The problem with sulfur hexafluoride is that it’s invisible. This means that the only way Paco Roncero, head chef at Casino de Madrid, in Spain’s capital city, can check whether it’s there is to breathe it. To demonstrate he picks up a balloon filled with the stuff and takes a deep breath. “It’s heavier than air,” he explains in a voice that has suddenly acquired a subterranean growl. “It’s the opposite of helium. We want to see if we can put it in a dish so the food floats on top. Imagine what that would be like!”
At school, Roncero wanted to be a biologist. That’s why, after he became a chef, the natural next step was to work for Ferran Adrià at El Bulli, the world-famous Catalan restaurant where the kitchen was also a laboratory. Since setting up his own kitchen in the center of Madrid in 2000, however, he’s started using that scientific knowledge to play with more than just taste. He’s one of a few European chefs who, for the last few years, have been paying attention to all five senses, using projections and sounds as well as tastes and smells. In May, for instance, the Roca Brothers—of “Best Restaurant in the World” El Celler de Can Roca—put on a “gastronomic opera” in Barcelona. Images were projected against the walls and the ceiling, and specially written music accompanied dishes such as a crisp candy apple filled with apple foam and sobrasada (a kind of chorizo) paste.
“You’re playing with inputs from other senses to create a magical moment,” says El Celler de Can Roca head chef Joan Roca. “The taste of food is different depending on where you eat it. Cotton candy, for example, isn’t anything special. It’s just sugar. But if you’re a child having it for the first time at the fair, it’s something magical.”
Roncero offers a similarly multisensory experience to anyone who can afford the 8,000 to 15,000 euros for a group of eight, which is the only available seating arrangement at Taller, his food workshop and restaurant in Madrid. It may be pricey, but remember, this is more than just dinner. Highlights include a picture seemingly being painted on the table from a projector above, a Bloody Mary that spins around to the sound of The Rolling Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together” and a video of fluttering butterflies that is beamed onto the side of your plate just before real butterflies flutter out of the ceiling. Even the temperature and humidity change. (Roncero hopes that next season’s show will include food that floats on air, as well.) With all this going on it would be easy not to notice the virtuosity of the actual food: 17 courses of Mediterranean-influenced technological wonder. Just before the butterflies appear, for example, diners are served a “false risotto,” made of calamari chopped into rice-size chips and blended with green curry sauce.
“The food is always the most important thing,” says Roncero. “In the past we’ve seasoned it with salt and pepper. Now we’re trying to season it with emotion, too.”
Bourbon or rye? Single barrel or blended? Traditional sweet vermouth, Antica or Punt e Mes? Though it might seem simple, the classic Manhattan cocktail is more complicated than James Bond’s classic martini. So Anthony Bohlinger, executive bar director at Chefs Club by Food & Wine in Aspen, Colo., developed his make your-own Manhattan menu to help guests navigate their options and learn to personalize the cocktail.
“I designed the menu so you can’t have a bad combination of ingredients,” Bohlinger says. Visitors simply pick a whiskey, then move on to a related vermouth and bitters, then add a garnish or two and perhaps a modifier for extra flavor or a personal touch. Here, Bohlinger tells us how to make the bar’s most popular recipe, the West Side Highway.
To infuse the vermouth, place five rosemary stems in a liter bottle of Carpano Antica and let steep for several days. Strain. To make the cocktail, combine all liquid ingredients over ice in a mixing glass. Stir for 20 seconds. Strain into a chilled coupe glass. Garnish with the sprig of thyme and brandied cherry.
Even after Greek yogurt’s stateside invasion, a “sweeter is better” mentality still reigns at the supermarket, with cartons of the stuff coming in flavors of fruit, pie and even donuts. But a new crop of dairy enthusiasts, including chefs like Dan Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, in New York’s Hudson Valley, have other ideas. They’re trying to make the savory yogurt combinations found in Middle Eastern cuisine and on fancy tasting menus as popular as good old blueberry.
For Barber, it started with a kitchen revelation. As Blue Hill’s culinary director, Adam Kaye, puts it, “We served roasted beets with yogurt all the time, and at some point Dan said, ‘Why don’t we try putting beets directly in the yogurt?” For several years, the kitchen staff experimented with blending vegetable purees into their house-made yogurt, deploying the results throughout their menu, in such dishes as a seeded cracker topped with carrot yogurt and layered with thin slices of braised winter carrot.
In late 2013, Blue Hill brought its line of unusual (and addictive) vegetable-flavored yogurts, including beet, carrot, tomato, parsnip, butternut squash and sweet potato, to the public, selling them at Whole Foods locations across the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions and at a number of specialty stores.
Meanwhile, last June, Angela Fout, a native of Lebanon, launched Sohha Savory Yogurt, which she recommends eating with such toppings as za’atar and olives, or smoked salmon, lemon and capers. “Growing up in the Middle East, yogurt was always savory. The first time I saw it sweetened was in the States,” Fout says. That may be changing. “People regularly tell us that, after trying our yogurt, they can never go back.”
in a year when extreme drought is gripping California, turning fertile fields into dusty tracts, farmer David Little may be better prepared than most to, ahem, weather the natural disaster. That’s because for nearly two decades, his organization, The Little Organic Farm, in Petaluma, has specialized in dry farming, an agricultural technique that eschews irrigation.
The practice, which requires tilling the soil to draw up groundwater, then sealing the surface to lock in moisture, saves thousands of gallons of water for each acre of potatoes, sunchokes, tomatoes, cucumbers, peas and other crops. But for top chefs in nearby San Francisco, dry-far
med produce isn’t merely about water conservation: It’s a matter of taste.
Dry farming yields smaller harvests and more petite fruits and vegetables, which concentrates more flavor into each bite. As a result, the produce has been gaining ground among chefs and consumers alike, showing up at restaurants like San Francisco’s Quince and Berkeley’s Chez Panisse, plus farmers markets and specialty grocers around the Bay Area. David Breeden, of The French Laundry in Yountville, for example, transforms Little’s earthy, thick-skinned spuds into pommes Maxim—oven-baked chips tossed in butter. “The potatoes taste more like a potato,” he says. “When you do it with a dry-farmed potato, it’s just going to be better.”
Once common among the state’s wine growers, the practice of dry farming is also undergoing a renaissance in California’s vineyards. It yields more complex wines that better represent their growing regions, says Neil Collins, winemaker at Tablas Creek Vineyard, in Paso Robles. And now may be the perfect time to make the switch.
“At a time when water is such an important commodity,” says Collins, “it seems like the right choice.”