Molecular Schmeckular

“Cobbler, stick to thy last”

Roasted Beef Tenderloin with Umami Foam

Those of you who know me know of my previously demonstrated disdain for this “Molecular Gastronomy” thing that’s plagued our industry in recent years. I have grown over the course of my career to a place of simplicity. I’ve enjoyed eating some great meals in some of the nation’s best restaurants and the best meals were the ones that were simple but executed well.

Sometimes I think that I’ve lost my passion when I look at some of these websites with beautiful food that I didn’t think of first. So I’ve tried lately to incorporate some of tenets of M.G. to make me look like I’m a hip, modern chef. It hasn’t really worked.

This weekend was the busiest weekend of my entire career. Thirty five or so VIP catering events for 50 to 250 people in 36 hours. Seven chefs flew in from New Orleans and Texas to help out. Quail eggs came from North Carolina at the last minute (because Georgia was flooded and they couldn’t get them to me). Lamb racks came by special courier from Memphis because my distributor failed to order them for me. There was green tea powder from Massachusetts that got lost in the mail and didn’t show up until 4 hours from plate-up, strawberry powder from California, bonito flakes from Michigan, and chocolates and 23K edible gold leaves from Maryland.

This was Legislative Weekend–the weekend that legislators and major donors come from all over the state to enjoy a lineup of special events designed to make them want to open up their wallets over the next year. This is our centennial year at ASU so the guest list was a little bigger than usual, and the itinerary included a major rock band in concert on campus (The Fray…whoever they are), a football game, a Japanese musical presentation in the Fine Arts Center, and a whole bunch of other stuff for a whole bunch of people.

At times I wondered why I try.

Our P.I.T.A. event planner insisted on a breathtaking display of Waldorf Salad and Ambrosia to be splayed out on a mirror the size of a door on beds of sliced oranges and pineapples. Uh, the 50’s called…they want their salads back. And BTW, mirrors and mayonnaise make poor company. We did something different.

Talented chef’s from afar hit the proverbial wall on prep night and left before the prep list was done. They didn’t bother asking. The day of the big show they arrived over an hour late because their driver overslept from the muscle relaxers he took to ease the pain of a bulging disc that all but paralyzed his right side. I myself suffered back pain and a sore bursitis-ridden shoulder that right now can’t even get a PB&J sandwich all the way to my mouth.

By lunchtime Saturday none of us could see straight or stand tall. I had just completely snapped on the event planner lady and screamed so loud I hurt my own ears. I was shaking and almost cried I was so mad. I never get that way! People left the kitchen momentarily to regroup. It was the quietest moment of the weekend. One of those awkward silences that you wish you wouldn’t have caused. Hopefully my next blog won’t be entitled “God Dammit I Did It Again”.

So what does this have to do with molecular gastronomy? Now that you mention it…nothing.

Friday night was a Japanese themed plated dinner for 75 dignitaries and trustees to commemorate the 100 year anniversary. The menu:

Sushi (California Roll, Philadelphia Roll, Crunchy Shrimp Roll, Spicy Tuna Roll, Shrimp Nigiri)

Wasabi, Pickled Ginger, Soy Sauce

Salad of Baby Spinach, Mizuna, Sweet Radish, and Grapefruit, with Rice Wine/Miso Vinaigrette

Roasted Beef Tenderloin with Umami Foam

Spicy Lacquered Eggplant, Zucchini, and Sweet Potato 

Banana-Sesame Upside-Down Cake with Strawberry Powder and Green Tea Whipped Cream

We bought the sushi. The idea was that presentations were to be Japanesely minimalistic. The salad was nice…salad. The foam didn’t foam. We left the micro greens for the entree back in the kitchen across campus. The banana cake was beautiful and texturally interesting the day before when it was made. Unfortunately it wasn’t possible to make them fresh as they should have been. The green tea whipped cream was pretty and tasted interesting, but needed something else…ginger juice maybe…and it went flat by service time. Strawberry powder as a condiment sounds better than it looks or tastes.

Not one of my prouder moments.

Ah well, as Etienne used to always say, “You’ll never go broke underestimating the tastes of the American public”. As far as I know they were all impressed and happy. I’m finding that many of these events at the college are more about the event than the food. Disheartening but sometimes a saving grace. The tenderloin was “spot on”!

I think that I’ll continue experimenting with some of this new stuff. I was really into food science when I was in school 20 years ago. Surely there’s something redeeming to it when the top rated restaurant on the planet hangs its hat on the invention of M.G.

Until then I’ll keep it in the kitchen until I get good at it.