What if Food Changed Mid-Meal?

Photo by Lara Kastner

What if a course could change right before your eyes, and your palate, while you were eating it? The interjection of a temperature, texture, aroma, or ingredient would morph the course into two distinctly different ones. With this idea we explore how we can drastically change the identity of a course during mid-consumption.

At first thought this seems like an easy concept, and even one that is already common in the world of restaurants. Some traditional practices hint at it. While eating shabu shabu, you apply heat to various proteins right before consumption, changing them from raw to cooked. The tableside saucing and garnishing of a soufflé adds a flavor component to the dessert, and even the shaving of truffles over pasta produces a changing of the dish after it has left the kitchen. But with all of these examples the course is altered before the guest takes their first bite. Therefore they don't quite exemplify what we are shooting for. I want to create a dish that can be eaten as it is originally presented to the guest, and then at a calculated moment, roughly half way into it, interject a temperature, texture, aroma, or ingredient that essentially creates a new dish entirely.

As we started to explore the idea of the Jekyll and Hyde concept it became apparent that it would require additions dealing in areas of extreme to successfully transform the food enough, and change the eating experience of the dish dramatically to meet our goal.

In a moment, everything has changed, even the utensil required to eat moves from fork to spoon.

The first way we approached this was extreme temperature additions. Obviously as cooks we change the properties of food on a daily basis in the kitchen by applying heat to various foodstuffs. That is what cooking is all about...and we are cooks. This is no doubt why we looked to this familiar direction first.

We have played with cooking at the table before. By placing food on hot river stones or custom made service ware designed to be both a cooking surface and a plate, we were able to bring the elements of the preparation typically isolated to the kitchen (smells, sounds, and participation) to the dining room. But the food arrived basically in its final state and the eating experience was one-dimensional.

But imagine a salad-like composition of raw vegetables with supporting garnishes including starch based crunchy components that act as croutons, encapsulated herb juices exploding with vinaigrette freshness, and pudding-like condiments of liquefied cheese being transformed by the application of a rich, extremely hot, dairy-based broth, being poured over the course at the midway point of consumption. The former light, crunchy, and cold characteristics of the salad turn into a rich, hot soup. In a moment, everything has changed, even the utensil required to eat moves from fork to spoon.

The crouton elements turning into dumpling like textures while they take on liquid, the vegetables yield from the tableside cooking process, and the spherified herb juices become floating raviolis of much needed brightness in the rich, chowder-like soup.

Could we apply dry heat sources and get a similar effect?

What about reversing the order and adding liquid nitrogen, turning a hot soup into a sorbet or ice cream?

The thought of this mid-consumption transformation was exciting to me, so I started to think of other themes beyond the obvious addition of temperature. Could we make a dish taste entirely different by introducing a smell?

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Grant Achatz is chef and owner of Chicago's Alinea. He grew up in the restaurant industry, literally, with restaurateurs as parents and grandparents. More

Born in Michigan in 1974, Grant Achatz grew up in the restaurant industry, literally, with his parents and grandparents being restaurateurs. Naturally curious and always driven, he could be found in the kitchen by his twelfth birthday and over the coming years spent most of his free time there, learning and developing the very skills that would allow him to become one of the foremost innovators in the field. Early on he realized he wanted to become a chef, and upon graduating from high school, he immediately enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America. Excelling at the CIA, Achatz graduated and ascended the culinary ladder at several prestigious restaurants, including the acclaimed French Laundry in Napa Valley. Achatz worked closely with owner Thomas Keller, and thrived in his highly creative, dedicated environment. After two years, he became Keller's Sous Chef. In a decisive move to broaden his knowledge and experience, Achatz accepted a position as Assistant Winemaker at La Jota Vineyards after four years at The French Laundry. Then in 2001, he returned to the Midwest when he accepted the Executive Chef position at the four-star Trio in Evanston, Illinois. Achatz flourished at Trio, garnering accolades including being named the James Beard Foundation's 2003 Rising Star Chef in America and one of ten "Best New Chefs in America" by Food & Wine in 2002. Under Achatz's lead, Trio received four stars from the Chicago Tribune and Chicago magazine and was honored with five stars from the celebrated Mobil Travel Guide in 2004. Known worldwide in culinary circles as one of the leaders in progressive cuisine, Achatz realized a lifelong dream by opening Alinea in Chicago in May 2005. From day one, Achatz and Alinea received extraordinary attention and unprecedented accolades. The Chicago Tribune and Chicago magazine both awarded the restaurant four stars within months of opening, and the James Beard Foundation nominated Alinea as the Best New Restaurant in America within a year. In September 2005, The New York Times identified Achatz as the "next great American chef." In October a year later, Alinea received the coveted Five Diamond Award from AAA, and Ruth Reichl of Gourmet magazine declared Alinea the "Best Restaurant in America," an honor bestowed only once every five years. Under Achatz's leadership, Alinea continues to receive worldwide attention for its hypermodern, emotional approach to dining. In both 2007 and 2008, Alinea was named one of "The S. Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants" published by Restaurant magazine, and Achatz himself received the James Beard Foundation Outstanding Chef in America award, the culinary equivalent of an Oscar, in 2008. Achatz has appeared on the Today show, CBS Sunday Morning, the Food Network, the Discovery Channel, and PBS, and has been featured in dozens of periodicals across the US and the globe including countries as far away as Sweden, Finland, Great Britain, Spain, Italy, the Philippines, and France.

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