chef inspiration: from eleven madison park to el bulli

Make it Nice Daniel Humm at Eleven Madison Park kitchen sign

Recently, during a birthday celebration for a friend at Eleven Madison Park, we were invited to see the kitchen of what is, arguably, one of New York’s best restaurants; the number of staff on any given day roughly equals the number of diners – THAT’S how attentive the service and complex the menu. While cooks in crisp white toques worked with great concentration around us, we were treated to some culinary sleight-of-hand in honor of our friend.

Using liquid nitrogen, a chef made us a molecular gastronomy version of the classic Manhattan cocktail. He swirled liquid nitrogen into a mixing bowl with rye whisky until the alcohol froze in tiny shards- no mean feat (depending on the proof, alcohol  freezes at -10′F to -30′F)

Eleven Madison Park liquid nitrogen Manhattan cocktail

photo: Sally Schneider

Then he used the a bath of liquid nitrogen to freeze scoops of a sweet vermouth infused with bitters until a frozen outside encapsulated a soft interior. We were each given a glass with some of the crystalline rye and a homemade marsachino cherry, the ball of vermouth on top…and instructed to crack it with a teaspoon to release its still-liquid interior. It was like an essence of Manhattan, all pure flavor without the taste of alcohol.  We were instantly intoxicated, charmed and amazed both by the cocktail AND by the performance; our view of what a cocktail could be EXPANDED.

liquid nitrogen Manhattan cocktail

photo: Sally Schneider

In the distance on a wall I spotted the sign, above, and asked the maitre’d about it. She said that when chef Daniel Humm took over the kitchen, his English wasn’t very good. He would show his chefs what he wanted, and say Make it nice” code word for Make it fabulous!

Soon after, we stumbled on this trailer for a film about renowned Spanish chef Ferran Adria who for six months of the year closed his legendary restaurant El Bulli, considered one of the world’s most innovative, and worked with his culinary team to prepare the mind-blowing menu for the next season. We’re looking out for El Bulli: Cooking in Progress, a study of food as avant-garde art and the chef that inspired other chefs to push the culinary envelope. His mantra: “The more bewilderment, the better!”

(Video link here.)

Meanwhile, here’s a recipe for a great Manhattan that requires no liquid nitrogen, only really good whisky. And a cool interview with Adria to read while you drink it. Best quote:

I’m not a materialist, I don’t care for things. I don’t like cars, I hate things that can be exploited. I live a simple life. The only luxuries I have in my life are travel and food. I don’t even own a car—I use a small car that is here. It’s not even my car. I use it to come to work sometimes. Really, to get from place to place, I just take a taxi. I have a cell phone that I use a lot. I use the phone to get organized, but on July 30, when I start a new life, I’m going to remove the phone from my life.”

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3 Responses to chef inspiration: from eleven madison park to el bulli

  1. Jim 08.17.2011 at 7:46am #

    Great post. Took me in lots of directions. There’s also a great rye whiskey (called Templeton) now being made in Iowa.

  2. Jane 08.17.2011 at 3:04pm #

    Well, this is not about molecular gastronomy or fine (read expensive) dining, for which I have little sympathy, but it is about food. Slow Food USA is hosting a $5.00 meal challenge: make a meal for $5.00 or under per serving. Given the current economic crisis, I suspect many people are in the position of having to learn Cucina Povera and, I hope, learn to cook many of the gourmet traditional dishes which arose from the type of necessity-based cooking of poor people, at the heart of which is, naturally, improvisation. Check the Slow Food USA site for more details. Oh yes, lest one think I was unduly harsh in my first sentence, I don’t have a problem with fine dining or molecular gastronomy as singular experiences or celebrations, just that most of us are not going to be able to experience them as part of our day-to-day living.

  3. Sally 08.17.2011 at 6:06pm #

    Thanks for letting us know about the Slow Food $ challenge: ” take back the ‘value meal’ by getting together with family, friends and neighbors for a slow food meal that costs no more than $5 per person. Cook a meal with family and friends, have a potluck, or find a local event.”
    We totally get with it AND whatever else celebrates the moment and brings joy, which that crazy cocktail did, like some unexpected magic trick. What I neglected to mention was that lunch at Madison Park was a splurge on the part our host who has had been living frugally for years and who decided ‘the hell with it.” Lunch at a great restaurant was needed by all…and might just be like a little vacation. Which it was: totally fun, serene, and full of pleasure…
    …Doable at home, in different ways, as well.

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