many menus, a fish that is often treated with carbon monoxide to prevent discoloration. Look for more Mediterranean and Italian restaurants to copy Del Posto in the coming year.

Offal:  One of the best dishes that I sampled in 2011 was the venison heart that Chef Alex Talbot of Ideasinfood.com served during the 2011 Star Chefs conference in New York. Talbot seasoned and cooked the heart at 57c in water bath for nine hours, cooled, cleaned, and trimmed the hearts and sautéed them. Served with charred pecan topping, they were delicious. I also had fantastic duck hearts at Zahev and lovely Ciccioli at Baccalone in San Francisco. Offal is making a comeback and this time chefs know what they are doing. Chef Chris Cosentino of Baccalone and Incanto fame in San Francisco told me that his definitive work on the subject (offal) will be published by Williams Sonoma in March 2012. Look for increased interest from chefs and consumers alike.

2012 Top Five Emerging Food Trends

Posted 31 Dec 2011 — by S.E.
Category Food Alert Trends

2013 Culinary Trends

2012 ~ The Year When Cooking will Really Matter

Cooking: This is a simple and self-evident trend but it is worth unpacking; cooking matters more than ever. The best restaurants in the country demand that new cooks demonstrate excellent culinary technique before a permanent job offer is made. This has been the case for years but outside the fine-dining segment of the market the demand for culinary skill depended on the restaurant segment and ownership philosophy. This has changed as high-end chefs enter the full-service and fast-casual markets where culinary skill was often secondary to efficiency. These chefs have brought culinary talent and scratch cooking with them and flipped the regional and national chains,, business that for years have selected centralized manufacturing and efficiency on their head. In turn, this has put pressure on local operators and regional and national chains to invest more in on premise cooking and culinary talent. Major companies like Sodexho and Compass Group have also taken notice and understand that there is a direct link between the craft of cooking that occurs on site and other major consumer-driven demands like sustainability and nutrition. Those that promote local onsite scratch cooking benefit from an expanded web of cooks who bring broader perspectives and potential innovation to the organization while meeting the needs of customers. Operators large and small, fine and fast recognize and are investing in cooking again. Let’s hope this continues.

Digital Culinary Networks E.G.: Kitchit and Trace & Trust: Social networking is old news but the use of web-based networking continues to gain ground in foodservice. One of my favorite examples of this is Trace and Trust a digital network of fisherman, distributors, fish processors and restaurants. The key to Trace and Trusts business model is the ability to track fresh seafood from the exact location where it is harvested all the way to a restaurants back door. This is the precise and trusted supply chain control chefs required to assure the seafood they buy is properly and locally harvested. Another example is Kitchit, the new online network connecting consumers hosting an event with a personal chef and/or caterer online. Kitchit is the brain child of a small group of Stanford graduate students and the reaction from the professional culinary community has been unusually positive. Look for expanded use of Trace and Trust and Kitchit to expand beyond San Francisco to a city near you in 2012.

Celebrity Chef Casual Gourmet/Take Out: Celebrity chefs have moved well past the fine dining segment of the foodservice marketplace and continue to launch casual restaurants with fine food. Some of my favorite examples this past year include Jody Adam’s Trade in Boston and Billy Kim’s growing “Belly Shack” group in Chicago. Epicerie Boulud, Chef Daniel Boulud’s market and take out shop on Broadway at 64th in the city is another example. Customers want great fast food produced by chefs (brand names) they can trust. Chefs, in turn, understand that money is to be made in the emerging casual gourmet market and that they own the night when it comes to integrity and customer loyalty. As Billy Kim recently said “there’s nothing wrong with making money if you are going to work so hard”!

Performance Cuisine: Performance cuisine, cuisine engineered to meet the strict dietary and athletic performance demands of specific clients without any loss in appeal is going to expand in 2012. For years Bachelor of Science in Culinary Nutrition graduates of Johnson & Wales University have been hired to act as personal chefs to celebrities and athletes because each has the unique skills and knowledge required to produce foods that yield dietary performance without sacrificing sensory quality. One graduate shared that Madonna’s performance based diet while on tour was regimented and as disciplined as her work out routines. Another colleague and former chef to the LA Lakers gave me insight into the challenges he faced meeting the specific performance based dietary needs of team members (Kobe ate differently than Pau). But the driving trend behind performance cuisine in the coming year will come from the impact the Arrillaga Family Dining Commons that recently opened at Stanford University will have. The Arrillaga commons features performance and wellness cuisine developed in partnership between Stanford Atheltics, the Stanford Medical School and the Culinary Institute of America. This isn’t an echo of the neutri-ceutical movement of the 1990’s it’s a full-fledged trend toward informed food choices based on wellness and performance needs and at Stanford thousands of performance meals will be served each year. Perhaps Stanford will see an increase in the number of wins across all athletic teams in 2012 due to improved food choices.

Understanding the Senses:  Dr. Rachel Herz, an author and researcher on smell, emotion, and cognition, opened my mind to the sensory sciences after we spent a couple hours talking at a recent lunch. Her work has many applications to the culinary world; so much of what we do links sensory experiences with emotion. Additional recent research conducted by Dr. Jeff Woodbury at the University of Wyoming allows sensory biologists to map the neural network our senses employ when activated by an input for the first time in history. As we learn more about how the sense work chefs will surely use this new found knowledge to advance the craft. It is likely that 2012 will bring deeper knowledge about how the senses of touch, smell, and taste function. It wouldn’t be surprising if chefs use this new knowledge to their advantage in 20212, 2013 and beyond.

The Top Five High-End Supermarkets of the Year

Posted 23 Dec 2011 — by S.E.
Category Food Alert Trends

Over the past twelve months I’ve had the privilege of visiting and studying dozens of supermarkets throughout the country during my travels. From the Market Basket in Chelsea Massachusetts  to the Piggly Wiggly in Enterprise Alabama to the Safeway just up from the embarcadero in San Francisco I have visited a range of markets in some delightful and less than desirable destinations. It is clear that geographic and demographic factors highly influence the quality and types of food sold. Locations with a solid middle and upper-class customer base attract supermarket retailers at the higher end of the scale and these higher-end markets are blurring the line between the traditional definition of a supermarket and that of a quick service restaurant. Late last winter I started to focus on these high-end supermarket retailers paying visits to national and local high-end markets whenever the opportunity presented itself. My interest includes the prepared foods department, fresh seafood, meats and produce. After a year of visits and contemplation, I offer the following power ranking of my top five high-end supermarket retailers based on the quality of prepared and fresh foods offered. To be sure, the markets listed below are massive businesses. Even the smaller regional players like Harris Teeter are billion dollar revenue generators. With $4 billion in sales and only 200 stores, Harris Teeter is roughly half the size of Wendy’s restaurant chain. And these high-end markets are just starting to flex their foodservice muscles.  I can’t wait to see what 2012 brings in this fast growing and fast improving retail category.

#5 Trader Joes:  Nation Wide

Trader Joe’s is fantastic and is a category leader when it comes to individually quick frozen single portion prepared entrees. The company also leads the high-end supermarket category when it comes to retailing foods with globally influenced flavors. The company stays ahead of its competition by sending buyers around the globe on an ongoing basis to explore flavors, new products and emerging food trends. What I like best: IQF individually portioned prepared meat and seafood entrees with global flavors.

#4 Whole Foods: Nation Wide

Whole Foods: The Best Fresh Fish, Natural Food Buffet

Whole Foods is the category leader in natural and organic foods and was one of the original innovators in retail to dedicate a high proportion of retail square footage to prepared foods. The range of items offered at each prepared food station and within the hot and cold buffets is excellent. If I am in the mood for quinoa or tofu, its awlays avaialble. As I travel the country and visit Whole Foods outlets in various cities the lunch hour crowd shopping the prepared foods department appears to be from a common demographic. It appears that Whole Foods attracts a certain crowd. Although I tend to purchase my natural and organic items from alternative retails who are a bit more sensible when it comes to price there is one product category that I purchase almost exclusively at Whole Foods: fresh and prepared (ready to cook) seafood. There are excellent competitors in the high-end supermarket category but none handle seafood on a national level as well as Whole Foods. What I like best: Fresh, whole skin-on salmon, arctic char or skinless boneless halibut fillets. From Bellevue Washington to Bellingham Massachusetts the fish at Wholefoods is absolutely fresh.

#3: Harris Teeter: Mid-Atlantic

Harris Teeter: The Best Simple Scratch Food

The prepared foods, meat and seafood section at Harris Teeter was a sleeper for years until the company began to transition to higher quality back in the 1990’s. It wasn’t until I visited the new Arlington Virginia store that the full impact of Harris Teeter’s evolution really struck me. With more than 200 stores and $4 billion in sales, Harris Teeter is a regional powerhouse in the prepared foods category.  Walking the Arlington store, which is surely the prototype for future outlets in affluent urban locations, it is immediately apparent that the layout and design was well thought out.  The square footage dedicated to prepared foods, hot deli, salad and specialty stations is higher compared to most competitors and the layout itself is a study in good merchandising. Although outstanding in quality, Harris Teeter doesn’t menu the same range of unique high end prepared foods other competitors offer. To keep things simple I sample a slice of pizza followed by sushi. Both are freshly prepared and excellent if not simple. What I like best: the $5 one entrée two sides meal solution package, the sushi bar and fresh and prepared seafood department.

#2 Uwajimaya: Washington State

Uwajimaya: The Best Asian Prepared Foods, Fresh Shellfish

Uwajimaya is the high-end supermarket you have probably never heard of. The reason it’s included as part of my top five list is due to the quality of fresh meats and seafood and Asian prepared foods offered at each of the four outlets in Washington State. Compared to the others on this list, Uwajimaya has a smaller prepared foods footprint but the market has the finest, most extensive line of fresh seafood and Asian ingredients of any market in the country. Like smaller markets in Asian neighborhoods throughout many cities in the US and Canada, Uwajimaya has a huge tank full of live fish. However, there are very few markets (small or large) in the US that have the sophisticated salt water circulation tanks with fresh oysters and clams that Uwajimaya does. My idea of the perfect prepared food is a half dozen fresh shucked oysters and that’s exactly what I had at Uwajimaya (three Totten Inlet and three Hama Hama) and they were perfect.

Hot Buffet

Then I wandered over to the sashimi station and bought a three ounce pack of sliced Hamachi followed by some sliced pork belly (Buta Kakuni). I love this place. The food is awesome, the fish fresher than any market in the country and the selection unique for a market of this size. What I like best: The outstanding quality of the hot prepared foods (especially the pork belly), the grab and go bento boxes, artisan fresh sashimi, and fresh-out-of-the-water oysters.

#1 Wegmans: Northeast

Wegmans: The Best Prepared Foods Departent in the Country

Wegmans earns my top spot in the high-end supermarket category for their continual innovation and improvement in prepared food quality each time a new store opens. This company is always pushing the envelope. The newer stores feature a prepared foods department (a food court really) integrated with the fresh meat and seafood departments, bakery and beverage. The massive food court includes seating for more than 100 people and each seating area has its own large screen television; find me another market with seating as nice!

The food court features hot and cold buffets with varying themes including Asian, Vegetarian, Chicken Wings, and dim sum. Flanking the food court there’s a bakery with more than a dozen artisan breads and a twenty linear feet of fresh pastries, all prepared in the massive scratch bakery just behind the display. Wegmans has the best pastry and bread of any supermarket retailer in the country. During my last visit, the seafood crew put a whole swordfish on display right in the center of the store. Talk about fresh! Wegmans’ corporate chefs are some of the most highly qualified professionals in the industry and the product on display is a result of this talent. What I like best: the steamed pork bun, fresh prepared seafood, beef and chicken entrees, sushi, pastry and bread.

 Fresh Whole Swordfish on Display

Perfect Whoopie Pie Display

Mumbai Chopstix – Indian Chinese Food in Boston

Posted 30 Nov 2011 — by S.E.
Category Food Alert Trends

Indian food is absolutely fantastic and I crave it regularly since being introduced to the cuisine by a fellow Doctoral student I worked with from Mumbai back in the 1990’s. She organized a workspace and meals during group projects at a small Indian restaurant called Rangoli and, over the three years we studied together, I sampled everything on the menu a least twice (they had the best Dosa). It was such a fantastic experience exploring the complex yet nuanced flavor combinations and ethnic influences. My friend provided an ongoing lesson in Indian geography, history and cultural diversity as we ate our way around the country from our seats. However, she never discussed nor did we eat examples of Indian Chinese food.  

It wasn’t until much later when I started working with a colleague from Calcutta that I learned about Indian Chinese food and its evolution in that city after large numbers of Hakka, an ethnic group from southwest China, migrated to work in the Calcutta region bringing their cuisine and food preferences with them.  Over the centuries the Chinese adapted their culinary traditions to local ingredients, cooking techniques and flavor preferences creating a fusion cuisine unique in the world. Calcutta’s Sino-Indian minority continued to grow and intermarry with the local population while establishing a large “Chinatown” that still thrives today. As a young girl my friend would visit her favorite Indian Chinese restaurant with family members and order the Gobhi Manchurian, a dish of crispy fried cauliflower florets coated in a spicy and tangy soy, ginger and chili garlic sauce.  When she describes the Gobhi Manchurian her chocolate brown eyes grow wide with delight and a smile comes to her face. As a fellow food lover her descriptions of Indian Chinese food peaked my interest from the very beginning.

Then in 2010, Mumbai Chopstix opened in Boston providing locals and visitors like me an opportunity to sample what is surely an Americanized version of the Indian Chinese cuisine I have heard so much about.  The restaurant is located on Newbury Street halfway between Gloucester and Fairfield Streets and seats approximately 65 guests. My first visit in 2010 was a reconnaissance mission to find the place and see the interior. During that visit I ordered the Gohbi Manchurian as a snack. Although delicious, (I had better at Rasika in Washington DC) my purpose today isn’t to review Mumbai Chopstix as much as it is to ponder the way food evolves and intermingles across specific ethnic populations and geographic regions. That southwestern Chinese ethnic cooking merged with the culinary traditions of Calcutta resulting in a totally unique cuisine fascinates me. There are so many examples of this type of fusion and evolution today that I question whether the few distinct ethnic cuisines that exist now will eventually become extinct as globalization and cultural cross pollination continues apace.

Mumbai Chopstix is a good example of this. The cauliflower used for the Gohbi was probably from the USA and could even have been grown locally in Massachusetts. It certainly wasn’t from India or China. It is likely that most of the other ingredients used in the dish were either locally or domestically grown although if prepared sauce was used it could easily have come from India or China and it is highly likely that some of the spices and chili peppers used were from India proper. Uproot a cuisine from its place of origin like Calcutta, move it to Boston and use domestic ingredients and the cuisine has changed even if you use the correct method of preparation and equipment. Place matters when it comes to cooking.  More important, the customer base I observed at Mumbai Chopstix was extremely diverse and, as such, will gradually influence the menu via their purchasing patterns in a way that is different compared to operating the exact same concept in a location serving a more homogeneous population. It is probable that the Americanized version of Indian Chinese food offered at restaurants like Mumbai Chopstix will mutate into its own form due to factors such as ingredients, customer preferences, and the availability of qualified culinary talent to prepare the cuisine. Even though the Indian Chinese food in this country will be different from the original back in India it will still be delicious.

Indian Chinese food is fantastic. It is dissimiar to the classic Indian cuisine found in most major cities in America and represents an interesting evolution where American diners who were once suspect of something deemed as exotic as Indian cuisine are now comfortable enough with it that demand is rising for regional cuisines of India. I guess we have graduated to the next level when it comes to this massive and complex cuisine. Perhaps next we will see an Indian Portuguese restaurant that features the cuisine of the fantastic Indian western port city of Goa.  I could spend the next decade eating my way across India, such a fantastic, complex and diverse country with an equally fantastic and diverse cuisine!

Crispy Fried Duck Marinated in Indian Five Spice and Ginger

Sweet & Sour Pork with Lychee, Peppers and Onions

Honey Chili Chicken with Sweet Spicy Gravy

Mumbai Chopstix

254 Newbury Street

Boston, MA 02116

617-927-4444

Chef Massimo Bottura Observed

Posted 21 Oct 2011 — by S.E.
Category Fine Dining, Food Alert Trends, Full Service

Massimo Bottura is hustling back and forth in front of a draped stainless steel work table just minutes before his presentation is to begin.  The scheduled start time arrives and passes and, after another few minutes, he looks up. It’s obvious that Bottura is improvising and riffing in the kitchen and that he runs on his own schedule. My purpose is to spend the next 90 minutes with fifteen other participants observing Bottura’s mastery and getting into the head of one of the leading avant-garde chefs in all of Italy. This is the next best thing to dining at Bottura’s two Michelin star Osteria Francescana in Modena. Lucky for me his English is excellent.

There is no introduction on his part or any sort of overview of where we are headed. Instead he launches right into philosophy illuminating his emotional connection to Cotechino sausage with lentils, the traditional New Year’s Eve dish in Italy. His expression softens as he explains that lentils, according to tradition, represent the coins of wealth to be won in the coming year and how the dish triggers emotional memories of his youth and grandmother in particular. I am curious where he is headed with this. He turns, looks my way, stops and lets out his first nugget “you have to learn everything and then forget everything to create something incredible.” Bottura has one culinary hand connected to the past and one reaching toward the future.

He suggests that his dishes are an evolution rather than a revolution. They are drawn from many things including prior experiences in life, from his youth, from emotional events, from love. I connect the dots and realize that his passion for food started in his youth and that everything he envisions in rooted in this past. When you pair emotion and passion with mastery of fundamental and modern culinary technique the avante garde origin of Bottura’s cuisine is found. Evolution requires that you feed your heart, feed your soul and engage in tradition while redefining convention.

At this point Bottura lifts a small yellow ball between his thumb and index finger. It’s an immature egg found only in the visceral cavity of a dressed laying hen. When he was young, Bottura and his brothers would compete to secure the immature eggs inside hens being prepared for their family meal. He was fond of eating these little golden gems and today experiments with them as a receptacle for containing flavors. In a startling display of elegant simplicity Bottura’s assistant places an immature egg on a tiny white porcelain pedestal and draws out the liquid in the center using a large stainless steel syringe and replaces it with a fresh injection of Prosciutto di Parma ham broth ~ ham and eggs. They are delicious and representative of Bottura’s approach. Start with an item with deep significance, one that when eaten evokes memories and emotion, and innovate from there.

Next Bottura begins making ravioli with lentils and Cotechino while explaining that the ravioli is nothing more than a vessel for serving ideas.  He explains that questions are constantly flowing through his head “how can I make this, how can I do that?” He is constantly grinding and processing ideas and this is part of why Bottura is so different. He has mastered the techniques of critical reflection and problem solving and uses them both to create and innovate. Are these the skills of the modern chef?

Handing me ravioli, Bottura explains that his final point is leadership. A great two Michelin star restaurant like his runs on the backs of a large group of people committed to his vision. He is nothing without his team and assures that his success isn’t about him, it’s about his team. His point is sound; a great chef can’t do it alone. A chef must be able to lead and have followers willing to join or all the mastery of technique, professional experience and emotion are lost.  I suck down the ravioli and it is delicious. Bottura looks me in the eye, scans the rest of the people standing with me and explains that the ravioli reminds him of the ones he learned to make when he was a young boy.  Then he lets out his final snippet of philosophy:  “modern cuisine is about emotion as much as it is technique. For this I put my grandmother between meand Adria.” How cool is that.

 

Chef Massimo Bottura

Osteria Francescana

Via Stella 22, Modena 41100, Italy

Aviary & Office ~ Chicago, IL

Posted 26 Aug 2011 — by S.E.
Category Fine Dining, Food Alert Trends

Cloudy Grey Chicago

It’s one of those warm comfortable yet rainy evenings when the air is dry enough to evaporate within minutes the droplets that rest on the surface of my lightly moistened blue sport coat. I am in Chicago and the sun is straining to break through the smoky gray clouds just over my head. Out of pure luck and a true comedy of errors I unexpectedly find myself in line just outside of Aviary, Chef Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas’ widely regarded gastro-bar on West Fulton Market. It’s a Saturday night and I am alone surrounded by a group of polished, beautiful people waiting to enter the hippest bar in the country. They have reservations. I do not.

 

Outside Aviary & Office

It’s a funny story really. A friend and I agree to meet on short notice in Chicago for a quick drive to Iowa for some personal business. He departs his airport at 5:00 pm and I depart my airport at 5:00pm, we assume our arrival times are identical. I land at 6:00 pm and text him to see where he is and find that he hasn’t left yet and is just arriving at his airport. For a split second I am confused then I laugh. Like knuckleheads we both failed to take into consideration the time zone difference between us. His 5:00 pm departure will put him in Chicago at 8:00 pm; I now have two hours of precious time to spare. We both joke via text at our mutual lack of mindfulness. Shortly after he texts me back and asks which airport I landed at, O’Hare or Midway. Of course I am at Midway and he is headed to O’Hare which is 45 minutes to the north. This is getting ridiculous. I agree to grab a rental car and head north to O’Hare to meet him.  Thirty minutes later I am headed out to route 55 on my way to O’Hare when he texts me again, he’s delayed for two hours and wont land until 10:00 in the evening. Now I have just over three hours of found time to kill. Without hesitation I key the address for Aviary into my GPS and head into town (admit it, you would do the same).

The Bird Cage at Aviary

I pull to the curb on West Fulton Market.  Aviary is around here somewhere. There is no sign, nor is there a street number on the building that I can see. The line of people standing in front of an entrance to a brick commercial building at the corner of West Fulton Market and North Morgan Street clues me in.  Walking the wide sidewalk lined with hard plastic seating and neatly trimmed arborvitae, I approach a gentleman keeping watch just in front of the door with a clip board in his hand and a secret service ear piece in his ear. The doorman asks for my name, scanning his reservation list. I give him my name and inform him that I don’t have a reservation. He smiles and radios in to dispatch that he has a single walk-up at the door and departs to speak with the next group of guests. Fifteen minutes later I am inside sitting at a large high-backed upholstered banquette surrounded by the same beautiful people who were waiting outside with me just moments ago.

Cocktail Kitchen

Aviary is dimly lit inside. The interior is sultry, minimalist, and sexy more than romantic. To the right of the entrance is a steel cage with seating on one side and the kitchen on the other, this must be the bird cage. The space is chic, modern, monochromatic, and runs with a steady air of exclusivity and the prices to go with it. Like Alinea, there’s a prix fixe cocktail menu (3 drinks for $45) and drinks sold a la carte. The range of cocktail options is wide, from a classic Margarita with agave, Fresno chili, and rare tequila to a contemporary peach cocktail with maple sap, angostura, white port, and wheat whiskey. Food selections are limited to a list of ten “bites” which are actually small hors d’ oeuvres sold in groups of three (between $3 and $5 each).

A Peek at NEXT

I order the Margarita to get things started and it exceeds my expectations. The balance between the sweet agave and sour lime is contrasted by the time-released heat of the Fresno chili which is encapsulated in ice cubes and blends in as they melt. The more you drink,the less liquid in the glass, the greater the proportion of melting ice, the spicier the drink (how cool is that). And that’s the point. Aviary is an amazing place because it is so well thought out. From the mysterious unmarked exterior to the polished high-end interior, Aviary reflects a deep level of planning and design. The kitchen and cocktail preparation area is unlike any that I have seen right down to the custom stainless work tables and curved drink wells. Innovation is manifest in every corner. I take a few more sips of my drink and set it aside (I have to drive later and need to take it easy).

The Secret Door to Office

After sampling a few “bites” I wrap things up and get ready to leave in an effort to remain conservative with my spending (one problem with Aviary is that it is ridiculously expensive). My server stops over and inquires whether I would like to visit the private, invitation only speak-easy located in the basement. It’s an offer I can refuse. The “Office” is a classic sixteen seat masculine feeling, leather and hard-wood bar and a stark contrast to Aviary. Taking a seat at the bar, I initiate what becomes an hour long discussion with the bar tender while sampling two more cocktails. I order a plate of Oysters (Island Creeks from Duxbury, MA) and they’re served with a plate of six essential oils in small glass bottles with stoppers. The essential oils are a simple innovation that adds tremendous flavor to the oyster without spoiling such a pure, flavorful food.

Island Creek Oysters, Essential Oils

Time running short and my wallet is now empty so I head back up the stairs and out the door. Reflecting on my time at Aviary and the Office it strikes me how well organized, efficient, and profitable this little corner of the culinary world is (including Next which is right next door). It isn’t a secret that running a fine dining restaurant like Alinea isn’t the most efficient way to make money. Aviary, the Office and Next absolutely are. Just as Alinea was a laboratory for Achatz to exercise his culinary genius, my guess is that Aviary, the Office and Next were deeply influenced by Kokonas’ expertise in making money, something he proved as a commodities trader in Chicago. Over the next 24-36 months Achatz and Kokonas will be flush with additional financial resources generated from the successful business model Aviary, Office and Next have become. With all those resources, I wonder what they will come up with next.

The Office Bar

~~~

 The Aviary & Office

953 W Fulton Market

Chicago, IL 60607

(312) 867-0110

http://www.theaviary.com/

La Laiterie: Three Reasons to Dine at a Restaurant Operated by a Rising Star

Posted 19 Jul 2011 — by S.E.
Category Fine Dining, Food Alert Trends

  

La Laiterie Bistro Dining Room

One of my favorite ways to experience great food is by visiting a restaurant owned by a chef whose reputation is on the rise. Matt Jennings, owner of La Laiterie and Farmstead in Providence, Rhode Island is such a chef. Jennings exhibits the three traits common among up-and-coming culinary talent; he is relentless when it comes to quality, extremely innovative, and present rather than absent on most nights at his restaurant (although he is known for hiring talent behind the stove to handle daily operations). You might think these traits are common at all great restaurants but this isn’t always the case.

Chef Matt Jennings and Chef Daniel Bolud outside the South Portico of the White House

When I first met Matt Jennings he was preparing food for a private catered event in Providence. His sleeve of tattoos reminded me of Jesse James, his size of Fernand Point. And like Point in his day, Jennings’ commitment to quality is relentless. The cheeses and salumi he served were impeccably sourced and he knew every detail about each one. He radiated emotion when speaking about certain items and explained how he was experimenting with raising his own Berkshire hogs to assure a level of consistency and quality for house-made salumi and sausage at La Laiterie. Jennings showed the same passion and commitment when I caught up with him on the south lawn of the Whitehouse in the fall of 2010. As I listened to him last October I imagined Jennings’ mind moving a mile-a-minute as he contemplates new sources and resources for food and ingredients in keeping with his mantra of honest, seasonal, handmade food. A chef who is on the rise never relaxes when it comes to ingredients and quality nor does he or she fail to produce food that is unique and innovative. Such a commitment is enduring.

 

Roasted Beet Salad, Sorrel, Pickled Beet Puree, Marcona Almonds

Innovation, in the broadest sense, means to modify something for the better; to renew or change. Jennings is one of the first chefs in Southern New England to innovate procurement of ingredients and to focus on sustainability. He and his wife and fellow chef Kate make sustainably sourced ingredients and quality a focal point at La Laiterie and have since it opened in 2006. As the restaurant has matured, the menu has evolved along with the artisan level ingredients used to produce each item. Although artisan sourcing and sustainability are not uncommon today, these practices were uncommon back in 2006 when Kate and Matt got their start. Their innovative sourcing practices have influenced a wide pool of culinary peers, this is something I really like. Another reason I like Jennings  is that he is consistently present.

 

Chestnut Trofie, Pumpkin Puree, Tallegio, Juniper, Crispy Garlic

Over the past year I have dined at more than two dozen nationally ranked restaurants where the executive chef was absent due to other commitments. What could be more important than supervising his or her own cuisine? Although I completely understand the expanded demands placed on a chef once the full attention of the public and the press is drawn it’s still disappointing to dine in a well know restaurant when the chef is absent.  Whenever I visit La Laiterie or Farmstead in Providence, Matt Jennings is there.

 

Arctic Char, Smoked Ham Broth, Autumn Vegetables, Chicarones, Manchego Cream, Shellfish

Jennings is representative of one of my favorite culinary communities, the growing number of rising star chefs in the U.S. If you visit a rising star it is likely you will discover each of the three reasons I list to be true. One way to find rising talent that is just emerging onto the national scene is to keep track of the chefs that populate the annual list of James Beard Award nominees published each March. Jennings earned a nomination this past March (2011) and I suspect he will eventually win a regional James Beard Award. Knowing Jennings, such an award will not change his approach to culinary arts, but there is always a risk.

Farmstead Counter

Three Reasons to Dine at a Restaurant Operated by a Rising Star Chef:

1)     A rising star chef relentlessly pursues quality because s/he burns with the desire to become a member of the community of varsity chefs in the U.S. as a matter of pride, professionalism, and accomplishment

2)     A rising star chef is innovative as a means for differentiating his/her self and as a strategy to uniquely satisfy the
ever-changing cravings of a public that is obsessed with food

3)     A rising star chef is consistently present rather than absent out of financial necessity and personal concern and commitment

 

La Laiterie Bistro

 184-188 Wayland Avenue

Providence, RI 02906

401-274-7177

Bistro C.V., Steamboat Springs, Colorado

Posted 26 Apr 2011 — by S.E.
Category Fine Dining, Food Alert Trends

Last month during a trip to Steamboat Springs Colorado I had an incredible meal at a fantastic restaurant called Bistro CV. I know its spring now and that pictures of mountains with snow are out of favor but I have to write about this place. Steamboat is known for its spectacular blue skies (see above!), winter Olympian Billy Kidd, and some of the best skiing in all of Colorado but food hasn’t been one of Steamboat’s strong suits until now. And Bistro CV holds up. I hope after the end of the mud season when summer truly kicks in, that the restaurant generates enough volume to survive and thrive in the years and seasons to come. It’s well worth the lengthy drive up from Denver.

Chef Brian Vaughn, a professional chef who has found his niche in Northwestern Colorado, studied culinary arts at Johnson & Wales University and met his lovely wife Katy in 2001 while she was a server at a restaurant they both worked at. Along the way Chef Vaughn worked in Coral Gables, FL with Chef Norman Van Aken and migrated to Chicago to work with Chef Charlie Trotter (one of Van Aken’s best friends). His food has a Chicago feel with modernist influences and I sense a bit of aesthetic from Avec, the fantastic earthy Chicago bistro, in the Marcona Almonds and La Quercia prosciutto, both of which are featured on the menu there.  Imagine, a bit of Chicago in Steamboat. Some will be shocked but I love it! You know the culinary arts are alive and well in America when a resort town like Steamboat starts to shift toward world class cuisine.

When I arrive at the restaurant it’s quiet with only one table of two seated. My first impression as I look around the dining room is that Bistro CV is a high-end husband and wife dream of a restaurant and the kind of place that every culinary student and young cook dreams of owning. It has a contemporary design, enough seating (more than 60) to make the place profitable in season, and a charming spirit that fills the high-end needs of a great mountain resort community. It doesn’t take long for the restaurant to begin filling up.

Half an hour later the restaurant is nearly full and my food starts to arrive. Perfect small plates of well prepared food find their way to my table. A fantastic chicken-chorizo pot pie in a small Staub cast iron container; a perfect pork belly with sous-vide egg, and an absolutely delicious Steelhead trout with sweet potato. Steamboat is more than 3 hours from Denver but if you hike, bike, fish, or ski, head to Steamboat and Bistro C.V.

Morgan Farms Lamb Carpaccio, Preserved Lemon-Truffle Relish, Pickled Maitake, Baby Herbs, Marcona Almonds

Grilled Romaine, Truffle-Garlic Dressing, Parmesan Custard, White Anchovy, Benton’s Ham

Chicken-Chorizo Pot Pie, Savory Corn Crust

Quinault RiverSteelhead Trout, Mashed Sweet Potato, Baby Turnips, La Quercia Prosciutto, Baby Radish, Lemon Vinaigrette

Molten Chocolate Cake with Fresh Marshmallow

Bostro C.V.

345 Loncoln Ave

Steamboat Springs, CO

80487

970.879.4197

Five Reasons Why “Modernist Cuisine” is The Most Important Culinary Book of the Decade

Posted 28 Feb 2011 — by S.E.
Category Food Alert Trends

The Five Reasons Why “Modernist Cuisine” is The Most Important Culinary Book of the Decade

Chef Maxime Bilet and Nathan Myhrvold plating a course

I am trailing a small group of people including food writers, professional chefs, and culinary educators, being led by Nathan Myhrvold through the varying nooks and crannies of his IVF laboratories in Bellevue, Washington.  Myhrvold, dressed in dark slacks and a stark white short-sleeved chef coat, is animated his voice pitching up an octave from time to time as he gets excited. He is showing us The Cooking Lab with all its technology, tools, and toys. It dawns on me that he is Willy Wonka and I am a very lucky Charlie Bucket. There are fourteen of us here tonight, each with a golden ticket. Our purpose is to experience a 28 course menu prepared by Myhrvold’s team in celebration of the release of Modernist Cuisine; a book authored by Myrvold and chefs Chris Young and Maxime Bilet. Myhrvold is showing us around the lab as a warm up to what will be a dinner of the century later in the evening. In the first room he shows us a microwave oven that he cut in half, magnetron tube and all, so it could be photographed for the book. Next, pink cheeks aglow and smiling with excitement, he shows us the electric plasma cutter he used to slice other pieces of equipment in half and a high powered water jet cutter where he custom fabricates all sorts of matter.  Why? Because he can!

Myhrvold shaves Sea Urchin “bottarga” for Pim Techamuanvivit while Chef David Kinch looks on.

I find him energized, brilliant, and immediately likeable, and intellectually one of the smartest (if not the smartest) person I have ever met. Myhrvold has invited a diverse group to this dinner and is completely aware of how amazed (and jealous I must admit) we are by his laboratory. Chef Sam Mason, former pastry chef at WD50 is to my left, tattoos bursting with color (he radiates cool), and the shy, extremely talented and kind David Kinch of Manresa is to my right, dapper in a blue sweater and knit scarf. Ahead of me, the legendary and statesmanlike Harold McGhee, the original curious cook, is peering at an electron microscope as global food expert and rock-star blogger Pim Techamuanvivit (Chez Pim)takes photos. In 2010 Fast Company called her one of the most influential women in technology. How the hell was I lucky enough to get on this list? Myhrvold passes by an electron microscope and a large printed image of what appears to be the roundworm Trichinella spiralisis taken using the device while researching content for Modernist Cuisine. I am floored that these folks have their own electron microscope and notice that Myhrvold is smiling at us. What fun!

Chef Sam Mason downs a glass of Foie Gras Egg Nog, Myhrvold to his right, Chef Chris Young to his left.

We turn another corner in the lab and make a loop back to the IVF kitchen where two tables of eight have been set for our dinner. Myhrvold wraps on a blue apron, explains that we will enjoy 28 courses that are intended to show the range of techniques and recipes featured in Modernist Cuisine rather than a menu focused on a logical progression of flavor (although that was a consideration too I am sure). We all sit excited with anticipation, and fasten our seat belts. It’s 6:45 P.M. PST and our first course is placed on the table: Asian pear, Watermelon and Spicy Pickle Chips. The pears, watermelon and pickles are sliced, coated with modified starch slurry, compressed in vacuum bags, removed from compression, patted dry and fried. I have never had crispy watermelon before and it’s delicious. The pickles are even better. My mind drifts for a moment as I look around at the other guests and realize we are in for a night.

Chef Maxime Bilet with centrifuged pea juice

The rest of the meal ebbs and flows from extremely simple items like the fourth course of grilled chicken skin glazed with pineapple and Sansho pepper (cooked sous vide for 12 hours prior to grilling, powerful chicken flavor, crisp, deeply savory, addictive) to the incredibly beautiful and complex thirteenth course of rare beef stew (an extraction of beef broth kept rare through separation in a commercial centrifuge poured over the most beautiful three Michelin star composition of garniture).

I provide detailed descriptions of the meal and with photos at http://satedepicure.com/2011/02/1365/.

It’s 10:34 PM now and I am chewing on the last of 28 courses: fresh made olive oil, vanilla, and thyme gummy worms. Myhrvold, radiating with positive energy, holds up the fish lure molds he used to make the gummy worms and explains the recipe to make them (for more buy the book). They are the best damn gummy worms I have ever had. I close my eyes for a second to soak in the moment and consider how blessed I am to be here. Every once in a while life comes to a complete stop and I realize that I am experiencing first hand significant moments in the evolution of our profession. Tonight is one of those nights and Myhrvold, Young, and Bilet, have sent us crashing through a glass ceiling of culinary practice. I hover in mid-air over his lab in Bellevue Washington looking down on the city below. My golden ticket still in hand, it is clear that the culinary profession will be profoundly changed by the tremendous gift Myhrvold and his team has given to the profession.

I offer below five simple reasons why Modernist Cuisine is the most important book of the decade. Note that I feel the five reasons listed are a gross understatement of the real value and importance of Modernist Cuisine.

The Modernist Cuisine team at The Cooking Lab

Reason 1: The Perspective and Intellect of Nathan Myhrvold

Myhrvold’s intellect is of a level and type unique in the world. He is one part Thomas Edison and another Auguste Escoffier. That food and cooking caught his attention and that Modernist Cuisine is the result is an enduring gift to the culinary profession. His perspective and intellect inform the many discoveries, schema, and taxonomy that appear in the book. Without Myhrvold’s mind as a lens, the new discoveries and syntheses of prior practice would not have achieved the level of innovation documented in the book. Nathan Myhrvold is the first reason why Modernist Cuisine is the culinary book of the decade and we should thank him for sharing his intellect, curiosity, and resources (he funded this work himself).

Reason 2: Modernist Cuisine Places Modern Cooking into the Context of Traditional Cooking

Modernist Cuisine is not about molecular gastronomy, it’s about linking modern cooking with traditional cooking in an evolutionary and, subsequently, revolutionary way. Just as Escoffier (and others) codified classical cuisine in the late 19th and early 20thcentury, Myhrvold and his team have done the same from a modernist perspective. Historically, something of this magnitude tends to happen once a century. The influence of Modernist Cuisine will be nothing short of Le Guide Culinaire and will probably exceed it from a historical perspective. Basic scientific method was used to unpack the science behind cooking and food without any sacrifice to the aesthetic or emotion to food or dining. Myrvold, Young, and Bilet took this scientific knowledge and polished it with a solid understanding of the aesthetics and creativity that underlie a great dining experience. In turn they discovered many new and tantalizing facts and techniques. Modernist Cuisine is about using scientific principles to inform food preparation in pursuit of making food and a dining experience better. Through it all, Myhrvold and his team repeatedly state that in order to understand modern cooking you must start with a firm understanding of traditional cooking from which to build.  I am reassured by the notion that Modernist Cuisine is rooted, in part, in the traditional. The baby wasn’t thrown out with the bathwater; instead the water was tossed and replaced with fresh water precisely heated with a thermal circulator.

Reason 3: Modernist Cuisine is Incredibly Thorough and a Great Value

The breadthand depth of topics covered in the book, all 2438 pages worth, is expansive. Myhrvold must have spent a fortune unpacking each of the topics he covers and there are few organizations or individuals on the planet that could have matched the effort, passion, and completeness of his coverage. There are five volumes in the set including: 1)History & Fundamentals, 2) Techniques and Equipment, 3) Animals and Plants, 4) Ingredients & Preparations, and 5) Plated Dish Recipes. Although priced at $625 per set, Modernist Cuisine represents a tremendous value when you consider its content. $625 is a small price to pay.

Reason 4: Modernist Cuisine is Advanced Professional Cooking and is Approachable

The book is written in easy to understand language. Myhrvold, Young, and Bilet were thoughtful about keeping the narrative easy to read. They offer thousands of photos, illustrations, and diagrams including  innovative models like a periodic table of essential oils and a table of egg custards. The “parametric” recipe format used is virtually foolproof as long as you can precisely measure. The team has produced a volume that is within reach of most cooks young or old, professional or not.

Reason #5: Modernist Cuisine Throws Convention on its Head

I thought, after 30 years of professional cooking, I knew what I was doing. Myhrvold proved me wrong and demonstrates that we barely know anything about the real science of cooking and food. While sitting in his IVF conference room, Myhrvold had an assistant place a vitimix on the conference table. She proceeded to pour a 750ml bottle of red wine into the blender and then she fired it up, pulsing for four or five times. Then she poured the wine into glasses and we did a side by side comparison of the aerated wine and the same wine straight from the bottle. We all tasted and the aerated wine was wonderful. Point made: wine can be aerated in seconds using a blender. Why hasn’t anyone thought of this before (my oenology friends are probably squirming)? This is just one example of how Myhrvold throws convention on its head. The point of this isn’t to raise the dander on sommeliers across the country, it’s to prove that much of what we practice in our profession is handed down from generation to generation without any regard for the science behind what we practice or concern for improving practice based on this science. Modernist Cuisine will shift us in the right direction.