TAMPA — Two students, Michael Buttacavoli and Ford Barsi, peer into the stainless steel bowl with concern as teacher Eddie Shumard pushes droplets out of the end of a syringe. Maybe it's the sodium alginate. Or maybe it wasn't enough calcium lactate. Either way, what should be spheres look more like the stuff dripping from Sigourney Weaver's nemesis in Alien. • It's the end of a long night, some of it triumphant, some of it fraught with narrow misses and heroic efforts, all of it fun. It's the first molecular gastronomy class at Chefs on the Loose, a new cooking school owned by veteran Tampa chefs Laura and Steve Schmalhorst.
Cooking in the lab
The names of the pioneers in molecular gastronomy are nearly impossible for one to pronounce: there's Chicago's Grant Achatz ("A-kitz," rhymes with "packets"), and there's New York's Wylie Dufresne ("WHY-lee Doo-FRAYN," like "Ukraine") and the grandfather of them all, Spain's Ferran Adria ("Feh-RAHN Ah-dree-AH"). These tongue-twisters should be the tipoff. This is tough stuff, attempted only by the stalwart.
But what is it? It's a cooking movement, made famous on Bravo's Top Chef, in which physical and chemical properties of foods are manipulated such that eaters are forced to re-examine notions about flavor, texture and aroma. As Adria once said, "The molecular gastronomy . . . is where some scientists cooperate with the world of cooking."
Well, that has been happening for years, from Tang and dehydrated ice cream for astronauts to the misguided development of trans fats. But this movement, also described as experimental, progressive or avant-garde cuisine, is about pushing the envelope with sweet and savory, solids and gases — really rethinking the building blocks of a meal.
Right from the outset, the Schmalhorsts and Shumard are playing with their food. On the table is a tray of blistering-hot jalapenos stuffed with cooling rafts of peanut butter. Another plate holds shards of white chocolate topped with caviar. The mandate: Put aside preconceived notions about what goes together and what doesn't. Concentrate on textures and flavor pairings. Frankly, things get a little easier to swallow after that.
Tampa residents Janet Rifkin and her daughter, Ana Cruz, get started on what will be a riff on a caprese salad, pureeing fresh tomato for a gelee (remember aspics?). For the same dish, Buttacavoli and Barsi, the former a banquet manager at the Seminole Hard Rock and the latter a cook at Smoke, both in Tampa, combine maltodextrin and truffle oil to make a fragrant powder for the salad.
St. Petersburg radiologist Mark Herbst begins stirring soft lobes of foie gras into a saucepan of cream for what will be individual foie gras creme brulees.
Laura Schmalhorst, clearly comfortable with a certain level of mayhem, sets everyone to work while talking over the din. She describes the basic categories of this cuisine: Some liquids are flash frozen, leaving a molten center, while "spherification" (also called ravioli) is achieved with the one-two punch of calcium chloride and sodium alginate. This creates a "skin" of sorts around a liquid, which, when punctured, releases the liquid within. There are foams, froths and airs; dehydrators make chips and beads with intense pops of flavor (we toss dehydrated Spanish olives and dehydrated fresh ginger into our mouths, the flavor combination startling but good), and virtually anything can be desiccated into a powder to sprinkle.
At the table
Molecular gastronomy big shot Homaro Cantu in Chicago makes edible menus with a special ink-jet printer that runs on fruit juices. Others employ Anti-Griddles, Buchner funnels, rotary evaporators and ultrasonic baths. Add in the price for all the chemicals (Adria's starter Texturas set starts at $200 online at Dean & Deluca; www.deandeluca.com). For the home cook, much of this is wildly unrealistic.
Still, we concoct dishes at Chefs on the Loose that might be replicated at home. (The recipe for Kinda Caprese is included here for you to try.) Stunt foods nonetheless, apt to render dinner guests drop-jawed: a cilantro ice cream, sweet and creamy, with its unmistakable herbal note on finish; pheasant breast cooked "sous-vide" style (vacuum packed and slow-simmered) flavored with root beer and star anise; a seared tuna rubbed with the mysterious and lemony flavor of sumac.
It's 11 p.m. and the kitchen is trashed, dishes stacked up and little drifts of maltodextrin decorating the counter. Adria's El Bulli may be the hardest reservation to nab on the planet, but tonight South Tampa is a hotbed of experimental gastronomy.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293.