Saturday, January 30, 2010

Cooking Lessons from Molecular Master Marcel Vigneron at Sur La Table

Nearing the end of my annual blogger malaise, I couldn't wait to wake up this morning, process these photos and write this post.  We had such a fabulous time...

6333 West 3rd Street
Los Angeles, CA 90036-7637
(323) 954-9190

A couple weeks ago flashed across the twitterverse was an announcement that Marcel Vigneron of Top Chef fame and infamy would be offering a cooking class in the kitchen of the Los Angeles Sur La Table at The Grove.  Excellent.

After tasting his food at The Bazaar several times and judging his food at a cheftestant cook-off last summer, I knew I wanted in on his cooking class. It was on.

Modern Global Cuisine is what Chef Marcel calls his approach. Definitely modern in technique, with twists and turns enough to keep everyone entertained while cooking and eating.  But also a certain earthiness and recognizability in flavors and ingredients.

Above, the menu. I organized this photo essay by course station in the Sur La Table kitchen.  Starting below with my own station (take my ownership with a grain of salt), Grape Spheres with Peanut Butter Powder on Brioche Toast.

The most complicated station, the mise-en-place contains red grapes, grape juice, and finger bowls of algin & gluco.  Before cooking started, I found myself unknowingly sitting next to a twitter buddy, Marisa.  Chef Marcel announced the stations and basically told us all to separate ourselves into four groups by what we wanted to cook. Organizing and bossing adult humans for a living Monday through Friday I was in no way inclined to do so pre-martini on a Friday night.  Marisa leapt at the spherification station, and I fell quickly in line behind her. My 2008 obsession with the spherified olive would come to fruition by learning the process myself.

Also at our station, fluffy loaves of brioche and peanut butter.

Chef Marcel had three baths pre-made.  Chef Marcel actually uses reverse spherification as his process. When originally invented, Jose Andres used calcium to spherify liquids.  However, calcium makes a less structurally sound sphere which needs to be immediately rushed to the client before it dissolves. Using alginate as the spherifying bath creates a more durable sphere.  Balls made using reverse spherification can even be left overnight, which would make this process much more viable in a commercial kitchen.  All the way to the right is the alginate bath where spherification occurs, the middle is an H2O rinsing bath, and on the end left is simple grape juice.  After making the spheres, we rinse, then they rest in grape juice. The idea is that if any absorption occurs through the membrane after spherification, we want the sphere to absorb its own liquid so as not to dilute the flavor.

Chef Marcel blends the grape juice with gluco and xantham gum (a stabilizer).  The chemicals thicken the juice. Chemicals are not an element in its purest form, by the way.  A chemical can be a compound of several elements.  By definition, a chemical is simply a product with a distinct molecular composition. Everything is chemicals, any process that changes a substance's molecular structure is chemistry. Actually, even mixing things together is considered chemistry by some. Personally, I like to see things burn, melt and change color.

Chef Marcel continues to add the chemicals, stirring with an immersion blender. He suggests making this a day in advance and letting it sit in the fridge overnight. The bubbles created by the immersion blender will float to the top and disperse, leaving you with an O2 free liquid, more or less.

Marisa and I blend the alginate spherifying liquid. I like her, she appreciates naughty jokes and likes to drink wine.

Above, Chef Marcel drops one tablespoon full of grape juice into the alginate bath.  He instructed us that one can make spheres of any size. And one can put things in the middle. BOB? No, srsly. We put whole grapes in the middle of some of the spheres. Put the grape in the spoon, then scoop up the juice liquid and then drop into the spherifying bath.

It's a delicate but not impossible process. You do not want a stem on the end of the sphere, and one will form naturally from the drop of liquid left on the end of the dropping spoon, so you have to wipe the bottom of the spoon clean before you drop. It helps if you swish the liquid and sphere around a little, keeping the sphere from affixing to the bottom of the pan. After 2-3 minutes, you can switch the sphere to the water bath using a slotted spoon. After rinsing, move to the juice. Ta da!

My dear friend K is the hands responsible for cutting the brioche squares.

She slipped them in the oven to toast, checking on them several times and then forgot about them. Pregnancy brain, so they call it.

Luckily another student was on the ball and pulled them out of the oven before disaster occurred. Brioche toast points!

I missed taking interesting shots of the peanut butter powdering process, however above see the finished product. In one bite, about the size of an amuse-bouche. In one mouthful you get grape jelly-juice, peanut butter powder that melts into peanut butter in your mouth and a nice bite of toast. Wins grammy for the most fun food of the night. I adore whimsy in food.


K & D.

Above is the Egg 63 with Ratatouille station, pre-chopping.  I have to commend the people on this station. That was a lot of chopping and dicing and slicing.

Egg 63 refers to the slow in-shell poached egg Chef Marcel teaches us about. Chef Ludovic Lefebvre makes these for various purposes at Ludobites, when Ludobites pops up.  63 is the number of degrees celcius the egg is poached at for 45 minutes, which comes out to 145.5 farenheit.  I love these eggs so much I have tried to make them in my crock-pot. However, the high setting sends my pot to 225F, and the low a measly 115F. I tried 5 times, no less, in one day. Above, see Jo from My Last Bite gently drop eggs into the 63C water. So great to meet her IRL.

The woman above, Lisa (?), refers to the Sur La table kitchen as her own.  I assume she is on staff at Sur La Table helping to execute the cooking classes. She was incredibly kind and fun to talk to. I chatted her up about her thoughts on Staub vs. Creuset vs. Lodge. She says she has some of each, and just acquires things as she goes along. I like this method, as I envy some pieces from all three makers.

Here she stirs the ratatouille as it briskly boils, reducing thickly.

Ratatouille, enfin.

Chef Marcel's friend and right hand man that evening, Steven, dishes up some ratatouille.

And Chef's skillful yet hairy arms separate the uncooked 63 degree egg white from the solidified white and yolk.

The finished 63 degree egg is placed gently into a bowl of ratatouille.

Hands down the best tasting dish of the night, a combination of classic flavors done extremely well with a contemporary texture that in no way detract from the warmth and homeyness of the dish. Perfect for a chilly winter evening. 

D's kept running into the hanging pans with his head. One of the best things about the evening was the loose structure of the class. People initially assigned themselves to stations, but didn't stick to anything with fidelity. It seemed as though everyone got to get their mitts on everything. Great conversations, peer teaching, and lots of wine drinking ensued. Naturally D sped off to Monsier Marcel across the hall for more bottles of wine.

Starting Asparagus Tempura with Mayonnaise Foam. Is it small of me to be somewhat pleased when things don't always go swimmingly for a well regarded chef? Considering the great macarons melt-down of December 2009 the night before the Eat My Blog bake sale, I surely am allowed some diminutive thinking.

Chef Ludo was on hand for the evening, lending his wit and skill to the fun.  Here he skillfully whisks up a giant bowl of mayonnaise by hand. I called him a human Cuisinart, he scoffed. Nothing better than a good French scoff. Fwah! Qweeseenart? Non!

Ludo puts the mayo in the nitro container.

Maybe I don't really understand what was going on, but I think the mayo foam failed. We used a foaming container for tempura'ing the asparagus, but everyone was just dipping their asparagus in the beautiful mayo, chip and dip style.

The wine was flowing.

*scratches head*

Peanut Bizcoacha with Vanilla Ice Cream. Everyone was doing back flips for this. Meh. I didn't really engage in the construction, and I am not so thrilled with most desserts anyway.  K ate mine, because she loves dessert but also because I wouldn't let her eat any oyster.

The daisy follows soft the  sun ~Emily Dickinson

Oysters with Lemon Air.

Hama Hama oysters. A beautiful species, large and firm and not too creamy. I worship the oyster, but a creamy oyster grosses me out. Hamas, in my opinion, are beautiful bivalve perfection. Good for eating raw, yet substantial enough for cooking.

Several people gave mini-lessons on oyster shucking. Chef Marcel, Chef Ludo, and Chef Steven. I jumped in and assisted D after a near fatal nick from the shucker his first go round.

Chef Marcel spoons a beautiful lemon foam onto the mollusks.

And we all dutifully suck them down. There is nothing more perfect on this planet than a fresh, minerally raw oyster within simply lemon juice squeezed over the flesh. The fun of delivering the lemon juice in a playful haute-cuisine manner might just top the former experience by one atom, maybe even a whole molecule.

By the end of the evening cards were swapped, hugs given out and promises made for meals with new friends in the near future.  Sur La Table staff had to give us the boot to get our behinds out the door. Thank you for hosting, Sur La Table. And thank you for educating, Chef Marcel. You and your people did a wonderful job creating a celebratory experience for all your students.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Revisiting Rivera

1050 South Flower Street
Los Angeles, CA 90015-5100
(213) 749-1460

I have been a fan of Jonathon Rivera Sedlar's food since Rivera opened its doors in early 2009, here J Gold comments.  We have visited several times for both food and drink, I have eaten his food at special events, and been inspired to attempt his food in my own kitchen.  Finally ready to break my annual blogging hiatus, D and I made an 8 o'clock and headed down the hill in a taxi looking forward to more culinary bliss.

D started with vodka.  Sedlar is a genius at presentation...genius. And his drinks program behind the bar reflects both his presentation esthetic and penchant for saturated flavors.  I was therefore a little disappointed that my rum & coke looked exactly the way it does when it is served to me at El Compadre.  LOL.

D started with beautiful Kumamoto oysters on the half shell with julienned peppers and wasabi caviar. What needs to be said about simple perfection?

My starter was the best thing I ate all night. Grilled quail with black beans and what I think were Maitake mushrooms, and lots of them.  This dish had a beautiful smokey flavor, the beans added a richness and dense texture. The quail was grilled perfectly, moist but not even a trace undercooked.  I want this again, and must return before Sedlar changes to a spring menu.

D toyed with the idea of U-10 scallops from the specials list, but our wonderful server informed us they were extremely garlicky last night and D is not a huge fan of garlic. It needs to be supporting cast, not headlining.  Instead, he ate a seared halibut with tomatillos and tempura'd sweet chiles on a bed of spinach.  Backflips. Rounds of hubba hubba. General enthusiasm.  The halibut was incredibly moist for halibut, which I sometimes find dry. Excellent dish. D would not shut up about the tempura'd chiles. Really.

Being drawn to richness in the first course, I turned to the veggie plate for my entree.  When D and I started dating, back in the stone age, we frequented the sadly now defunct Vida in Silverlake.  Vida was the baby of chef Fred Eric now of Fred62.  Eric offered a vegetable plate on the menu that was out of this world. Seasonal vegetables in a little pastry bowl with a garlic nage.  I ordered this almost every time we ate there, which was often.  I often muse that delicious vegetable are one of the hallmarks of a great chef.  Last night I was so in the mood for some delicious and creative veg. Our server, and I quote, said, "You will not be disappointed". I had mixed feelings about the plate.

Baby rolled corn taco.  Kinda dry. No flavor that really popped. Meh.

I fully expected this to be amazing. Sedlar graces many of his mains with this chunk of purple potato and round of butternut squash, have eaten it several times and love it. Last night my potato was undercooked. *cries* The squash was perfect.

This was delicious. Housemade potato xips layered with butternut squash puree on a shiso leaf. Really, how could you lose. You could not. You could not lose. Also in the middle of the plate was a pile of cooked spinach. I am not sure what the spinach was flavored with but it was outstanding. I gobbled it down quickly.

The best item on the mixed plate was a grilled chile on a little bed of burrata. The wonderful grilled flavors of the sweet chile were bright and smokey at the same time against the creaminess of the burrata. This could be/should be an appetizer.

I found some elements of the vegetable plate wonderful, and a few lacking.  It surprised me a little that it lacked cohesion. It really wasn't a dish per se, but rather several side items. I enjoyed it for the most part, and when the season changes and different vegetables are locally available I'd like to see how the veggie plate changes.

D could not resist asking, and both our server and the kitchen indulged his adoration of the tempura'd chiles by making us an entire order. With a tempura'd shiso leaf that I quickly commandeered. Definitely a highlight.

Service was beyond compare, as usual, and we had a wonderful time. Again.