We were recently asked to expand our culinary horizons at Westfield. We were approached by an event customer to try and come up with innovative new culinary offerings, such as the Molecular Gastronomy trend. We were extremely fortunate to have Sous Chef Dan Johnson on our team. He had some experience with this culinary technique and was able to pull off some wonderful items for the event. I have asked him to share his experience in a guest author piece. - Chad Caplinger
Every Chef has had the same experience over and over again: “I have the BEST recipe for….” or, “Oh, you’re a Chef? I love the Food Network! Do you ever watch…(insert overrated TV show here)?”
With the proliferation of cooking shows and trends constantly flooding the television, everyone considers themselves a “foodie”. This of course poses a challenge for us in the industry. As Chefs and owners, how do we keep up with the times? How can we continue to impress our customers when we have to compete with not only our local competitors, but also with restaurants around the country? In an effort to satisfy a customer’s request, I believe I found the answer in one word: Innovation
I was approached with a request which I believe stretches to the edge of the culinary industry. A customer had recently visited moto restaurant in Chicago. This restaurant is known for its practice of molecular gastronomy. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, it refers to the science of cooking. Originally it was the research of the chemical reactions that occur while cooking food. As researched continued, cooks began to realize that they could manipulate food to fit their artistic needs, as well as to take food to levels never thought to be possible. And moto has embraced this trend, turning their establishment into more of a laboratory than a kitchen and dining room. Their main focus is to “trick” a person into eating something that doesn’t resemble food at all, from edible menus to sushi rolls made to look like a burning cigar. The customer enjoyed the experience so much, that he wanted his guests of the event we were planning (all 150 of them) to have a similar experience.
Innovation was the theme as I approached this task. While I had done some experimenting with molecular gastronomy before, I was still nervous as to whether or not I could deliver. Something like this had never been done before here at Westfield. We didn’t have the equipment, no history or benchmarking to start with, and no idea what would work for a catering scale of 150+ guests. We did have the courses though: Salad and Dessert. So I started with a basic dessert. I aimed to please those that would be looking for something normal comparatively. I settled on a Deconstructed Strawberry Pound Cake. A square of pound cake, on one side a mound of whipped cream, on the other a macerated slice of strawberry topped with a strawberry foam (Can be made with a whipped cream charger).
Now it was time for that innovation to come into play. I knew that I wanted to incorporate spherification into this project. This uses two different chemicals to encapsulate a liquid into a sphere. I used two sizes; a small sphere to make chocolate, caramel, and cherry juice “caviar” for the dessert, and a 1 ounce size to turn balsamic dressing into an “egg” for the salad course. The final result was a salad resembling a birds nest, using a hollowed red pepper as the vessel, mixed greens and shredded Phyllo dough as a crouton component. On top the dressing was placed, and the sphere allowed the guest to break the “egg” over the nest, thus dressing their own salad. For dessert I made what I call Sunday Shooters. I layered the previously mentioned “caviar” into a 2-ounce shooter glass, topped with whipped cream. The guest would pour this over a bowl of ice cream. But we can’t just have plan old ice cream, can we? It was time for some liquid nitrogen.
Liquid nitrogen is surprisingly easy to get. The hardest part is buying it in small quantities. But what I found is that after experimenting with different recipes, and then the actual event, I used almost all 180 liters that I had purchased. You can get liquid nitrogen at most welding gas supply stores. Since it is a liquid at -230˚F, I used it to make instant freeze dried ice cream. I also had what I call “Reverse Fondue”. The guest dipped fresh strawberries and pineapple into melted chocolate ice cream, then into liquid nitrogen for about 5 seconds. The result was and ice cream crust around the fruit, and in essence a cold version of a regular chocolate fondue.
We cannot avoid the constant changing in foodservice trends, and we will always be fighting to continue to please our customers, and provide the unique experience they are looking for. I hope that this article has provided insight into an aspect of the culinary world you thought was out of your reach.With a little innovation and an openness to new ideas, we as culinary professionals can be sure to keep our customers intrigued, and ultimately coming back for more.
Dan Johnson is the Sous Chef at the Westfield Group’s Blair Center conference facility, and contributes to all locations on the Westfield Campus. Dan has 6 years experience in the hospitality industry; studied at The University of Akron, and has developed his expertise in food preparations and cooking, kitchen operations and food safety.