I’m on hands and knees with carbohydrate extraordinaire Iacopo Falai, cutting out pieces of aluminum stud with some heavy-duty scissors. I pass them along to Iacopo. “We’re building a bar,” he says.
I’d been invited to help make some preparations for the 7th International Chefs Congress, or, as its known in the industry, “Star Chefs.” I wouldn’t be paid in money, but I would get free access to the big event, plus one – a $1,500 value. I blindly hurdled myself at the offer, even if it meant getting out the carpentry pants.
As we worked late into the night cobbling together Iacopo’s temporary kitchen, I salivated, quite literally, at the wacky science and technology ahead. And of course, the thought of free samples.
I walk into the Armory at about 1pm on Sunday afternoon, pick up my press badge, and wander into the exhibition hall. It’s up to here with epicurean vivacities. With samples being handed out left and right, it’s like the 1% club’s version of being at Costco on the weekend.
Intent audiences wear wireless headsets to pickup on chefs that are often mumbling at dishes.
A frantic chef sets the tone as he scolds his posse, yelling “This is cold!” while pushing his test fingers into a soft blanket of cheese focaccia. He jams it back into a fancy toaster oven as rapacious onlookers gather around for a bite. Culinary experts, upscale food distributors, happily mad scientists, and sexy promotional staffers bump elbows to get a piece while I, a veteran Costco-goer, shove my hand in and walk two long strides away. Damn — it’s the best focaccia I’ve ever had. It’s full of moist but dry layers of breadiness. It’s like a croissant, but the pretention in the air alone suggests something more has been put into this thing. Its delicately warm cheese flavor wafts into my lung as the loudspeakers echo throughout the Armory with the banter of demonstrators on the adjacent main stage.
“So where’s the all the sous vide gear?” I’m thinking. At such an upscale show, I expected to see more of the esoteric hot-water vacuum-packed tech that chefs have been going crazy with in modern cuisine since the 60’s and 70’s.
Lamb cooking sous vide
For newbies, cooking sous vide (French for in vacuum) is when you place something in an airtight, cookable, plastic bag. You plop the bag into a tank of water that is heated by a water circulator to a specific temperature. This is how culinary pro’s achieve those evenly cooked airline-style steaks without losing any juices, without adding any unnecessary water, or without ever touching any unnecessary pots and pans. Coming to this convention, I was sure there would be a whole gang of competitors slinging their hi-tech kitchen gadgetry left and right. I didn’t have to wait long to find it, as I was quickly hypnotized by a gleeful inventor:
At first you smell it and you think, ‘Ahh, this is going to light me on fire. It’s Thai chili pepper.’ But you drink it, and it drinks like tea.
“It’s just going to give you the aroma of apple cider," says Philip Preston, as he takes a whiff of apple cider liquid he’s distilled with his $9,230 Rotary Vacuum Evaporator. "The first time Grant Atkins had one, he distilled Thai chili peppers and lemon grass. And then he served that just as a shot as a part of another course. At first you smell it and you think, ‘Ahh, this is going to light me on fire. It’s Thai chili pepper.’ But you drink it, and it drinks like tea. You see, not everything moves in a distillation process.”
Then he showed us the Smoking Gun™. It’s only $100! “One of my favorite things to do with this is to smoke water," he says. "You smoke the water and then you make ice cubes out of the water. Then you serve whiskey on the rocks, you pour it over the smoked ice cubes, it’s great.”
Despite his successes in the kitchen, Preston’s original talent for invention was in temperature control solutions. Polyscience, which Phillip founded in 1963, has only been dabbling in the culinary line for the last decade. But with sous vide immersion circulators (the gadget that controls water temperatures) that you can track with the company’s new iPad app, the smoke gun, the flash freeze table, and a homogenizer that uses sonic-frequency blasting instead of heat, the growing array of Preston’s hi-tech kitchen crafts place it at dead center of any food-nerd’s gaze.
Preston shows off his $1,235 Anti-Griddle™ flash freezing table
After talking to Polyscience, I headed over to the Nespresso booth for an espresso, and I munched on three different ages of Wisconsin gruyère. I gobbled down a rabbit-rillette-with-spicy-carrot hummus-pickled-cucumber-pita-tuile-and-sesame-powder and chased that with a carbonated ginger-infused apple cider (courtesy Brad Thompson of Bellyful Consulting), I grabbed another espresso and then I went outside to receive my partner in Motherboard mischief, McLean Gordon. Here’s what we found:
Daniel: Hey dude, what do you think of this tuna?
McLean: These guys are promoting vacuum sealed seafood straight from Tsukigi. It’s a sign of things to come. Vacuum sealed bags are all over the place.
That ginger beer?
How would you describe the sight of this well-ordered bar with the bartender’s top so perfectly matching the lime-green color of this ginger beer, Dan?
What do you think of their gruyère?
This is a very pungent cheese.
Is there alcohol in that cake?
Yes, there’s Sambuca, some more of that cheese — oh, and a little pretzel is in here. It’s really good, Dan.
McLean, come here, they want you to try this Chilean Pisco Sour.
Do you know about sous vide?
No, what’s that?
There’s a dude right there that’ll explain it:
Chef Tim Franks of FlavorSeal™ explains sous vide to McLean.
Now on to McLean’s side of things:
The room over the audience is dark, and the spotlights shine on a long table covered in an array of mysterious foods. Virgilio Martinez, ambassador of Peruvian cuisine describes his native country as a “wonderland of wild Amazonian products,” while a gang of food pornographers gets tight shots of the chef and his ingredients.
A host in flame-red pants offers dead-pan commentary, at one point declaring that a sample from Virgilio “tastes a little like when the mud-mask gets in your lips.”
A sample from Virgilio “tastes a little like when the mud-mask gets in your lips.”
Virgilio is busy making what he refers to as “leche de tigre,” or tiger’s milk, which will be the base for a hypothetical ceviche. This tantalizing dish will never cross the threshold of the human lips. It’s final destination is presumably the trash. Like the trillions of sperms wasted in the making of pornography, this creamy sauce is utterly alienated from its function.
Eventually, a woman passes around a handful of dried herbs, which taste like a swisher sweet, but that’s the extent of her largesse. As the host in red pantaloons abruptly pulls the plug on the presentation, the audience returns to milling about the booths and food stands.
Wandering the stalls is all about the waxen cupped-sample. Razorback clams, slivers of jamon iberico and Puerto Rican rum cocktails slide down curious gullets as celebrity chefs put on displays of bravado.
Chef Paul Liebrandt of Corton prepares a subtle red raspberry red cabbage meringue.
At one point, a befuddled journalist passes around a large metal bowl lined with a puce foam – allegedly some form of meringue. A mass of strangers dip their naked fingers into the creamy morass, where germs multiply unchecked.
High-end pasta shape machines
All around like so many implements of torture in an inquisitor’s boudoir are a broad range of high-powered kitchenware. While the polished steel of blenders, espresso makers, knives, glistens in the background, the most coveted appliance of all, the sous vide cooking apparatus steals the show. Sous vide is french for “under vacuum,” and it refers to the method of heating food in vacuum sealed plastic bags dipped like impenetrable teabags into heated water.
Coincidentally, “le vide existentiel” is French for that purposeless and apathetic despair endemic to modern consumerism. Cooking “sous vide” is cooking for the lost nihilist. There’s really nothing like staring at raw meat through transparent plastic for hours on end. Presumably a severed human head would cook flawlessly sous vide. It would come out smiling and totally safe to eat.
Daniel Stuckey writes:
I return Monday afternoon, because the New York Armory is conveniently located next door to school. I head to the Upper East Side, my stomach purring more than it is growling because I know that soon I’ll be back in the heaven of a tastemaker’s playground. Sommeliers, restaurateurs, and cooks from all over the world will be waiting when I arrive — and they’ll have rotated in some new dishes that further show off the equipment, the techniques, the versatility of application, etc. Monday is also a favored day-off for many chefs, being one of the least busy days of the week. I suppose there will be more around. I put on my badge and reenter the exhibition hall. I text McLean, “You know what I’m doing right now? You know exactly.”
I’m only getting him on record when he says, “wintergreen pudding, celery leaf, walnut powder, seablite and white chocolate.”
I head grab some imported japanese tuna and shamelessly puncture it with my toothpick, professionally seasoning it with soy sauce and wasabi. I march about, making rounds at the Nespresso stand and the gruyere cheese booth. I try a macaroon that’s been dusted with a ground chili pepper by a Portland company that says its growing the pepper that originates in Basque country. Yes — it’s somehow incredible, just like everything I’ve tasted at the convention. After wolfing down some giancule, Brandon Baltzley of CRUX Culinary Collective is demoing a special chunk of celery that is so complicated — I keep trying to record his explanation of the confection’s components and I’m only getting him on record when he says, “wintergreen pudding, celery leaf, walnut powder, seablite and white chocolate.” I return to the Nespresso one last time and pound one final espresso. I see Iacopo walking about in high spirits and resolve to myself that next year I’ll wake up a little earlier to watch some of the event’s competitions which take place during breakfast hours.
I’m on my way to leave when I run into a mad scientist.
Hey Wylie Dufresne, how are you?
Hi, I’m good. But I’m also late, I don’t want to miss Jordan Kahn at the main stage.
Ahh, Star Chefs. While the event’s aisles are lined with equipment that I’ll probably never buy, the chance to push through the dutch doors of big name kitchens and brush elbows with the finest cuisine-makers is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. These madmen of food tweak every last component of flavor, contort every last taste-bud of the tongue into saying, “uncle,” jerk every last ecstatic tear from the eyes of foodies. I figure that if I’m to ever increase my current levels of connoisseurship, which aren’t exactly microscopic, Star Chefs might just have to get familiar with this insatiably vulturous sample grabber. So food festival organizers, take note: I’m always ready to put on my carpentry pants and build a pop-up food altar or two if it means a free pass.
Photographs and video by Dan Stuckey