Sunday, October 19, 2008

Day Two of the Gourmet Institute - Grant Achatz Lights it Up

Grant Achatz at the Gourmet Institute
By far, the highlight of Day Two of the Gourmet Institute was the session with Grant Achatz in the afternoon, titled "Aroma Techniques." The theme of the demonstration was the use of aromas at Alinea - his popular innovative restaurant in Chicago.
Oak leaf skewers being fried at Grant Achatz' session at the Gourmet Institute
Grant is known for experimenting with different ways to bring sensory experiences to diners using sound, textures, and aromas. This demonstration was intended to give us a glimpse into the way Alinea uses scent to evoke a desired effect, be it a memory, a season or a feeling.
Rosemary garlic and black pepper for Grant Achatz' session
For the first demonstration, Grant filled a plastic bag with lavender smoke (using a machine he called "the volcano") and explained that they would put that in a custom pillowcase and serve the dish on top of the pillow - holes are punched in the bag, so as the gravity pulls the dish down, the air escapes enveloping the diner in the aroma. This "pillow" was passed around the room so we could smell the aroma.

When we arrived, each seat held a black envelope containing several small packages - a vanilla bean; a mixture of rosemary; black pepper and garlic; a gingerbread cookie and a small bottle marked "Christmas Tree."

The vanilla bean was used to illustrate the fact that with your nose plugged, you can't taste the aroma of it if you place it in your mouth - but you can with your nose unplugged.

We were then told we would be receiving a tasting of some sous vide wagyu beef on a plate with a very hot rock. We were asked to taste the beef once, then dump the contents of our rosemary/garlic/black pepper package over the rock and taste it again. The beef was delicious - fork tender and buttery, but the smell of rosemary is something I'm not entirely fond of - so I think the aroma was a little bit lost on me.
sous vide wagyu beef for tasting at Grant Achatz' session at the Gourmet Institute
After we'd had the wagyu beef, Chef Achatz pulled the oak leaves out of the oven and explained that one of the scents that evokes fall for him is the scent of burning leaves. Then, he started setting the leaves on fire. One by one he hit them with his torch until they were burning, blew them out, and set them on a plate.
Grant flaming oak leaves
It made for some nervewracking moments in the dining room, what with the smoke filling the room and ashes and burning embers swirling around.
Pheasant, apple gelee and shallot fritters on burning oak leaves
Ultimately it was fun - and the final plated dish of pheasant, apple gelee and shallot was delicious, but I'm not sure it had much to do with the fact that the leaves were smoldering.
The smoke drifts out to carry the aroma
Next, a bowl of fall "ingredients" was paired with some dry ice in a bowl to create a fine mist that flowed out of the bowl carrying the aromas of pumpkin, apple and hay with it. This is carried to the table as an accompaniment to certain dishes.
Accessories for Grant Achatz' "Aroma Techniques" session @ the Gourmet Institute
For the last tasting, we were encouraged to spray the "Christmas Tree" liquid on our tongue and eat the gingerbread cookie. (The liquid was a tea-like infusion of pine needles with sugar and water.) The idea was to evoke the essence of Christmas, but pine needles aren't generally edible - a fact which was not lost on my tongue. Regardless, the cookie was delicious.

Overall - whatever you may think about the flavor of molecular gastronomy ingredients, it's interesting to see someone think completely outside the box and come up with new and unique ways to experience flavors. Grant Achatz does all of those things, and it was an absolute treat to see and learn from him this weekend.


  1. Great post. I think Achatz is brilliant in many ways, yet I can see how his approach can fail with some diners. What scents evoke good memories for some (both emotionally and food-based), can equally backfire on just as many others with opposite experiences. I love the smell of rosemary, both fresh and used in cooking...but need a very light hand in the actual food that I taste. I think the oak would remind me of autumn leaf raking/burning in the yard at an early age with my dad - not so sure it would transfer to food palette. Maybe I am just not sophisticated enough to really appreciate.

  2. Sounds fascinating, Alice. But based on your experience, I wonder if too much of his obviously brilliant mind is spent on trying to create magic and not enough on what people really enjoy about food. The flavors, the textures, the visual and the companionship of sharing a meal. Scent is obviously extremely important but if it's contrived through these various techniques do you really evoke the experience or the memory in an authentic way? I guess I like to keep things simple. And I'd hate to be know as a one-trick pony. I assume that despite the toys, his food is excellent.

  3. I'm glad I didn't have to spray pine needle spray on my poor tongue in its current condition!

  4. Is it just me or does he look like Ethan Hawke?

  5. Pam - it was a fascinating demonstration and I am really curious to see how that translates to the restaurant!

    Caron - I think the food really is phenomenal - what we had tasted good, even without the other stuff involved. My fear would be that the gizmos become a distraction from what is actually really delicious food. I think you'd have to dine there to "get" that. Everyone I know who has been has raved (and about El Bulli too) so there must be something to it!

    Sam - I know! It was actually very mild though, kind of like a tea.

    Jora - he DOES look like Ethan Hawke - not so much in person because his demeanor is so different, but in the photos I really see it.

  6. Woww, what an interesting presentation. I too love the scent of burning leaves so I bet I would have enjoyed this! Not so sure about the Christmas tree spray!

    Keep having fun :)


  7. This sounds like a fascinating class. I'm dying to taste liquid pine needles now- even if its less than desirable!

  8. "The Volcano" is the key. There is nothing like the aroma from "The V". I have personally used it for years and HIGHLY recommend it!