Yesterday, I attended a high-tech dessert workshop at the French Culinary Institute, led by Dave Arnold and Nils Noren. Dave Arnold is a self-proclaimed gadget geek who works directly with Wylie Dufresne and other avant guarde chefs in NYC as their culinary tech support. He is neither a chef nor a scientist, yet his knowledge of food history and chemistry is vast and formidable. Nils Noren is a Swedish-trained chef, former Executive Chef of Aquavit, and current VP of Culinary Arts of the FCI. Together, they form a dream team with chef Noren's classic background, modern approach, and assured manner playing off of Arnold's frenetic free-flow of technical information.
The workshop consisted of demonstrations of three desserts and one savory dish, each followed by a tasting. The equipment used included a commercial vacuum sealer, a pressure cooker, a pacojet, and a rotary evaporator. The vacuum was put into service to quickly remove bubbles from blended hyrocolloid solutions, a process which usually requires many hours of settling time, to fully pickle red onions in a matter of minutes, and to infuse heavy cream with the smoky flavor of Lapsang Souchong tea without the use of heat. The legendary Durian was cooked in the pressure cooker, then processed into a silky ice cream in the pacojet. This ingredient excited me above all others as it was my first experience with "the king of fruits". I found it strangely wonderful, though not everyone present shared this opinion. The rotovap, a piece of laboratory equipment that Arnold salvaged and then jerry-rigged into a distiller that will extract pure, crystal-clear, liquid essence from anything he desires. It differs from a traditional still in that it uses carefully controlled low temperatures to preserve the flavor and aromas of the resulting elixir. The products in yesterday's workshop were clear brandies, or eau de vies, of two wines: Madeira and Beaumes de Venise. Their flavor and alcohol content (up to 130 proof) were intoxicating. Arnold was quick to point out that the process of privately distilling alcohol is illegal.
Other revelations were puffed pasta, a simple technique that is worthy of it's own future post, and the introduction of red lime paste (made from red slake lime--the mineral, not the fruit), a product that Arnold recently discovered serendipitously. It is alkaline, like baking soda, and was used to soak under-ripe bananas in order to allow them to caramelize and retain their shape. To me, the highlight was the 15 minutes after the workshop where Dave Arnold allowed me to pick his brain with questions about products, applications, and techniques that interested me. I could not write fast enough to keep up with his onslaught of information. He drew me into his maelstrom and gave me a new horizon of possibilities, leaving me awed by how much there is still to learn and discover.
Time to go destroy my kitchen.