Posted by Mindy Lvoff
Purpose: Translate the beauty of Mokume-Gane metalworking into cuisine
Techniques Used: Transglutaminase (aka: “meat glue”)
Equipment Used: Hobart 3000 Slicer
The reason that you’re subjected to my writing is that The FCI powers-that-be thought I would best be able to translate what Dave & Nils do into written word because of how much I work with them. Ironically, I think that’s actually impeded the process. When I ask them serious questions about the “inspiration” behind their latest creations, I get answers like, “Huh? You know. Hey, do something, not nothing!” (The last part is usually said with a Terminator-esque accent)
So please bear with me when I try and convey to you how Dave came up with Mokume-Gane Fish. Mokume-Gane is a form of Japanese metalworking that takes different (colored) metals, fuses them into a single piece (billet), cuts out channels and chunks of the fused metal, then bends and molds the carved billet into stunning decorative pieces. The end product is metal with a wood-grain effect. Dave had been obsessed with the metalworking technique ever since he had read “The Complete Metalsmith” as a child. I was reading the “Chronicles of Narnia” and Dave was learning how to fuse metal… this is why he’s the genius.
When StarChefs and Hobart came to Dave and asked him to tape a demo using their new Hobart 3000 slicer (the Cadillac of slicers), Dave racked his colossal but disorganized brain for an idea. Slice meat? No, too generic. Dave’s friend, Johnny Iuzzini from Jean Georges, who was also doing a demo, was already slicing gels, so that was out, too. This meant that Dave would need to think of something entirely new. Dave did what great men throughout time have done when they’ve hit a mental wall—he discussed it with his equally-brilliant-yet-actually-organized wife, Jen. They figured that the best way to highlight the benefit of slicing something as thin as the Hobart 3000 can would be to alternate and combine different colors of a food together so that when sliced, you could see the various layers in one piece. Jen remembered Mokume-Gane from one of Dave’s many lifelong obsessions and Dave responded: “Good idea—I’m gonna do fish.” I just translate—I couldn’t make these quotes up.
Dave already knew how to vacu-form from his sculpture days. He knew he could heat acrylic and vacuum it over a lumpy mold to create the hills and valleys needed to form a layered fish billet. For the other side, he cut up a rubber cutting board that could also be heated and then vacu-formed (the rubber cutting boards were unwillingly donated by The FCI’s Amphitheater and were much appreciated). The one variable was the molding element. First, he used spoons but they were expensive to cut at the neck and created too-symmetrical, inorganic indents (discovered only after hacking up several of them). Dave found potato tops worked well as they held up in the vacuum and had the added benefit of being cheap. One piece of the rubber board served as a base with the potato ends arranged on top of it, cut side down. The heated, floppy acrylic and rubber board pieces were then laid on top in that order, then the entire mold was placed in a bag and vacuumed down, forming the hot, flexible pieces around the potato tops. The vacuumed mold was then placed in an ice bath to cool for several minutes, until at last, Dave’s Mokume-Gane fish mold was formed.
In order to form the billet, Dave needed two different colored fish that had the right flavor and texture. He settled on wild salmon and halibut, two fish that could yield large filets that cured well. The two filets were portioned into similar-sized blocks, then par-frozen in order to be sliced thinly on the Hobart 3000. Once frozen and sliced, the super thin fish sheets were separated by cooking-spray-greased parchment paper and allowed to thaw in the refrigerator. In the meantime, Dave prepped the mold by lining it with plastic wrap and also prepared the cure—a 1:1 mixture of fine salt:sugar. He also placed transglutaminase (aka “meat glue”—used to fuse together the layers) in a cup and covered it with a piece of cheesecloth, creating a mesh sifter for light sprinkling. With the plastic-lined rubber mold as the base, two thin slices of salmon were laid on top, with overlapping edges meat-glued together to ensure a solid base sheet. The salmon was then sprinkled with cure mix, then meat glue, and two layers of the halibut were laid on top; again making sure that overlapping edges were meat-glued to form one solid sheet. Salmon and halibut were layered back and forth this way, making sure that the “grain” of the fish was laid in the same direction, i.e., head-to-tail of salmon laid down along the head-to-tail grain of the halibut (vs. across it). Once the layered fish created about a 1.5″ billet, plastic wrap and then the acrylic mold were placed on top, making sure the indentations matched up. The entire billet was then vacuumed down to fuse the fish the way you would fuse the Mokume-Gane metal layers in a forge. Afterward, the vacuum bag was sliced open and the billet left in the fridge for four hours to allow the meat glue to set. Once completely glued, the fish billet was par-frozen in a blast-chiller before being sliced (with slicer dial set to #13 ) into thin sheets translucent enough to see through. The now wood-grained Mokume-Gane fish slices were again laid out on cooking spray-greased parchment paper and allowed to thaw slightly before being garnished.
A fish slice was delicately placed on a plain white dish and served with typical cured fish accompaniments taken to the next level, à la Dave Arnold. Blanched dill was shocked in liquid nitrogen (LN) to both set the color and facilitate finely powdering it in a Vita-Prep. The LN dill powder was then folded into crème fraîche. The pale green-speckled mixture was seasoned, then quenelled onto one edge of the mokume gane fish slice. A caviar-sized cluster of pressure-cooked and pickled mustard seeds was scooped on top. A few pieces of true pumpernickel (not that fluffy muffin-like junk) was sliced paper-thin, dried in the oven, and scattered on top, followed by a few celery leaves. A salad of thinly sliced Granny Smith apples and fennel (again done with the Hobart 3000) were vacuum-infused with curry oil, seasoned, and placed on another edge of the Mokume-Gane cured fish. Thin flash-pickled slices of onion (again achieved with the Hobart 3000) were gathered on top of the apple & fennel salad, and then finished with a sprinkle of lime zest.
The entire dish is impressive, from the aesthetics to the flavor combinations. The beauty and taste of Mokume-Gane cured fish will spoil you for cured salmon—you may never be able to look at it the same way again. The only thing better than tasting the dish is perhaps watching Dave demonstrate how to both make it and operate a Hobart 3000 slicer on the upcoming Star Chefs & Hobart demo page. I’ve seen the preview and it is jaw-dropping. While at first you may think Dave is going overboard, evoking “Sham-Wow” infommerciality, I promise you that Dave DOES in fact love his slicer as much as he sickeningly espouses to the camera. When testing the slicer the night before the demo, he put it on “auto-slice” and walked away from it, waving his hands in the air, yelling at everyone in the theater, “Ahhh! Don’t bother me—I am slicing!!! Ahhh!” in his full Schwarzenegger accent. What can we say—the man loves himself a swanky slicer.