Avant-garde chefs are plundering science labs and factories for new kinds of equipment all aimed at creating dishes with radically new flavors and textures.
LIQUID CHILLERS To make orange ice cream, Ludovic Lefebvre of Los Angeles's Bastide purees orange pulp, then pours liquid nitrogen over it to freeze it instantly. "There are no eggs, no cream, no milkjust pure orange flavor," he says. Lefebvre also dips mayonnaise in liquid nitrogen (at a temperature of negative 320 degrees Fahrenheit) to form a cold, thin shell around a soft center, then serves it with fries, Belgian-style.
HIGH-TECH ICEBOXES Grant Achatz of Alinea in Chicago (an F&W Best New Chef 2002) is busy playing with a cold plate, a griddlelike contraption custom-built for him by Polyscience, an industrial equipment manufacturer. While regular freezers can maintain temperatures as low as negative five degrees Fahrenheit, the cold plate drops to 45 below zero. Achatz uses it to give dollops of sour cream a thin, frozen crust, which he tops with shavings of smoked salmon. Iacopo Falai of the restaurant Falai in New York City uses a $30,000 Koma industrial freezer, which goes as low as negative 36 degrees Fahrenheit, to make layered mousses that freeze in 30 minutes instead of the usual 10 hours. The temperature is monitored by satellite, so it's extremely accurate.
WARM WATER BATHS The sous-vide techniquewhich involves vacuum-sealing food in plastic before cooking it, often in water, very slowly at a very low temperature to keep it moist and tenderwas pioneered in Europe. American chefs also have been adopting and improving the method using lab equipment like the immersion circulatora small, motorized, whisklike device that evenly heats and moves the water. "Think of it as a hot tub," says Wylie Dufresne of New York City's WD-50 (an F&W Best New Chef 2001), who uses the immersion circulator to prepare about half the dishes on his menu, including pork belly that cooks at 140 to 150 degrees Fahrenheit for 24 hours and eggs slow-poached in a Parmesan cheese broth.
LOW-TEMP OVENS The Hold-o-mat, a Swiss oven that can be set at temperatures as low as 68 degrees Fahrenheit, is typically used in Europe to keep finished dishes warm. But Shea Gallante of Cru in New York City (an F&W Best New Chef 2005) cooks beef cheeks in it for 40 hours at just above 150 degrees Fahrenheit. The meat becomes exceptionally tender, but it doesn't fall apart the way it might if it were braised in a conventional oven.
HARDWARE-STORE TOOLS Zrooom. It makes a booming noise louder than most vacuum cleaners, and its handle resembles a revolver. Pastry chef Alex Stupak of Chicago's Alinea is aiming a paint sprayer, normally used on cabinets and walls, at a dessert, coating it with a layer of chocolate that's just twelve-thousandths of an inch thick. "The thinner the layer, the greater the snap when you bite into it," Stupak says. Also in Chicago, Graham Elliot Bowles of Avenues (an F&W Best New Chef 2004) runs both his chamomile-infused rabbit consommé and his lovage-clam broth through a Brita water filter to catch tiny food particles that might cloud the liquid.
HYPERSENSITIVE SCALES Homaro Cantu of Moto in Chicago cooks with industrial ingredients like methylcellulose, a gelling agent that gets firmer when heated and liquefies when cooled; it's typically used to coat medicine tablets and thicken nutritional shakes. To make eggless meringues, Cantu doles out minute amounts of methylcellulose with the help of a gem scalewhich jewelers normally use to determine carat weightthat measures by the thousandths of a gram and even has a wind-protective glass cage.
blenders and separators
INDUSTRIAL MIXERS In an effort to give hard-to-blend raw ingredients like carrots, parsnips and cashews a smooth, mayonnaise-like consistency, Grant Achatz of Alinea in Chicago recently acquired an industrial homogenizer (a "souped-up blender," as he refers to it). Ordinarily used for manufacturing toothpaste and lotions or for mixing antibiotics, it operates at twice the speed of a home blender. When you use it in the kitchen, Achatz says, "you end up with foods that have the most beautiful flavor."
UN-BLENDERS Forget about deconstructing dishes; forward-thinking chefs are busy deconstructing ingredients. Pino Maffeo, chef at Restaurant L in Boston, is experimenting with a centrifuge, a device scientists might use to help separate DNA from blood samples. Maffeo uses a pipette to insert melted beef fat into test tubes inside the dome-shaped contraption, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the Star Wars character R2-D2. The centrifuge rotates so rapidlyit spins more than 13,000 times a minutethat the fat separates into layers with different densities. Maffeo serves the most flavorful portion with his applewood-smoked rib eye.