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The Inedibles: Obsessions of Extreme Foodists

Since when did ash, hay, wood and air become the stuff of haute cuisine? Since people began paying for them, of course. Here, an excerpt from Dana Goodyear’s Anything That Moves

Among the delicacies Dana Goodyear, a staff writer for the New Yorker and lecturer at the University of Southern California, consumed while researching her latest book were the following: fresh ant eggs, frog fallopian tubes, crème brûlée made with bone marrow, and coffee brewed from beans fed to, and then excreted by, Asian palm civets, small catlike animals found in Southeast Asia.

Below is an excerpt from Goodyear’s non-fiction debut, Anything That Moves: Renegade Chefs, Fearless Eaters, and the Making of a New American Food Culture. It’s a comprehensive, often gut-churning look at the extremes the food movement is embracing; the growing demand for the underground, the raw, the illegal and the otherwise questionably edible; and the chefs and exotic-food purveyors responsible for getting such curios to the table.

 

Over the years, the chef Grant Achatz, the most romantic of the molecular gastronomists, has experimented extensively with scent. A Pre-Raphaelite among Dadaists, he once put dry ice in a vase with charred garlic, rosemary, thyme, and black pepper: cookout fog. Another time, he leaned hot stones against a live tomato stalk, to conjure the quintessential summer smell of walking in the garden in the morning and brushing up against tomato leaves. In 2005, right before he opened Alinea, his three-Michelin-star restaurant, in Chicago, one of his investors suggested he check out the Volcano, which he had seen while traveling in Amsterdam.

The Volcano

The Volcano

The Volcano is a squat metal cone-shaped heater with a filling chamber for “plant material,” a digital panel displaying the precise temperature, and a large plastic balloon to capture the plant’s vapor. Its traditional use involves fitting a mouthpiece to the air balloon and inhaling. The Volcano’s manual recommends using it with chamomile and lemon balm. “We could see it would have the ability to pump out a lot of scent and vapor and capture it,” Nick Kokonas, Achatz’s business partner, told me. “It worked perfectly, from a culinary—and from a theatrical and emotional—perspective.”

In the years since, Achatz has vaporized grass, oak leaves, and hay. “My favorite is to trick people into thinking they’re eating something that’s not edible,” he says, such as, for instance, venison with leather aroma. His signature vapor is lavender, which he serves in a plastic balloon covered in Irish linen, under a bowl of yuzu pudding, ham nage, and gooseberry coulis. Before presenting the dish, the waiter punctures the bag of lavender air with a syringe in a four-by-four grid, so that the weight of the bowl releases the scent. At Alinea, Achatz’s molecular cocktail lounge, the bartenders use it for the Rob Roy, which comes to the table in a plastic bag filled with lavender air. As the waiter cuts it open with scissors, it looks and smells like a new-age spa treatment. When the Alinea cookbook came out, the Volcano was listed on the equipment page, along with agricultural syringes, a paint-stripping heat gun, and a refractometer for measuring sugar content in Brix. The four Volcanos in the Alinea kitchen are named John, Paul, George, and Ringo.

U.S. Customs prohibits the importation of anything used primarily as drug paraphernalia. A few years after Achatz’s discovery, Customs launched an inquiry into the Volcano, which is made by Storz & Bickel, a German company. Adam Schoenfeld, who imported and marketed it, was at the time in his twenties and had recently graduated from The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. “I flew around the world, I did this, I did that, I went to Thailand, I discovered the Volcano, I ate lots of cool food, I designed my own curriculum around travel and business,” he told me. When Adam, whose father is the New York restaurateur and dumpling impresario Ed Schoenfeld (Chinatown Brasserie, Shun Lee, RedFarm), found out that Achatz had a Volcano in his kitchen, he sensed an opportunity. He sent vaporizers to technically experimental chefs like Wylie Dufresne, Dave Arnold, and the pastry-maker Johnny Iuzzini. “It was about expanding the usage,” Schoenfeld said. Customs eventually relented, determining that the Volcano could be used as “a device to aid in a method used in modern cooking called ‘molecular gastronomy.'”

“The premise is that you use heat to gently extract the flavors, essential oils, and aromatic compounds,” Schoenfeld told me. “You can vaporize oils, plant materials. It is not sold for marijuana.” Nevertheless, he has learned that when sending to restaurants he ought to send two if he hopes the Volcano to be used in the kitchen. “Almost inevitably, one makes it back to someone’s living room,” he said.

 

MORE:

A Forgeable Feast: Inside Rene Redzeppi’s Cookbook
George Mendez’ Brazillian Turn
Is Modern Nordic Cuisine Just a Passing Trend?

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