This week I reviewed Next's Tour of Thailand, the second menu in Grant Achatz's and Nick Kokonas's ever-adaptive restaurant. During the course of fact-checking, executive chef Dave Beran responded with a few e-mails about particular dishes that were so illuminating with regard to his creative process that it seemed a shame to keep them to myself. So here they are:
Could you tell me the amount of time you had to prepare for this menu?
Beran: Ideally it would have been three months to prepare for the menu. The concept is that once a menu is in place we will immediately begin the production of the next. The challenge with the first one was that the French menu continued to evolve for the first month. Additionally, the restaurant was still in its infancy so there were many kinks to work out. For the Thai menu it was more like crunching for the finals. We locked down the idea to do Thai for the second menu about a month before the change and then spent the following three weeks ordering, researching, and cooking. Basically from 10 AM-2 PM I focused on Thai, 2 PM-12 AM I helped with additional kitchen prep and service, then from midnight until 4 AM or so I worked on the new menu and research. The goal was that each week we would lock down four dishes and spend the transition week training the staff, prepping with cooks, and refining concepts. One day was entirely devoted to the som tam. I think I made it about eight times in front of our management team. The last two dishes for the menu were the coconut and the dragon fruit. Those came about in one afternoon, two days before we served the first one.
Would you give a brief explanation of the coconut dessert with regard to ingredients and process? [One of the most Alinea-like courses on the menu and one of my favorites]
—licorice tapioca (tapioca is cooked in burnt corn husk stock then dressed with licorice syrup)
—"golden strands" - egg yolk cooked in star anise/saffron syrup
—mango - julienne then cure over night with citric/sugar
—crumble of spray dried coconut milk powder, lime, FD corn
—corn pudding - fresh corn juice, seasoned with palm sugar, cooked, frozen in nitro and shattered
—coconut mousse - fresh juiced coconut flesh, seasoned, sprayed into nitro, shattered, allowed to temper in cooler
—pink peppercorn, anise hyssop, fennel flowers
—young coconut water ice
The idea behind the dish is that it is basically five different sweet street food bites that work together put into one dish. The idea of corn and coconut, coconut and mango, coconut and licorice, golden strands, coconut ice—they all work together and there are examples of all of these. We basically made 15 different street food snacks and just started eating them together, the ones that worked the best ended up inside the shell. We knew we wanted to do coconut as the focal point and from that just built around it. Lately I have really been on a kick of plating on natural things. One of my last dishes at Alinea was served on a large birch log. The coconut shell just seemed like a great vessel to add to the tactile experience and visual correlation for the flavors. The shredded coconut under the shells was intended both for the rustic presentation and for aroma. We peel about 500 coconuts a day and have mountains of the peels left over that have great aroma. Made sense to use them.
I remember you saying the tom yam broth was really more like a ramen broth.
Beran: My sous and I ate at pretty much every Thai restaurant you can think of within the city. Courses that always seemed to end up in front of us were the som tam and the tom yam. Unintentionally we always seemed to gravitate toward those. Often the tom yam (seafood based nearly every time) came across as being explosive with acid/spice right off the bat then fell short. We had difficulty finding soups that really had the lingering effect to them. I remembered a ramen broth I had at Ippudo in NYC. The broth had depth, fat, and flavor. It was almost white in color. I started playing around with that idea, making broths based from pork shanks and pork feet and finishing it with different amounts of fat. In the end we had what we felt was a great foundation for flavor, a hearty rich broth that had a good amount of fat, gelatin, and flavor release but didn't feel greasy on the palate. From that we started infusing the standard flavors into the broth, ending with the soup you tried. There is fish sauce in the soup along with kaffir lime, chili, ginger, galangal, dried shrimp, mushroom, lemongrass, basil, cilantro, lime/zest, palm sugar, garlic, tomato, shallot, and the addition of more pork fat.
Beran also sent a particularly revealing description of two sauces served during the middle relish course—another one of my favorites—that illustrates how the kitchen decided to approach the vast range of spice and funk tolerance diners were likely to bring to the restaurant.
Our servers like to get creative with the sauce names (sometimes a bit too creative). We refer to the two sauces typically as "funky" and "spicy"—- James Brown is funky, Ricky Martin is spicy. As we wrote a Thai tasting menu we had to consider factors such as the development and layering of spice. Additionally, many people's palates varied as far as the level of spice and fish sauce/fermentation flavor they could handle. Our goal was to write a menu that hit about the center line of the two. Unfortunately my idea of spice might be way too spicy for some and bland to others. We made two side condiments that allowed for the guest to adjust these flavors according to their own personal taste. This is a huge departure from our normal philosophy. The thought process behind these is that the spicy would be a neutral fresh heat that could add spice to any of the dishes without altering the flavor too much. The sauce is simply fresh Thai chili, garlic, and grapeseed oil. For the "funky" sauce we took the same philosophy, combining fish sauce, shrimp paste, and daikon. The two sauces combined are a play on the traditional sauce prik nam-pla. . . basically fish sauce with Thai chili.