What’s it like to sear caramel on a -34 °C anti-griddle, poach doughnuts in liquid nitrogen (around -196 °C), or use low temperatures to slow-cook food in vacuum-sealed pouches in a thermal immersion circulator (that’s sous vide for those in the know)? Although they may seem like leftovers from some ’70s sci-fi movie, these modern cooking techniques are starting to move beyond professional kitchens and into homes, buoyed in part by the March release of Nathan Myhrvold’s staggering six-volume Modernist Cuisine. In honour of the 2,500-page tome, The Cookbook Store hosted a two-hour workshop, which saw many of Toronto’s hottest chefs and industry tastemakers piled into Nella Cucina’s upstairs cooking studio, including Grant van Gameren (The Black Hoof), Nick auf der Mauer (Porchetta and Co.), sommelier Jamie Drummond, Dinah Koo (Koo and Co.) and Lucy Waverman.
At the sold-out event, John Placko (culinary director of Maple Leaf Foods) smoked (via a smoking gun), shaved (in a Pacojet), boiled (in liquid nitrogen), squeezed (through silicon tubing), aerated (though a ISI gourmet whip), cooked (in a Thermomix) and pickled (instantly, using compression sealing) a variety of foods, all to show how these sometimes mind-bending techniques can be used in the modern home (provided one has thousands of dollars to spare). Although Modernist Cuisine contains meticulous instructions, Placko notes that it isn’t all rocket science. Most people who have used an immersion stick blender, kitchen scale, pressure cooker or a digital probe thermometer have been exposed to the basics.
Placko also debunked a few commonly accepted culinary practices, such as how to aerate wine and make duck confit. Instead of decanting wine, Modernist Cuisine suggests blitzing a bottle of wine on high for 30 seconds in a blender. Myhrvold’s cookbook also notes that it would also be very difficult to differentiate between duck cooked in a vat of fat from one that has been steam cooked then brushed with duck fat later on.
Attendees were given an opportunity to taste-test many of the demoed products, including watermelon meat, a lemon-less lemon curd and other edible curiosities. While many items were visually dazzling and well received, Waverman noted she enjoyed watching the food being prepared more than the chemical taste some items left on her palate. However, the cookbook author acknowledged that some of the techniques, like sous vide, could be useful in small quantities as part of a larger composed plate.
Chefs like Matt Kantor (Little Kitchen, Secret Pickle Supper Club), who has experience using modern techniques, attended the event to learn about new equipment. He told us that for him, modern cooking is about getting great quality products to people for, potentially, less money. Van Gameren, whose Black Hoof and Co. opens later this spring, noted that the evening was a celebration of advancement in culinary arts. Although the chef admitted that the techniques are open to abuse, he felt that in moderation and with common sense, they could help make food better. “To be here as a diner and not a chef, this gives you an appreciation when you go out to dinner at Alinea or places like that.”