Last autumn when I made The Ridiculous Rhubarb Dish, I made a statement that I fear might have been erroneous: I said the Rhubarb dish was the longest recipe in the book. While that dish is indeed a force to be reckoned with, I’ve discovered there are others that are equally if not more complex in execution. A month or so before Christmas, I flipped past this dish in trying to plan out my Winter Strategy and noted that there was a LOT of work involved in it. So much so, in fact, that I wasn’t all the way confident I could pull it off on my own.
So I asked for help.
Since starting this project, I read a lot of books about how restaurants operate. I read about equipment, kitchen layouts, management, etc., mostly because I find it fascinating. I know Alinea has a small army of chefs working long hours in its kitchen; I suspect that there might often be more than one chef working on a single recipe. Oftentimes when I’ve been wading through a complex recipe at home, I find myself grumbling about how it’d be easier if I had some help. This time around, I thought I’d see if there was any truth to that.
So about a month ago, I emailed several of my closest friends who I know to be good with matters of food. I presented the idea of a group attack of this recipe, and amazingly, they accepted. So we started planning. Spreadsheets were made outlining ingredients, tasks, projected completion times, equipment needed, ingredients needed, etc. We started coordinating on a date for Final Assembly and plating of the dish. Then we started getting busy making stuff.
The main attraction of this dish is white bean puree that’s been cooked with an embarrassing/awesome amount of butter. The white bean is topped with a disc of baked pancetta that had been flash-frozen into shape, Guinness beer bubbles, and several sprigs of micro celery. Accessorizing the bean were 8 garnishes: clockwise from the top we have a lemon marshmallow garnished with lemon zest, a cube of vanilla-bay leaf gel, a salad of slivered green beans and lightly-friedn almonds tossed in an almond-lemon vinaigrette, a clove of roasted garlic dipped in pink peppercorn skins, some crushed parsnip chips dusted with parsley dust, a ball of intertwined mango and tomato leather strips, another small salad of mung bean sprouts tossed with sesame-yuzu vinaigrette and topped with tobiko, and an apple sphere that’s been flash-cooked in white wine and filled with dark molasses. The puree is surrounded by a little moat of maple syrup and sherry vinegar sauce. The entire dish is presented atop a pillow that is filled with the scent of nutmeg and mace; as the dish is eaten, the pillow slowly deflates, releasing its scent into the air.
It wasn’t the technical difficulty of this dish that led me to petition my friends for help; in fact, most of the garnishes were reasonably straightforward. Rather, it was the sheer amount of work that went into it that, if left on my own, would have had to been done in series. In computer graphics, we use the phrase “embarrassingly parallel“to describe tasks that require little to no effort to split into subtasks that can be addressed at the same time, independent of the others. My friend Christopher has enjoyed no small amount of international recognition for elegantly solving problems like this. He was my boss at Weta for a time, so I decided that not applying what he’d taught me to this problem would just be…douchey. Working at the same time meant that the biggest challenge became scheduling; ensuring that everything was finished the right way at the right time.
One of the few completely esoteric ingredients listed in the dish was “Sea Grapes”. I say ‘esoteric’ because the entirety of the recipe for dealing with sea grapes was exactly the following:
16 sea grapes
Reserve sea grapes in small container of cold water.
There’s no other explanation or description of what sea grapes are, how one might find them, etc. We did no small amount of research and finally figured it out, but rather than describe it myself, I’ll let my friend T-Rex do so:
NOTE!: I emailed Ryan North to ask him for permission to make the above comic strip. He has not yet written me back, but he has a blank Dinosaur Comics template on his website, which I made use of here. Ryan, if you find this and are hella angry, please write me and I will remove this with extreme haste. Everyone else, if you don’t yet, you should read Ryan’s totally awesome comic strip!
ANOTHER NOTE!: “Joe” is one of the very excellent friends who helped me on this dish! He has a totally sweet tattoo, which is likely the one T-Rex is giving ‘propers’ to!:
I ultimately managed, with help from a Japanese-reading friend from work, to translate some Japanese websites that deal in 海ぶどう, or “umibudo”, and found several weather reports mentioning recent halting of shipments of the seaweed from Okinawa to mainland Japan. I also recently befriended David Barzelay, who hypothesized that it was likely that Alinea has relationships with purveyors in Japan who might have thrown in some umibudo with other larger shipments when it was available, and that Alinea found a use for it in this dish (rather than custom-ordering it specifically for the dish). All of this led me to conclude that I might need to think up a substitute for it. We ended up using tobiko, which has a similar texture and mild flavor, though differs a bit in size. It worked out pretty ok though!
Joe (of T-Rex Tattoo fame) and his lovely and totally-awesome-to-the-max wife Kris took the lead on dealing with the white bean puree. Though this entire recipe officially yields 8 small servings, Joe found that the white bean component yielded 5 excitingly-buttery pounds of white bean puree…which was 100% delicious.
Sarah offered to pitch in by helping with the cooking, and decided to try making the Vanilla-Bay Leaf Gel. I was happy for this for two reasons: firstly because she would finally be doing some cool sciency cooking of her own, and secondly because I could take some photos of her.
The “James” mentioned above is another awesome friend who stepped up to this dish in a big way. James is a semi-pro chef and has a career history in the food business. He’s also an avid food junkie, rarely uses recipes, and has a preternatural synchronization with the seasonality of ingredients. He and his special gal Ali helped Sarah and I with our quest for Sea Grapes, and also helped a lot with the scheduling and general approach to this whole thing. On the day of The Big Plating, James was helping me finish sauces, chop fresh ingredients, and plate the final dish.
I learned an interesting thing about myself from working with James. When I started work as a visual effects artist, I did so as a big fan of movies. Working on movies, I worried, would destroy my ability to enjoy them because all the surprise would be taken away, so I’ve made a habit of avoiding learning everything about the project I’m working on just so that there are still some surprises for me when I get to the theater. This strategy is one I’ve carried with me into this project. Eating at Alinea is like magic, and making the dishes myself takes a bit of that magic away. Also, unconfident in my own abilities as a chef or my own taste sensibility, I tend to not taste things as I make them. At first I figured I was being told to do things very specifically to achieve a very specific taste profile, so I wanted to keep my own judgement out of the equation to avoid skewing anything. Also, I wanted to be surprised. This tendency has gone away only slightly as I’ve grown through this, which I’m realizing more and more is a mistake. At a few points when making this, James would stop what he was working on and ask me to taste something, then ask me where I wanted it to be. It threw me off balance a little bit, but it also makes obvious sense. The fried almonds, for example, were clearly oversalted when I followed the recipe exactly, and I think I should be at the point where I can say “Hmm. This tastes too salty. Whether it’s meant to or not is less relevant to me than whether I like it, which I kinda don’t”. As I move forward, I’d like to take a page out of James’ book and think more critically and personally about how things are tasting along the way, possibly at the cost of preserving the ‘surprise of taste’ at the end.
But I digress.
Ali, in addition to having rad hair and a penchant for organization, also has a fair bit of recent experience making marshmallows. So she threw her hand up for the Lemon Marshmallows for this dish, as well as helping with the Maple Syrup Sauce.
In the upper section of that photo there, you can see my light tent that I had set up, to allow anyone who wanted to to take photographs of anything while they were working. Among the group was Francisco, who is a fantastically amazing photographer, as well as a veritable machine of precision and orderliness. Here he’s arranging his freshly-roasted garlic cloves in order of size so that he may accurately select the 8 most-uniform cloves, as instructed by the recipe book.
Accompanying Francisco was his special lady Angie, who used her keen knife skills to, impossibly, make dust out of parsley simply by chopping the hell out of it.
A vital component of this entire production was the Nutmeg-Mace pillows. Sarah’s recently gotten into sewing, and taught herself how to make pillowcases for our scented pillows. We went shopping for white linen as part of our valentine’s day celebrations with one another, punctuating the romance of the evening with a trip to Jo-Ann Fabrics. They turned out beautifully.
Once the pillowcases were made, we needed to actually fill them. To do this, I used one of the most excitingly-fun ‘culinary’ tools I’ve used yet.
A Volcano is a super-swanky vaporizer that sells used for about $700. No way in hell Sarah was going to let me buy one of these just to blow up a few pillows, so I started investigating alternatives. I searched a LOT for ‘vaporizers’. Turns out, there’s really only one thing that vaporizers are used for. For this reason, the Volcano is really the only one useful for this other, more-legitimate application in the kitchen, because it’s got a forced-air fan in it (rather than needing a suction source to pull air through it, as most others do). Thankfully I live in the Bay Area, so asking around to borrow one wasn’t terribly difficult.
Most components of this dish were made a day or two before plating, which worked out pretty ok. We chose a sunday afternoon to try to assemble everything; everyone came over and brought what they had made, and we cooked the rest of the vital ingredients that day. James got help from a friend at Bi Rite for some jaw-droppingly delicious rolled pancetta for the Pancetta Discs; I feel like the book’s instructions to slice it 1/8″ thick are erroneous and that 1/16″ is a better thickness, but it still was the most delicious meat I think I’ve ever had. The slices had a bit of trouble staying “disc-ed” up, but still worked nicely.
Frustrated with the insane overpriced-ness of spices in grocery stores in this area, I turned to The Spice House to bulk-order mace and nutmeg for this dish. The nutmeg was quite cheap; James crushed it up in preparation of being Volcanoized.
We did a test run of it before filling the pillows up, giving everyone a chance to smell the pure mace/nutmeg vapor. It was AWESOME.
After the pillows were filled and everything was finished cooking, it was time to get down to the business of plating things. James and I tag-teamed this, while Joe read instructions to us. Spectator attendance was impressive.
As this was going on, Sarah helped get our table ready. Our wine of choice was one of my favorites from New Zealand, a bottle of Man O War Syrah that she bought from for Christmas. This seemed like a pretty special moment that was appropriate for a special wine.
After it was all over, Sarah snagged a photo of the aftermath of our frantic pace.
At this point, I think I’m just going to shut up for a bit and offer some photos of everything, both on its own and in the context of the dish. This was one of the most photogenic and interesting subjects from the book yet, and it was hard for all of us not to shoot heaps of photos of all of it.
Thank you to Sarah, Kris, Joe, Ali, James, Angie, Francisco, and Jess for helping me so much with this. It was…awesome.