Harvard Science & Cooking Lecture: Chef Grant Achatz Sets the Bar High

5 Oct

Last year as I was beginning culinary school in Charlotte, I read enviously about the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences’ inaugural course, “Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to the Science of Soft Matter.”

Last Year’s Harvard Science & Cooking Lecture Schedule

The only food-related course I took while an undergraduate at the College was an excellent Food and Anthropology class taught by Dr. (now Professor Emeritus) James Watson. Watson is an ethnographer who studied South China for four decades. While he certainly peppered much of this core class offering with lessons from his research in China, I recall covering a range of cultures and issues. We were also able to choose our own topic for our major research paper. I wrote on the history of the bagel/its assimilation into the culinary mainstream of America and consequently spent some fun hours sleuthing in the culinary collection of Schlesinger Library.

But I digress . . . All this is to say that there was certainly no science of cooking curriculum during my college years; nor could I have dreamed of the possibility. When I learned that I would be interning in Boston this fall, I knew that I wanted to take advantage and attend the (free) public lecture series based on the Science and Cooking Harvard College General Education course. Culinary heavy hitters, including some chef deities, come for free every Monday and give us mere mortals a peek into their fantastic brains.

The Monday, October 3 lecture (entitled “Food Texture and Mouth Feel”) featured visionary chef  and author Grant Achatz. The topic of the night was Achatz’s ground-breaking, innovative cocktail bar, The Aviary, which he opened this year in Chicago’s meatpacking district.

Achatz and the team behind The Aviary is like the Matrix red pill for those interested in the resurgence of cocktail culture; they force you to reexamine your assumptions about what it means to consume a cocktail.

You think you know, but you don’t know. In Achatz’s world, cocktails don’t have to be liquid and they don’t have to be served in glasses; neither do cocktails have to be served at a bar or by a bartender.

After a brief professorial introduction of some of the scientific principles at play (and that Harvard teaches in its related course), Achatz and Craig Schoettler took the stage. The audience was immediately riveted.

The Aviary was born out of a desire to introduce the Achatz/Alinea culinary philosophy into the beverage world; the bar is therefore more aptly described as a restaurant for drinks.

First, a word about the set-up. There is no physical bar where the cocktails are served to customers. The drinks are created by chefs rather than bartenders. The chefs work at stations that are designed similarly to restaurant kitchens; in other words, they maximize efficiency and provide proximity to all the necessary ingredients, equipment and components, so that unlike bartenders who spend half the night walking back and forth, the cocktail creators have everything they need within a three-foot span (including refrigerated drawers, a freezer, and ice).

Typical glassware is also left in the dust. Martin Kastner designed special vessels or “custom service pieces” for all The Aviary cocktails. This includes something called a porthole, which consists of two pieces of glass with a plastic band. Inside, botanicals (herbs and blossoms) are placed, so that as a drink sits at a table, it infuses and evolves. No two portions of the drink (served in tiny one-ounce cups) is therefore the same; your palate is never exhausted by a single note, but rather experiences a whole scale of flavors over time.

Other Kastner creations include a light bulb-shaped vessel with a larger than usual mouth (which allows for the customer to “drink” garnishes); a cloche (or bell), so that The Aviary can incorporate and play with aromas (e.g., hickory, applewood) and therefore add to the sensory experience as a drink is sipped; and a ribbed porcelain cocktail glass for a hot cocktail that helps to keep the drink toasty, but that prevents the vessel from feeling warm to the touch.

You can’t even take ice for granted at The Aviary. This isn’t ice that eventually dilutes and waters down your favorite drink. Ice here adds to the flavor profile: it can taste of lemon or vanilla, just to give two examples. In one crystal clear cocktail that resembles a glass of water, the ice is vanilla-flavored. A customer will discover a cocktail that recreates a root beer float. After making a root beer-flavored stock, the chef distills it to clarify the liquid. Kirsch and Licor 43 are added, as well as lactic acid (which provides the creaminess characteristic of a float); as vanilla ice cubes melt, they function just as ice cream does in a float. The vanilla intensifies (like melted ice cream) as the drink is consumed.

Achatz and his team also play with ice by making cocktails “in the rocks” (as opposed to on the rocks). They create a frozen shell about 1/8 inch thick using a water balloon in a blast chiller. The outside freezes before the inside does, leaving the interior liquid. They peel away the latex, drill through the ice to remove the water inside with a syringe, and refill it with an old fashioned (also with the syringe). This introduces another Aviary innovation: the team wants cocktails to be participatory. In this case, the customer has to crack the shell open inside a vessel, which spills forth the beverage to be consumed. The ice cube is thick enough so that it doesn’t dilute too quickly (as is generally the case with a run-of-the-mill cocktail).

The Aviary even frees your mind from the idea that cocktails have to be liquid. Take the bar’s gin and tonic: it is a powder created by combining tapioca maltodextrin, citric acid and baking powder (for fizz), quinine and juniper for flavor, powdered sugar, and a neutral grain spirit that is 95% alcohol by volume.

Before the close of the evening, we were treated to a tiny “edible cocktail.” What at first glance looked like a cube of ordinary pineapple within a plastic container turned out to be an intoxicating bite of Chartreuse-infused fruit. (Before I knew the topic of the lecture, I joked that the pineapple was probably going to turn out to taste like an entire meal of Chinese food, from wonton soup to fortune cookie. The plastic container was inside a Chinese food carton, after all.) Called “Juliet & Romeo,” the pineapple was put in a cryovac, where air was sucked out and replaced with liquid (in this case green Chartreuse).  And that pineapple sure packed a punch!

Achatz also left us with a few problems he would like to solve:

  • how to succeed in intense layering of liquids (specifically vertical layering)
  • how to create flavored snow
  • how to create ice that sinks
  • how to create a cocktail resembling a lava lamp

To watch the previous Science and Cooking public lectures, or for details about upcoming featured speakers, click here. James Beard award-winning Chef Jose Andres of ThinkFoodGroup, Jaleo, and minbar will present on October 10; the topic is Gelation.

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2 Responses to “Harvard Science & Cooking Lecture: Chef Grant Achatz Sets the Bar High”

  1. G Joseph October 9, 2011 at 3:24 pm #

    brilliant and pretty freaking amazing… they need to open a bar/restaurant closer to home 😉

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