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The El Bulli Exhibit: Creativity as Organized Process

23/02/2014

El Bulli Plating Diagrams

The Drawing Center is hosting Ferran Adrià: Notes on Creativity, the first major museum exhibition of Adrià’s notebooks and visualization tools. As you may know, Adrià is widely acknowledged as one of the best chefs of our time, someone who radically impacted the way cooking has evolved in the last decade or so. For over two decades, he helmed the kitchen at El Bulli in Roses, Spain, where his staff rigorously experimented with the play of aromas, textures and flavors. You may never have an opportunity to try Adrià’s spherified olives, pine nut marshmallows or rose-scented mozzarella, especially since El Bulli is now closed. However, if you’ve ever encountered a traditional dish remade in another form (like a sandwich presented as a drink) or a contemporary menu without defined categories (appetizers vs entrees), you’ve probably tasted Adrià’s influence.

Gastronomy Creative Process

The popular conception of creativity is that creative insight just happens, out of the blue, in the shower, or when you’re least expecting it. In Adrià’s eyes, the creative process is not really about spontaneity, it is an extremely organized process. El Bulli was tasked with preparing 30+ dishes per diner each night, with the goal of never serving the same dinner twice, particularly for repeat customers. The pressure to constantly come up with new and innovative dishes was immense. While some of El Bulli’s dish concepts were created spontaneously and inadvertently, more often the creative process looked like this:

We search (using a method):

Regional cooking as a style
Influences from other cuisines
Technique-concept search
The senses as a starting out point for creativity
The sixth sense
Symbiosis of the sweet/savoury worlds
Commercial products and preparations in haute cuisine
A new way of serving food
Changes in the structure of dishes
Adaptation
Association
Inspirations
Deconstructions
Minimalism
Changes in menu structure
*******synergy*****

AN IDEA

We develop the idea with the help of methods or with intuition

Tests

Analysis/Reflection — We use the mental palate

Finish and final tests = PROTOTYPE

Serving the diner

Final retouches

THE DISH CATALOGUED

El Bulli Dishes

If you attend the exhibit, don’t forget to check out the film screening downstairs, which includes a photo of every dish served at El Bulli.

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Good Thing There’s Sauce: How to Butcher and Cook Whole Fish

21/02/2014

Striped Bass

Dear readers, I have a confession to make: while I work in the seafood industry and am an avid seafood lover, I have never filleted a fish. It’s not for a lack of opportunity per se. The thing is, I was raised in an Asian family where the policy on fish was, “If you can’t pick out the bones, then you don’t deserve to eat.” So we cleaved our fish into large steaks or steamed it whole, with a splash of soy sauce over a shower of ginger and scallion strips. It was simple and satisfying, no need to get fancy.

Which brings us to Fish Week, or lessons 8 and 9 at culinary school. “What’s wrong with just buying filleted fish?” someone asked. “Nothing,” replied Chef Ray, “except that you don’t really know how fresh it is. Unless they fillet it in front of you, you can’t check the eyes, the gills or the skin. You can only smell it for freshness. Hell, you don’t even know if it’s the fish they say it is.” We mulled that over. “This lesson was originally written so that each team fillets a fish together. But that’s silly, what’s the point of filleting just half of the fish?” said Chef Ray. “I ordered enough fish so that each of you can fillet one round fish and one flatfish. Let’s get to it.”

In just a few deft motions, Chef Ray slit the striped bass along its spine and gently removed a fillet. “Use long, smooth strokes guys. Don’t saw at it, and make sure you bend your knife so that it scrapes against the bones,” he instructed. You could hear his blade rasping against the spine. After both fillets were removed, Chef Ray slid his knife between the meat and skin, and gently stripped it away. What remained was a perfect slab of fish, pink and well shaped. It looked simple enough.

“Remember to always check the freshness of the fish before you start!” said Chef Ray. “Clear eyes, taut stomach, bright skin, gills full of blood, no fishy or off smells.” I blotted my fish with a clean towel to dry it, and began snipping off the fins with kitchen shears. “Watch out for the spikes in those dorsal fins, they can really hurt!” warned Chef Ray. With my fish knife (thin, flexible and very sharp), I began slicing against the spine. Wait, is that bone or meat? Why is the skin not slipping off? I glanced across at my partner’s fish; he’d already finished his fillets and was cleaning his carcass of entrails. “Five more minutes!” said Chef Ray. I hurried to remove the skin and yank the remaining pin bones out with pliers. Two fillets sat on the cutting board, mangled by cuts and disappointment.

Flounder

The process for filleting flatfish is a little different than for round fish. Flatfish have four fillets, not two, and swim horizontally, with their bellies parallel to the seafloor. You begin by slitting down the center of the fish, following the spine, then take out two fillets from the top of the fish, and two from the underside of the fish. It’s much easier to fillet a flatfish and the fins are floppy, so you can’t stab yourself inadvertently. After tackling my flounder, I was left with four ragged but mostly respectable fillets, and a carcass which would be used for fish stock.
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Eat Your Veggies…Because They’re Surprisingly Fun to Cook

17/02/2014

Macédoine  de légumes

After several introductory classes of stock and sauce making, we moved into making complete dishes. Namely, salads, vegetable dishes and soups. I tried not to yawn. “Vegetables are important!” insisted my chef-friend Wendy. “It’s difficult to do them well.” I tried to muster some excitement, but the thought of making 6 different types of vinaigrette was already making my whisking arm ache.

Chef Nic assembles a salad

In class, we were greeted by some new faces. Chefs Ray and Janet were taking time off and so we were under the tutelage of Chefs Dominique, Nicolay, Guido and Jose for a few lessons. Immediately, we had to adjust our bearings to the instructor. Chef Ray’s macedoine cut was a little larger than Chef Nic’s, so I scrapped my vegetables and started over, lest we get chastised for improper taillage.

Assiette de crudites

Chef Nic was also much heavier handed with seasoning. When we were repeatedly told that our food didn’t have enough salt or lemon, we would add more to the next dish. Finally, for our final plate of celery rémoulade, I dumped a big scoop of mustard and salt into the bowl, then tasted the celery root. Horror curled my tongue. “I think it’s too salty,” I whispered to my partner. “Oh no, what do we do?” He swiped at the sauce and said, “Actually, I think it’s fine, it just needs a little more lemon.” We brought our assiette de crudités up to the front and held our breath. “There’s too much dressing on the mushrooms, see how it’s pooling on the plate here?” said Chef Nic. “Also, there’s a little too much dressing on the celery root. But other than that, it’s fine.” I couldn’t believe my ears. “So, the celery rémoulade is not too salty?” I asked. “Nope, it’s just right,” Chef Nic replied. “Remember, restaurant food is paired with wine, and needs to be saltier than food eaten without wine. If you have a table where everyone is drinking wine except for one person, it’s not unusual for that one person to complain that the food is too salty, while everyone else is happy.”

Salade Niçoise

So the salads, how did they taste? Turns out that when you treat each ingredient with care and allow its full expression to shine, salads can be flavorful, beautiful and dare I say it, exciting. We made a traditional salade niçoise, and each element was carefully washed, cut, seasoned and dressed to create a perfectly harmonious plate. “Why are you peeling the green pepper?” someone asked. “Because I don’t want the skin,” said Chef Dominique. We laughed. “Sometimes the skin can be a little tough or bitter, so I peel it,” Chef Dominique explained.

The macédoine de légumes cooked vegetable salad is actually one of my new all-time favorites, an exercise in how simple ingredients cooked well can come together to create something truly stunning. You make mayo and tomato sauce, then cut carrots, turnips, beans and peas into uniform pieces, cook each vegetable separately, then bind the vegetables together with the mayo and some basil puree, topped by a layer of tomato sauce. The result is creamy and acidic, sweet and savory, refreshing and satisfying. This was one of the most popular salads of the late 19th century, and is still often served in Parisian bistros today, but there probably aren’t any restaurants in NYC serving it now. Quel dommage!
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Recipe: Swedish Cinnamon Rolls

14/02/2014

Swedish cinnamon rolls

While I was in Sweden, I fell in love with the cinnamon rolls that are ubiquitous in their bakeries and cafes. Buttery pinwheels laced with cinnamon and crunchy pearl sugar, and a hint of cardamom to add an exotic depth not seen in your monstrous American Cinnabon.

Unfortunately, when I looked at recipes for Swedish-style cinnamon rolls, many of them were for massive batches (30-40 rolls?!) or in uncomfortable European measurements (deciliters). Baking is already fraught with volume vs weight peril as is, and I was hesitant to follow any one recipe. So, as is usually the case in situations like this, I analyzed several recipes and came up with some averages in convenient quantities.

Essentially, you make a sweet bread dough with caradamom and let it rise for about 90 minutes. Then, lightly flour a clean counter and roll the dough out into a thin rectangle, about 15″ x 20″.


Cover the dough sheet with a layer of buttery and sugary goodness. This filling should be a little paste-like, not too runny.

Next, fold the dough like an envelope in even thirds.

Using a long knife, pizza wheel or dough scraper, cut long strips of dough about 1/2″ wide. I was able to get eight long strips, and then subsequently cut each strip in half to make smaller buns.

The tricky part is mastering how to twist the cinnamon rolls into knots. After doing some research (thank you, Youtube!), I discovered Martin Johansson, a popular home baker in Sweden who has published some books and has excellent videos demonstrating how to make cinnamon rolls.

Here’s the twist-and-spiral method:

Here’s the slightly more complicated loop-around-the-finger-and-over-the-top method:

I probably watched these videos a dozen times. Be gentle as you handle the dough, as it is quite stretchy and pliant.

When you have finished twisting your cinnamon rolls, lightly brush the tops with egg wash and give them a good sprinkle of Swedish pearl sugar (or another coarse white sugar). Into the oven they go!

The following recipe makes a manageable batch of 8 large cinnamon rolls or 16 mini-sized ones, which is what I prefer.
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Stockholm: If You Go

12/02/2014

Here are some logistical tips and tricks if you’d like to travel to Stockholm or elsewhere in Sweden in the near future:

Flight: Norwegian Air is offering low cost fares from New York (JFK) to Stockholm and Oslo, with considerable deals in the winter and early spring. My round trip ticket was just €282 ($384), and if you book through their European site and purchase a ticket in euros using a credit card with no international fees, the ticket will be less expensive than if you purchase through the US site in dollars.

Norwegian Air is using Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft for their long-haul flights to Scandinavia and Bangkok. These planes travel on very tight schedules and have been plagued with engineering issues, as is evidenced by Google’s auto-complete “norwegian air 787 problems.” Luckily, both of my flights took off on time.

The airplane features a number of weight and fuel sustainability advances, but the jewel for passengers is undoubtedly the world’s first Android-based in-flight entertainment system, which uses touchscreens to allow passengers to choose movies, order food, control their reading lights, call flight attendants, etc. I was also impressed by the 3D map, which provided an incredible amount of detail on our flight path and destination cities. I was able to zoom in to see my block in New York.

Dreamliner 787

While Norwegian Air has technological bells and whistles, it lacks the usual international flight amenities. Meals must be ordered ahead of time (around $30), blankets are $5, headphones are $3, and low-fare customers must pay to check baggage. You are allowed one small personal item and one 50 x 40 x 23 cm bag under 10 kg for free. So, don’t count on that free glass of wine on this flight. I simply bought sandwiches at the airport before hopping on my flights and judging from the appearance of the food I saw across the aisle, I’d say that brown-bagging is definitely the way to go.

Oh, and if you are traveling to Scandinavia hoping to see the Northern Lights, the 787 Dreamliner provides a psychedelic light show overhead.
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Modern Stockholm: Living with Style, Innovation and Coffee

10/02/2014

After learning about Sweden’s medieval and pre-industrialization history, I wanted to feel the pulse of contemporary Sweden. The trendier parts of Stockholm (I stayed in the Sofo neighborhood, a play on NYC’s Soho) are chic and streamlined, like walking around a giant IKEA store, or hipper-than-thou neighborhoods in Brooklyn (cough, Williamsburg). You can get a good read on the city by simply hopping between cafes, which are present in abundance at a density that rivals Italian cities. These cafes often serve espresso and cinnamon rolls, and you can also find hybrids like cafe-thrift stores, cafe-record stores, cafe-office, cafe-hair salon, etc. Swedes take their coffee very seriously it seems, perhaps as a substitute for alcohol. This is, of course, by design, since Sweden has a state-run monopoly on alcohol sales and the prices are inflated to discourage drinking in prodigious quantities. All this means that Swedes go to Denmark or Germany to bring back cheaper booze.

Many cafes also offer light meals, sandwiches and such, and you can usually get a breakfast or lunch special with food, juice and coffee for a set price.

Ready for some people watching? Don’t forget to bring your skinny jeans!


Vurma Cafe is like visiting your hippie, India-obsessed aunt, with brocade pillows in a rainbow of colors lining the benches and pink lights strung overhead. I visited the Nytorget branch, but they have multiple locations, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the others have a varying style. They offer a great breakfast menu with organic and gluten-free options. For 80 SEK, I got a bowl of Turkish yogurt with pumpkin, flax and sunflower seeds, accompanied by wide multigrain crackers topped with sprouts, tomato, cucumber and cheese, plus a hardboiled egg and coffee. I couldn’t resist the call of the semla cream puffs, and added one of those to my meal to balance out all the healthy items.


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Historic Sweden: Royal Palace, Skansen, Vasa Museum

09/02/2014

Gamla Stan
Sweden’s most well-known exports today are IKEA furniture and H&M clothing, which means my impression of the country is one of sleek modernism. Naturally, Sweden does have a history and is rightfully proud of its past accomplishments, I’ve simply never bothered to learn anything about them. So when I began researching this trip, I was a bit surprised at all the recommendations to see the Royal Palace. To be honest, before this trip, I didn’t even know Sweden still had a royal family. It seems a rather archaic institution to support (the state still funds them partially), though I guess the tourism benefits now outweigh any concerns about the monarchy trying to regain control. (More below.)

Royal Palace Guard

Many of Stockholm’s tourist attractions are concentrated on the island of Gamla Stan, or Old Town. Within these winding, medieval lanes, you’ll find the Royal Palace, the Riddarholmskyrkan Cathedral, the Nobel Museum and more. The Royal Palace entrance fee is a bit steep (150 SEK/$23 for adults or 75 SEK for students), however you do get entrance to three attractions: the Royal Apartments, the Treasury and the Tre Konor (Three Crowns) museum. Photos are not allowed in any of the Royal Palace exhibits, so I had to content myself with taking photos outside.

The changing of the Royal Guard takes place at noon each day, and while it was not as showy as say, the India-Pakistan border guard changing, it’s still fun to watch if you happen to be in the area. One thing I noticed was there were at least two female members, the first time I’ve ever seen women as part of a royal guard. I did a little bit of Googling and couldn’t figure out if Sweden was the first to do this, but at any rate they win points for being progressive!

Female Royal Guard

I jumped into an English-language tour of the Treasury and learned the following tidbits on Sweden’s medieval history:

  • The Royal Regalia includes 5 items (listed in order of importance): sword, crown, scepter, key and orb
  • Tre Konor (Three Crowns) is the name of the original royal castle that was destroyed in a fire in 1697. The Swedish Coat of Arms also includes three crowns on it. Why three? One leading theory is that the three crowns represent the three parts of Sweden (Sweden, Norway and Denmark). That’s right, far from being amiable pacifists, the Swedes were out to conquer everything they could get, especially their neighbors. Another theory is that the crowns represent the three Wise Men, thus symbolizing the divine right of the king to rule.
  • In Sweden, the absolute monarchy was outlawed in 1720. But like a zombie attack, the old kings and queens constantly plotted to regain power again, and did so successfully in 1772. King Gustav III introduced the Union and Security Act to fully restore the royal autocracy in 1789 (when the French Revolution began).
  • Sweden’s queens seem to be more colorful and strong-willed than the kings. My favorite is Queen Louisa Ulrika, who was a pen pal of Voltaire, and highly annoyed by her mild-mannered husband, who was uninterested in getting more power. So in 1756, Queen Louisa Ulrika removed 44 diamonds from her crown and shipped them to Berlin to get funding to stage a coup d’etat. Unfortunately, she was found out, and many heads were beheaded except for hers, since the Queen was more or less beyond the law.
  • The Coronation Robe is ruby red (the color of royalty) with ermine fur trimming because it was thought that ermines would rather kill themselves than get their fur dirty.
  • In 1980, the constitution was reformed such that the oldest child would become the next King or Queen, not the oldest son. That meant Princess Victoria became next in line for the throne, not her younger brother Prince Carl Philip, who was about 6 months old at the time.
  • None of these regalia items are actually used or worn nowadays, other than for ceremonial purposes like christenings and funerals. In those cases, the crown is placed on a pillow.

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