Being a Chef’s Guinea Pig Is the Ultimate Insider Dining Experience
If being a chef’s guinea pig means enjoying high-concept tasting menus at unreasonably low prices, bring on the hamster wheel, please.
Though tasting menus are sometimes derided for their fussiness, Cacao Vancouver’s Tuesday night program is something else entirely: a rare laid-back opportunity for diners to participate in the creative process, with ten mystery courses that are still in the experimental phase. Called "Test Kitchen Tuesday," the tasting is offered for 25 percent less than the price of executive chef Jefferson Alvarez’s regular seven-course degustation, and it's one of the best deals in the city.
With no menu or course list (though Alvarez reveals sneak peeks on both his own and Cacao’s Instagrams during the day Tuesday), each dish promises just one certainty: nothing you’ll taste has ever appeared on the menu before.
Given Cacao’s “progressive Latin” spin – South American flavors with a playful approach, often prepared with iconic Canadian ingredients in homage to Venezuelan-born Alvarez’s adopted country – this might mean sizzled bits of anchovy in white corn batter dolloped with aji amarillo aioli, a one-bite amuse reminiscent of Vancouver’s ubiquitous barbequed salmon skin sushi rolls by way of Peru, or bison morcilla (Spanish blood sausage), crisped and studded with rice for texture and served with a swoop of rhubarb reduction. A course of steamed oyster, served on its shell with a frothy cucumber, tomatillo and spirulina-based aguachile, doesn’t just taste of the sea – it looks like Alvarez created a foamy sea cove in miniature and dropped it on my plate. If being a chef’s guinea pig means eating like this, bring on the hamster wheel, please and thank you.
And you don’t have to go to Canada to become a chef’s tester. At his San Francisco test kitchen, chef Michael Mina trials new restaurant concepts in short pop-up stints (his L.A. restaurant Cal Mare was born of one such test, as is the newest menu at Michael Mina in San Francisco; the latest test pop-up, a brunch and Blood Mary bar by Mina’s wife, Diane, opened June 14) and Wolfgang Puck offers ticketed dinners for only eight people per night in L.A. Even fast-food outlets are turning R&D into insider experiences – last year Taco Bell opened its Irvine, CA test kitchen for two free dinners that could be booked via OpenTable (all 32 reservations to its first dinner were snapped up in 34 seconds flat).
Alvarez, who trained in the kitchens of Arzak and Morimoto, is known as one of Vancouver’s most experimental chefs: at his last restaurant, he transformed sturgeon into crispy chicharron and spent months perfecting a technique for searing the fish’s liver so that it resembled foie gras in taste and texture. But as co-owner of Cacao, this is the first time he’s opened his process to the public.
“We’re a small restaurant, so it’s easier here to do it,” Alvarez says. “We only have 20 seats. But the idea here was to create a menu that was affordable and if you don’t like what we serve that night, I’m sorry. You’re only paying for the cost of the food. The idea was really to push us to be more creative, to prove the menu and to give people an unusual tasting menu experience.”
With a small, young kitchen team, the concept also allows Alvarez’s staff to participate in the recipe development process, from brainstorming ideas and ingredients through initial testing—no, Tuesdays aren’t a total dry run—and the validation of serving it to the public for the first time.
“Test Kitchen Tuesdays are about the team. Everybody has a say. Not many places give young chefs the freedom to create something and put it on the menu,” he says.
Despite the experimental nature, Alvarez says he has yet to deliver a true flop of a dish in the 10 Test Kitchen Tuesday events he’s run so far; meanwhile, some big hits, such as smoked elk tartare with arepa crisps, are now menu regulars.
He feels that the concept, with its lack of menu and expectations, encourages diners to be more open-minded about food than they might otherwise be. Alvarez says he was especially surprised at the popularity of a “fake crème caramel” he served one night, made with cinnamon, tonka, coffee beans and flavored with blood standing in for chocolate. “I told people to guess what they were eating. No one got it right,” he says.
He was, however, more forthcoming when he served sorrel ice cream topped with lemon ants recently.
“I asked people if they wanted the ants before I served it,” he says. “One hundred percent of people said yes.”