The Meal that Changed the
Course of My Culinary Journey
by Chris Young, CEO of ChefSteps
Chris Young is the CEO and co-founder of ChefSteps, a James Beard award-winning company behind ChefSteps.com and its companion app, which inspire and teach home & professional cooks new techniques and recipes with high-quality interactive content, techniques, tools, and resources.
I never expected to become a chef. And I don’t think I would have become one if it weren’t for a meal that I had in early 2003 at a small, relatively unknown (at the time) restaurant west of London called The Fat Duck. My meal began with foam, the famous liquid nitrogen-poached Green Tea Sour.
For those unfamiliar with this dish, I’ll describe the experience: My server Didier rolled an opulent guéridon across the small and humble dining room, parking it beside my table of one. On top of the oak wood cart was a cauldron of steel and glass filled to the brim with liquid nitrogen simmering at -320 °F; beside it was a whipping siphon, a set of silver soup spoons nested within a linen napkin, a muslin satchel tied with a bow, and a set of chilled plates. Didier picked up the whipping siphon, deftly inverting it to dispense a bite-sized dollop of dense white foam onto the bowl of a shallow spoon, and then with a practiced motion plunged it into the nitrogen, which erupted to a boil as it cryo-poached my sour. He flipped and basted it with the spoon for exactly eight seconds, before lifting it from the liquid nitrogen, dusting the glossy white puff with the satchel of matcha, and then served it to me on a chilled plate with the request that I enjoy it as a single bite.
And when I bit into it, the glossy surface shattered crisply, giving way to a cool and luscious mousse racing with the acidity of lime juice and the slight astringency of green tea. But the best part was the rush of fog that streamed from my nose, making me look a bit like a puffing dragon. This dish is both literally and figuratively very cool. From this one bite it was clear to me that this meal was going to be very different from any other that I had ever eaten.
But the nitro-poached lime sour wasn’t just about theatrics—Heston Blumenthal had crafted it for the purpose of really cleansing the palate. If you’ve ever had a glass of orange juice after brushing your teeth, then you know how awful the alkaline residue of the toothpaste can make food taste. The acidic lime juice serves to neutralize this alkaline residue, while the green tea adds astringent polyphenols that help cleanse the mouth, and a very small amount of vodka provides just enough alcohol to disperse oils and fats.
Of course aerating and poaching it in liquefied nitrogen added textural surprise and an element of fun and whimsy that so often is missing from fine dining restaurants. By the end of my meal there was no question that I had to work at The Fat Duck, with Heston Blumenthal, and I was lucky enough to do so for the next five years. One of the many things I learned from working there was that a talented chef could accomplish extraordinary things when empowered by scientific knowledge.
Like all scientific progress, there was a lot of failure along the way. That light and delicate green tea sour foam would constantly collapse if not served immediately; the result of alcohol that tends to thin the bubble walls until they are simply too delicate to survive the pull of gravity. This was a real problem, because the foam itself kept the liquid nitrogen from freezing more than a paper-thin shell at the surface. If the foam collapsed while it was being cryo-poached, the experience for the guest was more like a tongue stuck to a frozen flagpole, which is not a great way to begin a meal. The solution for near-flawless foam every time was to use a whipping siphon, a unique tool that with the squeeze of the trigger created fresh foam on demand.
Transforming Modern Cuisine
Whipping siphons, like those from iSi, became a fixture at The Fat Duck, as well as every other modernist restaurant. That’s because these tools afforded chefs a better way to manipulate foams that in turn create texture. And manipulating texture is something chefs are always doing, whether they realize it or not. Whipped cream is perhaps the best-known example of texture being transformed by edible foam. It’s simple to make—you just create a lot of small bubbles in cold cream. The whisk is the basic tool for this job, and it does the work in two ways: First, as the wires are whipped through the air and then into the liquid, each wire leaves a trail of bubbles in its wake. Second, the wires stretch and pull existing bubbles until they split into smaller bubbles, which expands the whipped cream and helps make the foam stable. Doing this, however, does eventually wear out your arm. A whipping siphon makes the job easy, but also works in an entirely different way: It uses gas pressure to force soluble gas (nitrous oxide for whipped cream) to dissolve into the cream. When the trigger of the siphon is squeezed, the pressure pushes the cold, gas-laden cream through a valve stem, and as the cream emerges, the surrounding pressure suddenly drops, causing the gas to burst out of the solution as an uncountable number of tiny bubbles that whip the cream. The advantage, aside from avoiding a sore arm, is the ability to create as much or as little fresh whipped cream as you need.
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But these tools aren’t just for gourmet whipping cream, nor are they only useful for modernist chefs looking to push the boundaries of cuisine. At ChefSteps, a company I co-founded over two years ago to teach and inspire home chefs, we’ve got tons of amazing uses for whipping siphons (which I’ll tell you more about in my next post, along with a recipe or two), and in fact we offer a comprehensive online class for home cooks, all about the many diverse ways to use a siphon (iSi customers can get 50% off the Whipping Siphon class now through July 31st using this link to enroll). We get feedback every day from cooks who are learning and trying new things with this tool they’ve had sitting in the drawer for years. It’s validating feedback for an unintentional chef such as myself—people are having the same experience at home that I had at the Fat Duck all those years ago, and today at ChefSteps, tapping into the power of whipping siphons.
Chris Young is the CEO and co-founder of ChefSteps, a James Beard award-winning company behind ChefSteps.com and its companion app, which inspire and teach home cooks new techniques and recipes with high-quality interactive content, techniques, tools, and resources. Prior to ChefSteps, Young was the principal co-author of the acclaimed and worldwide bestselling six-volume work Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking. He was also the founding chef of Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck Experimental Kitchen, the secret culinary laboratory behind the innovative dishes served at one of the best restaurants in the world.