Evoke, elicit, extract: essence - Back to Basics
The true essence of a final dish boasts rich visual appeal, aromas, concentrated flavors, appealing textures, varying temperatures, and, of course, a dash of personality. How a chef chooses to achieve these effects relies on a myriad of techniques and ingredients paired with a bit of come-from-within ingenuity.
Considering all the pomp and circumstance involved in creating a meal befitting a Michelin-starred caliber restaurant, a chef's quest to create perfection in each dish seems daunting and, for many, simply impossible. What is within a chef's grasp, however, is the ability to maximize the essence of his or her dish by developing a refined sense of discernment when choosing ingredients. Good chefs may go through the motions of ingredient shopping at green markets without taking the time to get to know their purveyors -- settling for what they perceive is the best rather than pursuing the exceptional. A great chef, however, knows that in the end, the quality of his or her cuisine rests with the purveyor or producer who is continuously chasing perfection. These providers of ingredients are truly a great chef's life's blood. Purveyors' passion for perfection manifests itself in the works of the chefs to whom they provide superior ingredients -- which brings us back to the magic word essence with all its various sha des of meaning.
In it truest form, the word essence, as it relates to food, is the extraction or drawing out of flavor; this process is usually accomplished by use of some sort of action or force. When it comes to cooking, though, the word takes on a broader meaning. Infusing, distilling, macerating, deglazing and reducing -- all, in one way or another, contribute to the essence of a final product. Any of these methods used to impart essence first requires a keen understanding of -- as well as respect for -- ingredients and the manner in which they react with one another. By using numerous techniques, it's easy to take somewhat mundane ingredients and by simply varying a preparation or technique, push them to the pinnacle of intense flavor.
In addition to the processes employed to enhance a dish's essence, the ingredients also clearly communicate their own flavors, and with the smallest amount of coaxing -- perhaps by using just the proper amount of salt added just at the right time in the cooking process -- the finished product stands out in a crowd. Paradoxically, a single ingredient conveys its essence simply and distinctly apart from the dish, and yet, at the same time, it enhances all the flavors within a dish, becoming an integral part of the final composition.
Cooking vegetables in their own juices, although not a new concept, is a perfect illustration of how to bring out the vegetables' essence. In addition, same ingredient, flavor-infused stocks used for soup making, vinaigrettes, and sauces seem like natural combinations. For Chef Michael Leviton of Lumiere, essence typifies what his menu is all about: "With the topic of essence, I felt like I could have pulled anything off of my menu and it would have applied. Obviously, with some foods, it's easier to achieve this than with others. Many of our soups, which are really simple purees of a specific ingredient itself combined with that same ingredient, end up with layers of that flavor and there's nothing else. We use very little chicken stock other than for chicken sauce -- it doesn't go into our soup. When we make mushroom soup, we use mushroom stock or corn stock for corn soup. There are no auxiliary flavors, just the true and pure flavors of the dominant ingredient. This, to me, is what cooking is all about -- stripping away extraneous flavors and getting at the heart of the matter."
Alex Grunert's love of pastry developed at an early age while he was working at the Hotel Intercontinental in Vienna. Today, pastry chef Alex Grunert of Danube is able to channel his creative passion into desserts that often border on the unexpected -- as witnessed by a dish he's created that includes ice cream infused with subtle asparagus flavor: "I try to think about my desserts a little differently. Although I do look to the four seasons for inspiration, that's just my starting place. From there, it's about connecting with the ingredients and meshing that with my cuisine without things becoming contrived. Obviously, the market and gourmet shops are key in helping me to decide what ingredients I'll be using, but that's not where it ends. I'm constantly checking out old cookbooks for recipes that trigger new ideas -- one thought feeding off of another. I also enjoy magazines that have great food photography but don't really ever bother with the recipes that go with them -- I'd rather do my own thing when it comes to the recipes themselves."
Proud to share his culinary heritage with his patrons, Chef Grunert wants his diners to experience his vision of Austrian food. Although Austrian cooks are known for their liberal use of heavy sauces and cream, Grunert is very aware that Americans are constantly searching for lighter fare: "I think diners are surprised at the lightness of my dishes, They often will not order dessert thinking that it will be too heavy after having a meal. If this is the case, I like to send out a complimentary dessert and ten times out often, the plate will come back licked clean! I really just want them to have a good time and enjoy the food -- their experience at Danube should always be exceptionally memorable."
When asked about how he approached the topic of essence for Art Culinaire, Chef Grunert was eager to share his thoughts: "The subject matter was somewhat difficult for me. I'm not the type of chef that can come up with an idea right off the top of my head like many of my peers in this field are able to do. I like to take some time to think about different possibilities, then come up with a couple of ideas to follow through on. I found this situation to be true when broached about how to portray essence through my desserts. I spent a couple of sleepless nights racking my brain how best to go about it. I ended up working with flower extracts and different fruit oils. The flavors and aromas from these ingredients can be pretty intense and are not items I necessarily like to use. I was pleased with my results, though, so I think my insomnia actually paid off."
"My mom wrote a cookbook when I was growing up -- a low-cholesterol, kosher cookbook. Although I certainly don't cook that way now, I think it brought about an awareness from within that flavors can be manipulated. It also introduced me to cooking on the whole. I know it definitely sensitized me to a world of cooking techniques as well as the marrying of different flavors."
While working in a deli during his high school years, Michael Leviton distinctly remembers a customer asking him if cooking was ever something he would want to make a career out of, to which he responded, "No way I'd ever want to do this for a living." Thankfully for those that are lucky enough to experience the whole dining experience at Lumiere, Leviton reconsidered his initial response to the customer's query. While attending college, he decided to take a bit of time off from his studies and came to the realization that he didn't have any solid work skills other than those he had developed while working in kitchens: "I fell into it much harder the second time around -- something really clicked. For the first time, I felt this was something I was meant to do. So as soon as I finished college, I hightailed it to San Francisco and bounced around at a couple of small places before landing at Joyce Goldstein's kitchen in Square One. I truly felt lucky to be working in such good kitchen with so little experience . I was there for over two years. At that time, the menu was changing everyday -- I saw so much. I worked my way through all the stations and got to do and see everything. With menu changes being so frequent, I learned about the world of flavor -- not just about French cooking or Italian cooking -- Joyce was adamant that we learn traditional techniques and flavors from all parts of the globe. After that, I went to France and that experience just blew my mind. I ate in three, 3-star restaurants in three days. So, as soon as I got back to the States, I made it my mission to get into a French kitchen."