It begins with a cheese plate.
One large cube of Point Reyes blue cheese, well marbled with veins of blue-green mold, nicely cut. A small bunch of grapes. A single breadstick dusted with sea salt and black Tasmanian pepper. A little balsamic vinegar. The elements are laid out in a line on an austere, square white plate: first the cheese, then the grapes, then the vin. No garnish, no wrap. But the balsamic vinegar has been caramelized — whipped up into a stiff, peaked foam and given five seconds of love from the Bernz-o-matic blowtorch on the line. Each grape has been individually wrapped in a soft jacket of peanut butter. There's a thin doodle of Alsatian grape syrup sketched across the plate and then a tiny pile of caviar on top of the Point Reyes made of that same syrup plus a little algenate, a little calcium chloride.
Still, it is recognizably a cheese plate, that most easy of first courses on any menu — except this one. With its several culinary impossibilities (or at least improbabilities), its magical elf powders and industrial chemicals and artful trickery, this plate took about fifteen years to create and cost tens of thousands of dollars. It required the obsessive, after-hours work of dozens of stone-crazy chefs scattered around the globe with the kind of minds that think of things like caramelizing a liquid or wrapping a grape in peanut butter when most normal chefs are concerned only with finding new ways to make soft things crispy — the simplest and most basic description of what a chef does for a living, every day of his working life.
Sitting in the main dining room of O's Steak & Seafood at the Westin Westminster (easily the least likely location I can imagine for a transformative culinary epiphany), I stab a shrimp fork through one corner of the cheese, use the edge of my thumb to add a few beads of glistening grape juice caviar, spear a peanut butter grape and drag the whole bite through the cloud of balsamic foam that has the consistency of a ridiculously light and airy mousse. The smells are powerful: astringent vinegar, funky cheese, the blood of grapes. I put the fork in my mouth and the balsamic foam collapses instantly, flooding my mouth and coating my tongue with its thick sharpness. I bite and the grape explodes, mixing with peanut butter, carrying the Alsace sweetness on its back. Then I reach the cheese — earthy and sour, smooth, delicious.
Tasting all of this is one of the strangest, most amazing sensations I've experienced. Never mind that I've spent the last three hours in the kitchen with Ian Kleinman, O's chef de cuisine and the mad scientist responsible for this plate (among other, even weirder things). Never mind that I've followed every step in its construction, been in on the testing and tasting, watched him make caviar out of grape slurry and turn vinegar into a cloud. Knowing all that, I also know that I will never be able to fully describe this single bite — and that I will never, ever forget it. It will be with me for the rest of my life, because this is the moment when everything changes for me.
This is the moment when it all makes sense.
Like the cheese plate, I've spent many years and unconscionable sums of money to get me to this point. I've read books, lots of books, on molecular gastronomy, the clunky, catch-all name given to the intensely science-driven reimagining of cuisine that covers everything from the use of immersion blenders and thermal circulators to an atoms-up revising of the chemical laws of cookery. I've consulted with chefs over the phone and over many beers. I've flown to Chicago to meet Hervé This — the guy who literally wrote the book on molecular gastronomy, called Molecular Gastronomy — and ask him just one very important question: Why?
Even getting to O's to see Ian in action was a long road. It took months for him to get the menu ready for launch — time spent ordering crazily and broadly from Le Sanctuaire (basically getting one of everything from this boutique Santa Monica food company that exists to feed the jones of rich gourmets and chemical enthusiasts everywhere), then experimenting to see what would happen if he mixed this with that, if he overheated carrageenan (it causes cancer) or froze a glass full of olive oil with liquid nitrogen (it explodes). He and I traded e-mails filled with gossip and experimental data and speculation about Iron Chef, and then news of Ian's pure genius move: a miso soup that called for taking a big bowl of broth, adding capsules full of freeze-dried or dehydrated ingredients, then injecting noodles into the broth from a fat syringe, with the combination of crème fraîche, togarishi and a high-gelling methocellulose forming up and solidifying as it came into contact with the hot soup. Essentially, Ian had made food pills — that old-fashioned sci-fi conceit that, like the flying car or personal jet-pack, had never come true.
That encapsulated miso was on the first tasting menu he finally rolled out this month, along with a tableside sorbet of Colorado peaches made with liquid nitrogen, frozen crème anglaise with mango and truffled popcorn, halibut encased in chicken skin. It took a few more weeks to find a day when I could watch Ian in action, and in that time, he acquired enough tricks to change up his menu weekly. The second week's tasting included smoked blueberries and yellow tomato gazpacho spheres melting over an heirloom tomato tart. I showed up on a Monday: launch day for menu number three. "Three o'clock," Ian told me that morning. "Three, three-thirty. You can come play, help me do some prep. We're gonna have some fun."
I agreed. Fun, and then dinner. It had been exactly one thousand nine hundred and thirty-two days, three hours and a few minutes since I'd last worked in a professional kitchen.
But some habits die hard. Without thinking, I showed up early — twenty minutes early, same as I would've for any shift back in the day, when five minutes early meant fifteen minutes late. I sat down in the O Room, which could've been any bar in any nice hotel anywhere in the world. Long oak, lots of polish, TVs on the walls and bottles in the wells. A conference was letting out for the day in one of the Westin's many ballrooms (uncomfortable Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas moment: It was the National Conference on Drugs and Crime), and the bar was starting to fill with top cops and drug counselors from across the country who'd spent the day talking about the dangers of coke and methamphetamine and now wanted to kick back with steak sandwiches and highball glasses full of Jack Daniel's.
Ian came out to take me back to the kitchen. "Learn anything interesting?" he asked.
"Yeah, apparently drugs are bad."
I shrugged. "Who knew?"
He laughed. "Come on back. Let's get you dressed."
Ian's hands are a mess. His fingertips are mauled and swollen, nails anxiety-short, fingers discolored, the backs of his hands and wrists crisscrossed with snaking pink scars that disappear up into the sleeves of his white chef's coat. They are the hands of someone who works for a living. Also, the hands of someone who is absolutely fearless. I watched as he manipulated the syringe filled with algenate-spiked Alsatian grape syrup, warming the syringe, rolling it between those scarred palms, holding it over a plastic cup filled with water and calcium chloride and squeezing out his grape caviar, one teeny drop at a time. As the resplendent purple goo hit the chemical-jacked water, it seemed to recoil, shivering at contact with some catalyst it wasn't expecting. Each drop rolled itself into a perfect, glittering sphere no bigger than the head of a pin and spiraled down to sit at the bottom of the cup, followed by the next one. And the next.
"When I did Aspen Food & Wine, I had to fill three of these," Ian said, stopping the process for a second and, with his wrecked hands, describing a vessel roughly the size of a 7-Eleven Big Gulp. "It took me for-fucking-ever." He picked up the syringe again, hunched himself over the cup of calcium chloride water, let another drop go. "We won't need that much tonight, though." Five minutes passed: drip, drip, drip. Eventually, he straightened up, got a plastic container and a sieve from the shelf above him, set the sieve atop the container and poured — catching the "sphericalization-process faux fruit caviar" in the sieve, emptying the sieve into a third container, adding a shot of the original syrup and swirling them together. Then, taking a spoon, he scooped up about ten minutes' worth of his work and offered it to me.
It tasted like grapes, like very expensive, very powerful gourmet-store jam, but almost carbonated; it was the caviar of a breed of wild grape jelly jars swimming through the deep ocean, stuffed with roe.
"So that's the Alsatian caviar," he said. "That'll go on the cheese plate tonight, I think." He stopped, walked to the edge of his work table, picked up a sheaf of papers covered with almost completely indecipherable scribbles and hieroglyphic drawings of plate designs. He found the cheese-plate page, ran his finger down it. "Yeah. Cheese plate."
Those papers were the rough draft of the night's menu, still coming together in Ian's head, still being constructed by his hands. He flipped through them as we walked back toward the chef's office and he ran down what had been done, what he still needed to do: grape cav, whipped bals, nitro, olive dust, clean office. He put the papers back on his desk, by the computer and the pictures of Ian holding his daughter, Ian grinning maniacally from behind the Lexan shield of what looked like a cop's riot helmet. Most of his work space was taken up by a sheet tray covered with baggies and envelopes and plastic pouches filled with a wizard's array of powders and goops and freeze-dried this-and-that. His Le Sanctuaire order. The only thing I recognized was the dried spearmint.
Ian started talking about marshmallows. The night before, he'd made a marshmallow out of yuzu, pomegranate and Versawhip. But he'd been incautious in his measurements, and it'd blown up to the size of a loaf of bread, then a sheet cake. Ian had wrapped the marshmallow in plastic and tucked it in the cooler, where it had settled, shrunk, taken on the consistency of a sticky steak. "I should've left it out at room temperature," he said. But there's no rule book for this kind of thing, no handbook of best practices. Everything is trial and error. "Want to taste?"
Of course I did. We made our way through the kitchen, passing cooks doing more workaday cook things: chopping romaine, stripping beef bones, making guacamole, slicing tomatoes. From every side, I was assailed by visions of a life I'd abandoned long ago — the crowded shelves of bulk spices, spill of ice melting into a floor drain, rhythmic tock tock tock of knives against wood-block cutting boards, the patois of shouted Spanish, English, French and galley slang, and the indescribable smell of a working kitchen that, like the drugs, I don't miss at all except for every day. In the walk-in, the cold, refrigerated air chilled me even through my borrowed jacket as Ian delved into some back corner for his magical marshmallow loaf. He had all his back stock and finished prep for the night's tasting menu stacked on sheet trays in an old baker's proofing box, and it made me happy to see that, xanthan gum, vacuum-sealers and carbonation guns aside, a lot of today's molecular cooking looks just like cooking did for me.
Ian held out a small wedge of sticky pink-and-white fluff. It tasted like a marshmallow made of oranges and lemons and melons, only without the marshmallow. The texture was a little off, but that's what experimenting is for — to get everything right, to make sure that the yuzu tastes like yuzu and the pomegranate tastes like pomegranate and that the magic marshmallow doesn't taste like a marshmallow at all, only looks like one, feels like one. I asked Ian how many of his experiments actually make it onto a menu, rather than, say, getting shoved into a forgotten corner of one of the dozen walk-ins at O's. "Ten percent," he said without even thinking. "Ten percent, maybe. And that's pretty good."
We kept tasting, stopping at one shelf for a spoon, another for a mixing bowl, raiding the baker's station for a silpat and the office for a blowtorch. He showed me a blender hollandaise that had been gelatinized so that, when exposed to heat, it would caramelize and spread into a sheet and then, when cooled, would hold its shape and solid texture. Only it didn't. Not yet. "Just a matter of finding the right chemical," Ian said, "the right temperature."
We moved into the machine room, where a delivery guy was bringing a new tank of liquid nitrogen taller than I am and as heavy as three of me, at least. When Ian moved to unhook the dispensing nozzle from the kicked tank, the delivery guy moved back nervously, bumping into me in his haste to get clear of the cold billows of sublimating nitrogen that filled the cage and shrouded Ian in clouds of smoke. "When my guys have to do this, they wear the mask," Ian said, pointing to the face shield I'd seen in that picture. "The gloves, aprons. But I don't care. I'm not afraid of it."
In the smoke, he looked like a stage devil in chef's whites, a grinning, mad-eyed magician playing with stuff that could kill you if handled wrong (which is to say, handled just the way he was handling it). When it cleared, he hooked up his new tank, screwed in the hose, grabbed a plain metal coffee carafe from a shelf and filled it with liquid nitrogen that he carried, bare-handed, back into the kitchen. The delivery guy was long gone.
"Check this shit out, man," he said, and the two of us got right back to playing. He flash-froze crème anglaise around a single plump blackberry and handed it to me. It tasted like an impossible ice cream bonbon with a whole, fresh and blood-warm berry nestled in the center. He froze olive oil in a tempered glass cup and scooped it out with a spoon. "Eat it," he said, and when I hesitated, just nodded his head as if to say, Yeah, it's only liquid nitrogen. What's the worst that could happen?
Liquid nitrogen has a taste, a vaguely chemically, plasticky sort of vaporous flavor that is actually the trapped nitrogen turning to gas inside your mouth at the barest touch of your body heat. My spoonful of olive oil dust tasted like olive oil and nitrogen — tasted like the future of more things than I can count — and turned instantly from a sandy grit to oil again the moment it touched my tongue. To chase it, Ian made me a flash-frozen strawberry sorbet with more olive-oil dust on top, then froze a ball of Captain Morgan spiced rum, plunging his bare hands straight into a mixing bowl full of liquid nitrogen to toss the ball around and freeze it evenly.
"This is the part that hurts," he said, only half-joking as the smoke billowed and he winced at the bite of touching liquid held at negative 346 degrees Fahrenheit. He looked over and laughed. "You want to get some scars, too, Sheehan?" he asked, and nudged the carafe of liquid nitrogen closer with his elbow.
Later, he'll tell me about having recently gone to his doctor to have some tests done, and how the doc had came back in a panic. "I had a white-cell count of like, zero," he'll explain, and all sorts of other problems. "Doctor thought I had hepatitis, all this stuff. He asked me, do you work in a factory? Do you do this? Finally, he asks if I work around any industrial chemicals, and I told him about the menu. That was it. Had to not touch any chemicals for a week, went on a fast..."
But even a week away was too much.
Ian told me to hold on for a second while he grabbed something from dry stock, and while he was gone, I looked at the mixing bowl, the smoke. I touched the back of one knuckle to the frosted side of the bowl, and the steel was cold enough that my skin stuck. I looked at the liquid merrily boiling away, the plume of steam that rose when I blew on it.
Fuck it. I reached in. It hurt like a motherfucker.
It would take two days for the feeling to come back to my fingertips, but it was worth it. I was proud of the scars I'd once earned as a cook, as proud as Ian is of his now. And now I'd gotten to touch the future of cooking, too, even if only for a second.
And it felt good.
Before it was time for dinner, Ian and I had tasted our way through most of the menu prep and some of Ian's more unusual experiments. Then we took a break outside the main doors of the Westin, smoking cigarettes and trading stories.
"Gum paste," he said, dreaming aloud of making his own chewing gum to hand out to diners at the conclusion of their meals. He's thinking beet gum would be nice.
"I'm one chemical away from making my own Twinkies," he added, as if this was a good thing, and then he convinced me that it was. Because once he knows how to make Twinkies, he can make better Twinkies than you get at the grocery store.
When I was chasing after Hervé This in Chicago, he said that what makes molecular gastronomy a valid cuisine is that those who practice it well and smartly are chefs who already know how to cook the other cuisines. It's not like Ferran Adria started out making caramel snow globes full of crème brûlée powder or noodles made out of cheese. He started out making chicken, rice, fried squid, whatever. If you use good ingredients, good technique and wisely institute the principles of the new science, there's no reason to assume that the result will be anything less than food. Grilling doesn't make a steak less than a steak — so why would it be less of a steak if it was instantly marinated under extraordinary pressure in a vacuum sealer or turned into a nutritive base and used to impregnate edible paper with a picture of a steak printed on it?
Ian has a slightly different take. He is French-trained. He can bone out a chicken, grill a steak, reduce a demi, make a hollandaise blindfolded, with one hand tied behind his back. He's the son of a chef, did C-school, has fifteen years of cooking behind him in restaurants where he did both well and poorly. Now when he goes to cooking schools, he instructs the instructors on the basic tenets of molecular gastronomy. How to make caviar out of grape juice. "You control the food," he tells them. "The food doesn't control you."
At least, not entirely. After two cigarettes, I followed him back into the kitchen. I watched him assemble four tasting plates for the floor staff and cooks so they could see how each was supposed to look and know how they tasted, laying out squares of gelée off the tip of a knife, spooning out clouds of balsamic vinegar fluffed with Versawhip and piped carbonated cantaloupe jelly.
And each time his hands got close to the plate, they shook.
I taste the cheese, eating that which I, for once and again, was at least tangentially involved in making.
Back in civilian attire, I'm sitting in the dining room. It's beautiful in the setting sun, looking out over a broad courtyard, artistic pillars and a man-made lake on whose far shore buzzes the gaudy red neon of a Rock Bottom Brewery. The waitstaff is young, mostly female, decent to a point but somewhat clumsy in their attempts to sell the tasting menu to other tables; most diners go for more standard fare.
The second tasting course is a single scoop of liquid-nitrogen sorbet — a palate cleanser, pomegranate, agave nectar and roasted tomato with black-olive dust — served in a hand sculpted out of ice. It's Ian's hand. The imagery is not lost on me. It's prepared tableside, and Ian himself wheels out the cart. "How are you finding dinner tonight, sir?" he mugs. "Feeling all right?"
Third course: sous-vide Alaskan king crab that is really double-sous-vide crab because the crabs were boiled whole, sectioned, the meat removed, then re-vacuum-bagged and slow-cooked again for eight hours at some ridiculously low temperature along with some frozen beurre blanc, a sprig of thyme. The plate is the same white plate used for the cheese course, the linear arrangement of elements no less beautiful. The crab is set atop warm, piped parmesan mayonnaise, dotted with green peas, shiitake mushrooms and thyme. On one end, there's a single dot of brilliant red sriracha, in the middle a puddle of carbonated cantaloupe jelly (which I hadn't liked during the tasting and don't like any better now) and on the other end, two squares of roasted melon and spearmint leaves, robbed of their most vital juices, turned into a clear amber gelée and stacked like breath mints.
After three bites of the crab/thyme/mayo/pea/shiitake combination, I have to call for Ian. He sits down next to me on the banquette, beaming because he can see the flush in my cheeks, the tears standing out in my eyes.
"I know, man," he says. "I know."
It is the best crab I have had in my life, the best English peas, the best shiitake mushrooms ever. It is an absolute wonder of science and cuisine, of processes I barely understand, of chemicals whose names I can't remember. The crab melts on my tongue like butter, only butter made of crab. The peas have been marinated under pressure, or maybe marinated while frozen. The shiitakes are merely roasted, but roasted to the ideal state of chewy-tender, dry and concentrated doneness. Perfect. I try to tell this to Ian. He just nods, says thank you and slips away, back into the kitchen, his lab, his playground of the future.
After the crab, anything else would be a letdown. I think a blow job and a salad made of hundred-dollar bills would be a letdown. Unfortunately, I don't get to test this theory, but instead move on to the dessert course: a beet meringue topped with almond yogurt turned into ice cream, bits of seared quince and a bed of pine caramel made from tufts clipped from the branches of a pine tree growing right outside the dining room — terroir in extreme. I follow that with a glass of Robert Hall port and a good cigar while I sit beside the fire on the patio.
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After a while, Ian huffs down in a chair beside me, and we talk. He tells me that he's tired, that his wife is pissed at him because he isn't home enough and because, working twelve or fourteen hours a day, he isn't getting to see his little girl at all. He says he's going to take a vacation, starting tomorrow. He's taken pictures of all his plates, left prep instructions for his cooks. Tomorrow, they'll be the ones freezing their fingertips, sculpting the gelée, making the caviar — but only if people order the tasting menu, which is never a sure thing.
Last week, Ian sold just seventeen tasting menus. The week before, twelve. There are nights when he and his crew turn 350 in the dining room and not a single person goes for anything overtly molecularly gastronomical — except for the flashy tableside sorbet, which has always been a solid seller.
But even without ordering the tasting menu, the diners at O's still experience molecular gastronomy. Bits of it are scattered all through the menu — asparagus served with the same nitrous-fired parmesan mayonnaise he uses on the crab plate, short ribs done sous-vide — even if Ian doesn't call attention to them. Which is the way to do it, he insists. Have one, freaky, intimidating and bizarre menu full of crazy Mr. Wizard shit available for the adventurous, then take the best things from that menu and incorporate them into the regular board. That's how this new cuisine is going to become acceptable, he insists, how it's going to work. You can't give the people meat paper or fruit caviar until they've gotten hip to sous-vide; you can't get them hip to sous-vide until they've come to accept slow-poaching and immersion blenders. As with anything, there's a process, and though Ian has always been something of a rebel (serving seawater gelée and wasabi popcorn that turned everyone's mouths blue at Indigo; trying to start his own soup company by carrying around samples in a black briefcase and showing them to chefs in parking lots, laying the case on the hoods of cars like some kind of weight coke dealer and asking if they had a microwave he could use), he's growing up a little, thinking more, planning for the future even though, in his kitchen, the future is already here.
"You know how it is," he says. "Being a chef, it's all about the tricks you know. It's all about being the guy who knows more, who does something first. Well, now I've got a whole new bunch of new tricks I know. When I want to cook something, I can just cook it." No longer is cooking about grilling this, searing that. It's about instant freezing and chemicals that have been the tools solely of the food processors for too long. It's about reimagining absolutely everything. "There are no rules, you know? We can do anything."