The month of August has gone the way of the other months – that is to say that it was packed with crazy adventures, cool experiences, and lots of work. It was also my last month at The Cooking Lab, as I finished my contract on Monday. Ever since finishing the latest book, Modernist Cuisine at Home, we have been focusing on promotional events, including dinners, guest cheffing, and different media events, like the one on Tested.com. In between time, we have been working on a few research projects that had been set aside during our months of promotional events.
I had the awesome experience of perfecting French macarons, which we were able to serve in two of our August dinners. I had baked off dozens and dozens of different shell recipes and filled them with all sorts of fillings until I was finally able to get to a flavor combination and texture that we all liked. We finally settled on an orange macaron shell with a dark chocolate ganache, yuzu jelly, and preserved grapefruit confit. We also served a creamy parsnip puree ganache with a tart apple pate de fruits and fresh lime zest inside a light green macaron shell.
As we began winding down our work with Modernist Cuisine at Home, I began considering what my next steps should be. I had been working on three-month contracts with the lab, and I had been extended twice. With the potential of a third short-term contract but a yet unknown project, my position wasn’t guaranteed. I began seeking other options while also being focused on the promotional events we did. The final promotional event I did with the Modernist Cuisine team was the Charlie Trotter’s 25th Anniversary Gala, and boy, was it an event!
We traveled to Chicago in an ultra glamorous way – at least by my standards – by flying in a private jet! I’ve only ever dreamed of traveling that way, and it was fantastic! The jet seated 8 passengers and had bench seating to allow for free movement and hanging out time. The interior of the jet had the beautiful polished wood that I’d only seen in luxury cars, and the various cameras on the plane offered views of the jet from under one wing, from the vertical stabilizer (central tail), and others. Probably the best yet was the opportunity to sit in the jump seat just behind the pilots. I was able to sit during the take-off portion of our flight out, and it was incredible! The speed and thrust of the plane were breathtaking, and we were airborne and at over 40,000 feet in no time at all.
We were greeted in Chicago by Master Sommelier Larry Stone, who picked us up in a privately chartered shuttle. He came armed with a case of champagne glasses and two bottles of sparkling wine. When we arrived at Charlie Trotter’s restaurant, we were greeted by the entire staff, who were standing outdoors in a receiving line like we’d never received. After the applause settled, it began to really dawn on me that the dinner in which we were participating would be unlike any other I’d served.
Cooking at Charlie Trotter’s is something that many culinary students and young professionals dream about, and I felt poorly qualified to be there. However, I had learned so much from the staff at the Modernist Cuisine lab, that I knew that the food we prepared was top quality. It was so eye-opening to see the kitchen of one of the most famous kitchens in North America. The crew was comprised of many young chefs and cooks who were much like me – early in their careers, given the chance of a lifetime to cook at a famous kitchen and see what they were made of. Many of them were highly talented, and I know that once they leave Trotter’s, they will go far.
We were treated like celebrities the first day in Chicago. We stayed at the Park Hyatt, a five-star hotel that boasted generous room service, an elaborate bathroom, and plush beds. We had a view of the lake beyond the shopping district’s buildings, and gift bags laden with wine, water, snacks, and two of Chef Trotter’s books were left in each of our rooms. I split a room with Anjana, and we stayed up way too late the first night talking.
Together with the other guest chefs, we enjoyed a tasting menu prepared by Chef Trotter’s team. It was creative, unusual, and varied. Some of the dishes were absolutely smashing, but some of them were probably a bit too edgy to became staples of a menu. I hadn’t eaten a dinner that consisted of more than 5 courses, so it was quite an experience for me. Being young in the industry and certainly not wealthy enough for elaborate dinners, I made sure to soak up every bit of the experience I could. I am so grateful to Chef Max for making me part of the team and including me on this final event.
On Saturday and Sunday we prepared for the big dinner, which we served on Sunday night. On Saturday, after prep work was finished, we tasted Chicago-style hot dogs at Hot Doug’s, a famous joint for both traditional and zany flavors. The flavors we split among several of us included on with the Chicago style green relish, one topped with foi gras, one prepared with rattlesnake sausage, and one topped with portabello mushrooms and cheese. We also tasted the duck fat french fries, but before you drool over those, I’d recommend just getting the normal fries. They’d probably be crunchier than our soggy, wilted ones. Each hot dog was so unusual, and despite the creativity, I will still rarely find myself craving a hot dog.
Saturday night we went to Chef Trotter’s home to enjoy a tacos and tequila dinner catered by Avec and Big Star. I didn’t know the names of the places before, but they’re well known restaurants in Chicago, and their items were spot on. I returned to Avec’s table for their famous focaccia several times, because the ricotta and other fillings were just addicting. The date stuffed with cheese and chorizo was pretty darn good, too. Big Star offered up a fish taco and a carnitas taco and provided freshly fried chips and various salsas all night. Truthfully, this was probably our best meal to that point.
After that, my colleague, Scott, and I connected with a chef from Alinea. Chef Eric Rivera is the R&D Chef for them, and he is insanely talented. I contributed to one article on his blog when he staged at Noma, and our friendship was pretty much set. He is going far, so it was exciting to reconnect with him. He and Scott, together with Jethro, wrote the Jet City Gastrophysics blog, which I read before I started working at MC.
Sunday was a long day. I think we worked for 18 hours. I know, many chefs and people in other industries also work comparable hours, but it was a record for me. We didn’t really get to see the other chef’s items, but some of the extra plates were dropped off in our side kitchen, so we did get to see them. Incredible. Chef Sean Brock’s catfish dish wasn’t muddy, and it flaked beautifully. The chocolate pudding dessert they made was rich and satisfying. Chef Tetsuya Wakuda’s crab dish was perfectly cooked, gently but artfully seasoned, and the plating was simple and precise. We served the famous Spring Pea Stew, Pastrami – Chicago style, banana milkshake, liquid caprese made of centrifuged tomato water and mozzarella water, centrifuged green pea “butter” on toast, and fruit minestrone made with centrifuged stone fruit juices and fresh Chicago farmers market fruits. Yes, we did lots of centrifuging the week before. While these were dishes with which we were all very familiar, the guests were really wowed, and it was wonderfully affirming to know that I had been working at a kitchen that was producing envelope-pushing foods that were both extremely flavorful and creative.
We flew back on Monday morning, and my fellow young chef, Aaron, had the unbelievable opportunity to sit in the jump seat the entire flight. He even had a chance to sit in the cockpit for a length of the flight! You know, if cooking doesn’t work out for him, he could try flying. He’s already gotten some cockpit time. While Aaron was flying the plane, I was enjoying a cheese course. Yah, a cheese course on a plane. If I’d wanted, I could probably have had wine with it too.
It was an amazing opportunity and experience to travel with the Modernist Cuisine team to Chicago. It really summarizes my entire experience at the Lab. Every day has been something unique, something new. I became accustomed to having tours walk through the kitchen lab, and I wasn’t that curious or scared of camera crews anymore. I was less shocked when I saw rather famous faces come through the lab, and I even managed to greet them without being concerned about the star-struck grin that danced just under the surface. I learned more about the absolute precision needed to prepare extremely fine dining food. I received input from famous chefs whose chief goal was to produce the best. I developed friendships with famous, ground-breaking chefs of different generations. I can’t trade any of those experiences for anything else in the world.
Thank you, Chef Maxime Bilet, for continually giving me just a bit more than I was comfortable doing. Thank you, Nathan Myhrvold for the resources and access to ingredients, tools, and inventors that only you could gather. Thank you, Sam, for the reality checks and the suggestions of how to prevent overhydration of popping candy in chocolate. Thank you, Johnny, for the amazing lunches, the hilarious comments, and the patient explanations. Thank you, Anjana, for teaching me good habits from keeping my station organized to trimming baby radishes precisely. Thank you, Aaron, for guiding our conversations as I grew into my assistant role. Ben, Andy, my fellow interns and great cooks in your own rights, thank you for always seeking ways to grow and helping distribute the weight of the tasks. Thank you, Melissa and Tyson, for photographing my food and making it go from ordinary to breathtaking. Thanks also to Chris and Stephanie and the other editors who made my food and my writing shimmer and fit within the style of MC. I had no idea how much work it took. Thank you to the machinists, mechanics, engineers, and other scientists who helped shape my experiences at the Lab. And thank you to Scott for continuing to encourage me to aim high and go after my dreams. Welcome to Larissa, the new food scientist, who has so much research to do! I cannot wait to see your next projects, and I appreciate all the skills and knowledge you’ve given me.