High-Tech Cooking: The Mad Genius of Chefs Dave Arnold and Nils Norén
We had a chance to sit down with Dave and Nils at the acclaimed French Culinary Institute (FCI), where Nils is the VP of Culinary and Pastry Arts and Dave heads the relatively new Culinary Technology Department. But we didn't sit for too long -- there was too much insane, high-tech cookery to be done. After the break, see Nils and Dave use their their rotary evaporator to distill high-proof peanut scotch, then marvel as they freeze potato ice cream with liquid nitrogen. (Yes, potato. And it was AMAZING.) Watch our can't miss video introduction to Dave and Nils' specific brand of cookery after the break, and stay tuned for more in-depth coverage of their dramatically impressive techniques.
Dave Arnold isn't officially trained as either a scientist or a chef (an artist, he got his MFA at Columbia University) but you would never think that, hearing him talk about the nuances in bubble texture between mineral waters or his brilliant agar clarification technique. Nils Norén went the more traditional route -- at first -- growing up in Sweden and cooking at some of the country's top restaurants, and eventually becoming Executive Chef of Aquavit in New York City, before heading to FCI in 2006. Since 2009, these culinary radicals have been authoring the Cooking Issues blog (immediately bookmark it, add it your RSS feed, print out the pages or kill someone for their laptop so that you can read every post) while exploring new techniques: laboratory equipment adapted to the kitchen, like centrifuges and rotary evaporators; enzymes and additives at which the all-natural-enthusiasts would balk (too bad that most of their enzymes are natural, too); and simple kitchen hacks (their marijuana grinder repurposed as a spice mill comes to mind). Sometimes they just try things that would never enter the minds of other chefs, like frying a whole raccoon. (It wasn't good, but beaver flapper is, reportedly, quite excellent.)
We got to see a centrifuge put to use, spinning a slurry of blended bananas and Maker's Mark with a bit of Pectinex SP-L enzyme at 4000 Gs into a beautifully clear banana bourbon. During that procedure, the rotovap began to fume away with liquid nitrogen as it distilled habanero pepper in water. Since their peanut scotch was technically illegal, they found a way to melt frozen distillate off of a glass condenser with pure, food-grade alcohol, with which they made a delicious (and legal!) pepper vodka. Shockingly, the vodka had all of the floral flavor of the habanero, without any of the heat of those outrageously spicy chilis. (As Dave explained, the capsaicin molecules are too heavy to be carried over during the evaporation.) We were dreaming of Bloody Marys.
We got some more potato ice cream (which, hey, we're not complaining) on top of perfectly crispy french fries. (Don't overthink it -- it was amazing.) The secret for perfect spuds? A soak in Pectinex SP-L (which degrades the pectin on the surface of the cut fry so that the starch can swell and crisp) and a judicious blanching in boiling water before you fry. (Check out their full explanation here.) Dave and Nils finished off the day with perhaps their least science-techy but hands-down coolest technique: sabering a champagne bottle. Eager and slightly tipsy foodies lined up to dramatically lop off the tops of bottles of bubbly, which Dave said can be done with almost anything -- including his own custom "pimp ring."
See the full how-to of the sabering technique, and every other insane and brilliant thing that that Dave and Nils do, at CookingIssues.com.