Cutting-Edge Cuisine

An evening-long taste of the new frontiers of food
Aug 11, 2011

The green color of the peas popped, and the intensity of their flavor was mightily impressive, balancing the velvety texture of a perfectly pink fillet of Copper River King salmon. The jus poured around it looked clear and tasted of pure fresh peas. Was it a reduction? A broth flavored with pea shoots?

No, it was pure pea juice, extracted by pureeing fresh peas and separating the juice in a centrifuge. This was the 17th dish of a 30-course marathon in the Seattle-area kitchen laboratory of Nathan Myhrvold, meant to demonstrate some of the up-to-the-minute techniques included in Modernist Cuisine, his landmark set of cookbooks released earlier this year. This one focused on two techniques. The first was delicate brine for the salmon, which was then cooked sous-vide (sealed in a plastic bag and cooked at a low temperature to maintain its texture). The other was the use of a centrifuge to produce the juice.

The purity and clarity of the flavors and textures would have done any minimalist farm-to-table chef proud. This was unadorned cuisine, uncluttered by overt seasonings or butter-rich sauces. I had to close my eyes and float along with the gentle impact of the dish. The crisp balance of Syncline Syrah Horse Heaven Hills McKinley Springs Vineyard 2009 wove its character nicely with it.

The wines, supplied by Michael Teer of SoulWine, a Seattle retailer, were all from small Washington vintners whose products mostly don't leave the area. With 30 courses, it's obviously impossible to match a wine with each one, so we had a progression of seven, from a light, tart Grüner Veltliner to a broad, supple Malbec, finishing with a late-harvest Viognier with the six sweet dishes.

Separating the component parts of vegetables in a centrifuge is one of the techniques Myhrvold himself developed with his co-authors. Chefs Chris Young and Maxime Bilet came to this venture after stints at the Fat Duck, Heston Blumenthal's modernist restaurant near London. Myhrvold developed an interest in cooking as an avocation while he was chief technology officer for Microsoft, and passed the professional cooking course at La Varenne in France. He now heads Intellectual Ventures Lab, a research and development company that has more than 250 patents, including self-disinfecting surfaces, new medical imaging processes and disease simulations.

But his heart, it seems, is in the kitchen. And he proudly suited up last week in a chef's jacket to work with his team preparing a dinner for 16 invited guests, including the chef of the French Laundry and the author of a forthcoming book on modernist cooking.

"This is obviously not a normal menu," he said. "It's designed to demonstrate what we've been working on." The encyclopedic book covers techniques developed by food researchers and chefs all over the world, including a few he and his crew came up with. The centrifuge is one of those, he said.

"We take raw peas at their best, make them into a fine puree, and run them in the centrifuge for about an hour," he explained. "We get three layers." The two that matter are the clear juice and a creamy green layer that Myhrvold calls pea butter. "Actually it's starch, no fat at all, but it's so fine that it has the texture like butter."

One of the appetizers, in fact, used pea putter and corn butter (made by the same process) to top thin toast slices. Think apple butter, which also has similar plushness despite no fat, only these "butters" are not sweet and several times as intense with the flavors of peas and corn.

Some of my other favorite dishes used a range of commonly seen modernist techniques and the Myhrvold team's innovations. The naturalness of many of them belies a common misconception that all modernist cooking is weird.

• A torchon of monkfish liver was delicate and almost sweet. Myhrvold felt that the heat of steaming, the traditional Japanese technique for ankimo, produced too much bitter character. The lower temperatures of sous-vide cooking produced a better flavor.

• Spaghetti alle Vongole used Washington's ubiquitous geoduck, vacuum-molding the giant clam so it could be sliced into thin ribbons, then tossed with shallots, walnuts, maitake mushrooms and the chopped geoduck belly to make a sauce moistened with centrifuged geoduck juices.

• Cocotte of Spring Brassica mixed Brussels sprout leaves and broccoli buds with thin slices of fried cauliflower in a bowl with an emulsion of Comté, a French cheese. Loved the freshness.

• Raw Quail Egg was a playful dish, presented deadpan by servers as a real quail egg in its shell. The menu even identified it as "a touch of protein to invigorate the appetite." In reality, the "yolk" was spherified mango (a puree encased in its own gelatin), the "white" lightly gelled coconut water.

• Polenta Marinara used the corn juice left from making the corn butter, pressure cooking the corn meal in individual mason jars. Beautiful stuff. (The marinara was, apparently, entirely traditional.)

• Mushroom Omelet, the eggs divided into two batches, one batch emulsified with mushroom puree, recombined so it comes out in stripes. Cooked in a combination oven (a high-tech oven that combines steam and convection to allow cooking at a precise temperature), its texture was creamy and perfect, the flavors intense.

• Roast Chicken, also cooked in a combi-oven so the flesh does not overcook, the skin dried and crisped in a very hot oven to brown at the last minute. The juices and fat from the chicken are emulsified in a high-tech machine to create a creamy sauce.

• Pistachio "Gelato," made without cream or eggs, produced by centrifuging the pureed nuts, then emulsifying them to create a mixture that freezes into an ice cream of amazing intensity and creaminess.

"The problem with pistachio ice cream," Myhrvold said, "is that it never has enough pistachio flavor because you need cream and sugar to make it work using normal techniques."

I did not like all of Myhrvold's improvements. His version of barbecued ribs cooks them sous-vide, then flavors them in a high-tech smoker. Just before serving, he dips the racks in liquid nitrogen to freeze the surface so a quick turn in a deep fryer only crisps the surface and does not overcook the meat. Sounds fine in practice, but I found the meat too soft. Tasty, but lacking in the hint of chew I like.

What I like about his approach, however, is that it considers what works traditionally and if there's a way to make it more intense, creamier, or strike the palate as purer, Myhrvold and his crew go for it. And obviously, the expensive equipment necessary to achieve these goals is out of the reach of us humble home cooks. But the ideas make sense, and if restaurants can use these ideas intelligently, then they will be doing what great restaurants always do: serve food we can't make so easily at home.

Cooking

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