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By April 18, 2009Cooking

A few years back, I had the pleasure of dining at a relatively-young restaurant in Chicago named Alinea. The experience was incredibly memorable; Alinea’s dining experience is less a meal and more a performance exacted by Chef Grant Achatz. Over the span of the 23-course meal you’re asked to sample mostly-unrecognizable sculptures of food in a myriad of unusual ways. One course is presented with no serving ware, and consists of a single bite of…something…presented atop a lazily-bouncing antenna wire. The waiter places it in front of you and says “Chef requests you enjoy this course with no hands, in one bite”. Another course involves a shot glass filled with nuclear-green liquid in which is floating a brown sphere. “Chef recommends you enjoy this in one mouthful; please hold it in your mouth for a few seconds before swallowing”. Following these instructions, I feel at first an icy chill on my tongue from what tastes like liquid celery. The sphere inside comes to rest on my tongue for a second, then feels as though it effervescently-explodes, shooting droplets of what I finally recognize as apple juice.

The entire meal made me feel as though I was at a circus, in that I felt wonderment and fascination with every new thing presented to me.

Part of the appeal to me was the very scientific nature of the food; it captivated me the way new technology captivates me. Inspecting the serving ware and processing the flavors involved with the ‘antenna’ course triggered the same parts of my brain that I think are triggered when I played with an iPhone for the first time. “Huh. Cool. Now, how does this work, exactly?”

For Christmas this year, one of my favorite gifts was a cookbook I’ve been hoping would come out since that evening at Alinea. It is beautiful, massive, and extremely intimidating. The recipes don’t call for two tablespoons of sugar to be whisked into some egg whites. They call for sous-vide cooking, immersion blending, Paco jets, and a host of ingredients I could barely pronounce.

So, for the past two months, I’ve been on a jag to try to meld a new adventure in the kitchen with my enjoyment of photography and my dangerous tendency to become obsessed with things that are a pain in the ass to do. I’m curious how reproducible these recipes are, how artful I can be in assembling them, and how interesting I can make them as a subject in photography. The whole thing has the potential to become either extremely boring or extremely weird.

The first step has been sourcing the bulk of the dry ingredients I anticipate needing. Most of these ingredients find use in the large-scale industrial food-processing industry. Those hard-to-pronounce, scary-sounding names towards the end of ingredient listings on bottles of ketchup or jars of syrup? Those are what I’m interesting buying and understanding.

Turns out that this is kind of a tough process. Wholesalers tend to not sell small quantities of Calcium Lactate to individuals, because who needs a spice jar of Calcium Lactate? No, they usually come in 5-kg brown drums. After a lot of searching, I finally found a place in San Francisco that was extremely helpful and willing to sell me 1-lb quantities of most of what I was after. I’ve since read that oftentimes you can write the manufacturers directly and ask them for samples; a ‘small sample’ to them is a couple of pounds, so this seems like an idea worth trying.

The search for these ingredients has been fascinating in and of itself. During it, I came across a place in Christchurch that sells Sea Urchin Powder. Another place down south sells unflavored pop rocks. And one bag in my shipment appears to be the base of the American candy “Nerds”:

The first recipe I’ll be trying is for a dish called “Dry Caramel, Salt”.

Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Can I ask many questions, where in san fran do you get your ingrediants and who did you get the pop rocks off?

    • Allen says:

      Hi Brian;

      Thanks for reading!

      I purchased most of my industrial ingredients from Le Sanctuaire, which is headquartered in San Fran. The unflavored ‘Pop Rocks’ I found at Sous Chef in Christchurch, marketed under the El Bulli “Texturas” line as “Surprises Fizzy” (though I haven’t actually purchased these…the description of the product and the elaboration by the guys at Sous Chef make me suspect that’s what they are).