Stopping by the hydrocolloid (think gums that gel in the presence of water) class at The French Culinary Institute in the windowless amphitheater on a sunny Friday seemed like a crime against summer. But it took about five minutes before I was completely engrossed and hadn’t a care for the weather outside. The overhead projector and jars filled with mystery powders made me feel as if I was back in high school chemistry, only better, because this time all the experimentations resulted in interesting, delicious foods. Nils Norén, formerly executive chef at Aquavit in New York City and now vice president of culinary and pastry at The FCI, and Dave Arnold, Columbia MFA grad turned food scientist and now director of the culinary technology department, have been creating buzz in the world of food technology for some time now with their pushing-the-envelope techniques and inventive flavor experiences. Arnold’s Colonial era-inspired hot-poker cocktail, which made its debut at L’Ecole (the school’s SoHo restaurant) this winter, had the food paparazzi and mixologists across the city in a stir. But this is starting with the simple stuff.
Words like rotary evaporation, sonic dismembration, and vacuum dehydration are thrown around like the rest of us use sauté, poach, or sear. And with the latest toy, the centrifuge machine, Arnold has been turning out batches and batches of nut butters and oils, leaving the chefs at The FCI with the creative dilemma of how to use all that by-product. But as Norén and Arnold demonstrate in their hydrocolloid class, all you need to do is mix in a little maltodextrin to that oil to make a lovely powdery soil. We tried pecan. It was addictive and delicious. It simply melts on the tongue.
They also took a classic margarita set with agar-agar, blended it into a fluid gel, vacuumed it to remove air bubbles to make it translucent, and then folded in freshly chopped mint and strawberries for a tasty dip with a very unique texture. And the list goes on and on. Whether in their sous-vide (vacuum-bag cooking) or hydrocolloid class, you are bound to learn something new about food and the boundaries of cooking and baking. What is possible seems a little more plastic, even magic. Apple juice stirred with National Starch Textaid A produces applesauce—even the texture is amazingly close to what you
would buy in the grocery store. It’s impossible not to get caught up in the experimental creativity of it all. The classes are fantastic. And although not specifically pastry-driven, they’re still a valuable introduction to the possibilities of food preparation employing the techniques of culinary science—and hey, it all applies. Norén and Arnold started their own blog, Cooking Issues, in April of this year. Entertaining and chock-full of information, it’s a daily must-read. The techniques they discuss are becoming increasingly prevalent in all aspects of food prep. You may pick up a new trick or two, or just have fun reading about the new territory in food that chefs are exploring. I know I’ll be going back for more.
Tell me more about Nils Norén and Dave Arnold.
What exactly are these hydrocolloids? (We couldn’t explain it better ourselves—really!)
What’s the big deal behind this hot-poker drink?