On Thursday 4 August 2011 my dinner was more modern than yours was… I attended a dinner hosted by Dr. Nathan Myrvold at the Intellectual Ventures Laboratory.
I arrived (early– for fear of being late) at a very plain looking unmarked building in Bellevue, Washington. After signing in, I was escorted to a conference room with a copy of “The Book” sitting on the edge of the table. I sat and eagerly began thumbing through the pages (my first time holding a hard copy of Modernist Cuisine). After a few minutes, others started to arrive, I kept looking through the exquisitely produced volumes. A few minutes later, Dr. Myrvold walks in and introduces himself to the group… “I’m Nathan” he says. We go around the large conference table introducing ourselves. “Nathan” says, “In true geek fashion, we’re going to start dinner with a PowerPoint…”
He proceeds to advance through slides pointing out that there are 6 errors in the USDA food code, and that the first culinary use of Liquid Nitrogen happened in the early 1900′s after a food enthusiast/science spotted the cryogenic fluid in a cow insemination facility. He explains “Modernist by attitude” pointing out a table from the book that describes how eggs, milk, and temperature can produce different custard consistencies. Nathan explains that Escoffier could have made this table with eggs, milk, and a thermometer… but he didn’t — thankfully the team at Modernist Cuisine did.
The PowerPoint is interrupted by a simple demo of “Hyper-Decanting” where Nathan pours out a bottle of wine into a high power blender and whizzes it for about 60 seconds. We then try the blender decanted wine alongside the same wine poured directly from the bottle along with a duplicate pour (different for each seat at the table). An interesting experiment- several tasters are able to detect the decanted wine, others are more confused… my answers were not validated:/
Nathan goes on to say that any food deserves to be elevated, explaining some of the sections of the book (Volume 1) that cover micro-regional barbecue of America, Curries of India, and coffee. “Lots of amazing meals end with shitty coffee” Nathan says.
On to a brief point about the photography in the book (which is even more stunning in person) Nathan shoes some ultra-highspeed videos that show a bullet penetrating ballistics gel (the recipe for which is in the book) as well as some eggs lined up horizontally. “When you have a block of ballistics gelatin AND a high speed camera around, pretty soon someone gets a gun” Nathan says.
He finishes the presentation by saying that the book is selling beyond their expectations and that the second printing is starting to arrive. They are also working on French, Spanish, and German editions. He originally thought the book would be 600 pages — at over 2,400 pages and nearly 50 pounds (4 pounds of which is INK) Nathan’s explanation is, “Once you get into this stuff it’s a slippery slope. A lot of things in life are a slippery slope. Without slippery slopes there probably wouldn’t be many children”
On to a quick tour of the lab. As we enter the part of the warehouse “where the magic happens” a sign reads, “BIG SCARY LASER – Do not look into beam with remaining eye”.
We walk past the section of the lab where some of the iconic cutaway photos were taken including a microwave halved directly through its magnetron — popcorn bag included. We walk past the insectary (where Nathan is raising mosquitoes for research on Malaria), through the kitchen lab, and into the machine shop. Along the way I spot a slurpee machine, Rotary Evaporator, “Mega Space Antenna” and a foil wrapped contraption that looks like it was part of the original Apollo missions.
In the machine shop, Nathan says that it’s really nice cooking next to a machine shop because when they need a unique utensil, they make it. We sit down for dinner as we’re running a bit late…
The next FIVE HOURS are filled with 30 courses of amazing food… Any of the courses would be at home in the best restaurants in the world. While the meal is a technical example of the technology in the lab (some plates using many, many tens of thousands of dollars of equipment to prepare) if you didn’t ask about it- you’d never know. Each course was delicious the technology well masked by the finesse and craftsmanship used to prepare each course.
I should note that this dinner occurs just days after el Bulli (THE Mecca of forward thinking cuisine) closes… during the dinner it occurs to me that as hard as a reservation to el Bulli is, an invite to the Modernist Cuisine lab dinner might be harder to get… they do just one dinner a month (this was number 6 under their belt) and our group was about 15 people…far less than the 8,000 reservations given at el Bulli this season.
I’ve done my best to document each course because this is such a unique dining experience, and that I have not seen the courses detailed by other bloggers. It’s long, but I hope you enjoy…
Here is the food porn and a brief description of each course.
The first course is vacuum compressed watermelon and pickle, infused with a starch then dried into a chip. Nathan says they can make chips out of nearly anything by vacuum infusing a starch.
The next course, “Bread and Butter” is thinly sliced bread with a generous spread of Pea Butter and Corn Butter. Both “butters” were made by spinning their respective purees in a centrifuge to separate the solids from liquids. The “butter” is a perfect mix of both phases, and contain no traditional butter. In the case of the corn butter, they used 60 pounds of corn to produce 120g corn butter. The texture and mouth feel are silky elegance, a delicious snack if you have 60 pounds of corn laying around.
Next, is a riff on roasted corn with mayo, lime and chili… although it looks nothing like the dish that inspired it, the flavors are spot on. Freeze dried corn, leek ash, brown butter powder, cilantro, chili powder, lime zest.
The fourth course was a quick trip to china town, a puffed chicken skin, hoisin, scallion aioli all the flavors of Peking Duck.
From China town to little Italy, the fifth course was one of my favorites of the night. A deceptively simple looking shot glass with a yellow tinted cream. It smells vividly of aromatic tomatoes. Nathan explains that it is Tomato water, spun through a centrifuge, then emulsified with Olive oil tomato water using one of those magic white powders “PGA”- Propylene Glycol Alginate. This is an example of what Nathan calls a “Constructed Cream” (we see many of these through the night) They have a rich mouth feel, exactly like fresh cream but flavored by whatever the kitchen wants. This one was built to emulate a caprese salad.
From snacks to salads… The next course is a summer salad, featuring tomato, vacuum compressed onion, cherries, lemon , verbena, Japanese cucumber, crème fraise pannacotta, and a honey lemon vinaigrette. Although this is one of the “simpler” courses it’s a perfect summer salad.
Next up is “Ankimo”. For those not fluent in Japanese, that would be monkfish liver, the “foie gras of the sea”. It’s rolled into a torchon and cooked Sous Vide, served with compressed rhubarb that has been infused with centrifuged rhubarb juice and compressed celery infused with green apple juice. All of the flavors of the liver are accented with a squeeze of fresh yuzu. This is my first time seeing a fresh yuzu.
More seafood is next with barely cooked spot prawns, chamomile, donut peach, mushrooms, and a constructed cream of sherry distilled in a rotary evaporator mixed with chamomile butter, and garnished with chive flower.
Our pseudo pasta course is followed by a chilled soup. “Gazpacho” made of pluots (plum/apricot blend) pluot and hazelnut brunooise and a savory feta sorbet.
Another soup follows… a baked potato soup, but like none that you’ve ordered before. ultra thin slices of potato slice folded in half and stuffed with onion and shallot cooked in rendered bacon fat. Sour crème spheres, and a broth made by spinning potato juice in a centrifuge, pressure cooking the resulting liquid with baking soda to caramelize it and finally vacuum infusing it with fried potato skin. Garnished with chive blossom.
Veggies come next, with a bowl filled with a pressure cooked broccoli purée, wilted brussel sprouts, savoy cabbage, fried cauliflower, Oregon hazelnuts, and flash pickled grapes. It’s topped with a cheese foam that is cheese water (extracted centrifugally) and foamed with egg white powder and Whey Protein Isolate.
Another show stopper came next. Nathan’s rendition of “Beef Stew” a rare beef jus (beef treated with bromelain and cooked Sous Vide). The bromelain doubles the yield of the Jus. It’s served with perfectly roasted vegetables (including the tiniest mushrooms I’ve ever seen) and a slice of sous vide bone marrow. This is stunningly good.
After the “stew” we get a plate of large fresh morel mushrooms surrounded by an asparagus and coconut cream foamed with gellan. Our server comes by and pours a morel jus which has been centrifuged and vacuum infused with dried morel
We’re half way done with the meal! The half way point of the menu reads as below:
We are asked to take the shot of quail egg as a table simultaneously. The mostly vegetarian at our table is trembling… we shoot it, and it’s surprisingly sweet… actually it tastes nothing like an egg…
Nathan then comes by the table and explains that “Everyone” has some dish that resembles a cooked egg but they wanted to recreate a raw egg. Mango spheres dropped through a special funnel into a clean quail egg shell then topped with a faux egg white constructed from coconut water, locust bean gum, and xanthan gum completes the effect… nice one Mr. Myrvold! Fool me once…
Back to savory courses, a polenta cooked in corn water (the stuff left over from the 60 pounds of corn that made the corn butter on the second course. The polenta is served with a strawberry marinara, basil flowers smoked corn husk oil, basil, and grated ricotta salata.
It’s course number 18, I’m starting to get full and you’re starting to drool on the keyboard. This one isn’t going to help either of us. Salmon cooked sous vide in coffee butter, served ultra rare over peas, pea broth, garnished with purslane and a touch of wasabi.
Next up is what I called mac and cheese. My mom used to put a can of tuna in the mac and cheese creating a salty creamy treat… Nathan does the same, kind of… house made cocoa pasta cooked in a combi-oven, sea urchin (uni), candied grapefruit cubes, shaved fennel, uni grapefruit butter, and grated uni bottarga- sea urchin roe brined and cooked sous vide and allowed to cure for 60 days.
Nathan says that the regular kitchen staff is about five people plus him…which by his math equates to either 5.1 or 4.9 cooks depending on the day. On this night there were easily 12-14 people on the line making each of these dishes happen. Here’s a shot of Nathan and Maximme Billet “working the line”.
Next is one of the iconic dishes from the book. Modernist Cuisine Striped Omelet- egg white powder hydrated with black trumpet mushroom, egg yolk powder hydrated traditionally, striped with a pastry comb, egg mousse, fine herbs, marmalade of porcini and shallot, and topped with clarified butter.
Next, a Sunday roast chicken that you have to start Thursday night. The chicken is brined 3.5 days (breast only) hung upside down. Then roasted at 145F for 4hrs. Then finished quickly at 600F to crisp up the skin. Served with a Jus GRAS- Chicken jus and rendered chicken fat emulsified with PGA.
Then we get a demo of Cryo-Frying. Ribs- cooked sous vide for 48hrs at 60c, smoked for 7hrs at 55F then…
Served with two BBQ sauces.
The last of the savory courses is Modernist Pastrami – Nathan describes it simply as vegetarian converter. But I know that there is no better meat product than pastrami. It was the only recipe that I jotted down while I had reviewer’s access to the book… so I can tell you that the brisket is brined for seven days, smoked, dry rubbed, and cooked sous vide for 72 hours. It was phenomenal! I can’t wait to make this at home!!!
Bring on the sweets. Starting with a “fruit salad” of vacuum compressed rhubarb, strawberries, candied navy beans, cumquat, blueberry, mint, Nitro-smashed berry tears, lychee sorbet, and centrifuged strawberry juice.
Next was a milkshake… Aerated raw milk and freeze dried raspberry powder.
The third dessert was one of the best dishes of the night… Pistachio gelato (made by spinning pistachio puree in a centrifuge, taking the pistachio oil and homogenizing it with simple syrup, and freezing it in a pacojet) It was served with garnishes of candied olive, and arlrttee cookie (super cold puff pastry sliced on a meat slicer)
There was also a hazelnut gelato (made in a similar fashion) served with a mandarin salve (cookie) and amarena cherries… I somehow neglected to take a picture of this course.
Then the lab served Stumptown coffee, ground, passed through large and small sieves to ensure consistent grind size and steeped in a French press…
Coffee and tea custards: (Right) Lemon and ear grey passet- cream set into custard by the addition of an acid. heated then allowed to set… I could have eaten a troth of this! (Left) And a similar preparation in coffee flavor served with porcini mushroom crumble.
Next was a gruyere Carmel wrapped in a film of cheese water (separated via centrifuge) and set with Agar and xorbital
The pent ultimate course was Olive Oil Gummy worms with vanilla. An olive oil emulsion is set with agar and Locust Bean Gum molded in a fishing lure form. By this time our table of 7 is an equal number of glasses of wine in and we start to have fun with the whimsy of this dish…
Overall, this dinner was phenomenal! 30 courses of meticulously prepared food. The kitchen staff (stages included) nearly outnumbered the diners. Were this a restraunt perhaps more thought could have been put into the flow of the menu but as an edible example of what Modernist Cuisine is all about it was stunning. Thank you to the entire team at Modernist Cuisine for the invite and hospitality. This was an experience I won’t soon forget.