"Food for Thought" – Nils & Dave host the Philoctetes Organization at The French Culinary Institute

Posted by Mindy Lvoff

The Philoctetes Center is an organization that strives to bring together thinkers from various scientific and artistic backgrounds to discuss the processes and factors that influence a final outcome, whether that be technological innovation and artistic expression, or negative outcomes such as violence and genocide. Thought leaders from academic, clinical, and artistic disciplines discuss and debate these factors in order to further the collective’s understanding and appreciation of the imaginative process and journey of creativity. In 2007, Nils was invited to participate in one such discussion called “Perception and Imagination: Masters of the Senses.” Selected as a “taste master,” he was part of a panel that included a slight-of-hand artist, a sound engineer, a master perfumer, a painter, and a neurologist.

On Monday, May 11th, Nils invited the Philoctetes organization to The French Culinary Institute for another discussion involving the senses: “Food for Thought: The Je Ne Sais Quoi of Taste.” This time, Nils and Dave teamed up with Stuart Firestein, Neurobiology professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Columbia (see his Skoal shot here). According to the Philoctetes Center, his lab seeks to better understand the molecular, genetic, and physiological mechanisms that make the vertebrate nose the best chemical detector on the planet. Together, Nils, Dave, and Stuart held a demo and tasting for a 60-person, mixed audience of musicians, financiers, painters, academics, etc. in order to whet their appetites for discussion.

A tasting of our house-distilled Habanero Vodka served to challenge the correlation between scent and taste. When you hold the glass of clear liquid to your nose, spicy habanero wafts up at you, threatening to irritate your eyes. Upon tasting it, however, there is an absence of any spice whatsoever, revealing only the sweet perfume of the formerly fiery habanero. In fact, even though it lacks sugar, you could swear that the drink you are sipping has a sweet finish. Distilling a mixture of puréed habaneros in vodka using our rotary evaporator (rotovap) allows us to pull out the aroma and flavor profile of the habanero while leaving the heavy capsaicin solids behind. In fact, the remaining capsaicin and habanero pulp have absolutely no odor. However, tasting it (if you dare) is like eating pure lava. None of the redeeming flavor notes are left—just fire. And without any odor to warn you that what you are about to taste is incinerating, the mixture is deadly. This has led us to label any saved solids “Death Bucket.”

Nils prepared one of my favorite of his creations, his kombu-marinated duck breast. Without his dedication to his own sense of taste, this dish may never have been created. In Japan, kombu seaweed is traditionally only combined with seafood. However, Nils recognized that the umami flavor of the seaweed would pair brilliantly with the sweet earthiness of duck. He rolled the duck breast (yes, another Nils tube) in kombu and vacuumed it to infuse overnight before cooking it sous-vide for an hour at 57°C, then finished it in a pan to just crisp its fatty skin to a luscious golden-caramel color. Nils previously explained that when a Japanese chef saw him unrolling the kombu-wrapped duck, he told Nils that he was crazy. Kombu is only used on seafood. Nils is a man of few words and arguing is definitely not something he enjoys. Instead, he sliced the chef off a piece and let the chef judge for himself. Anyone in Monday night’s audience who sampled the sweet and savory flavor of kombu married with the gamey-sweet flavor of the duck knows that Nils won that silent argument hands-down.

The duck was served with smooth, garlic & oniony ramp mashed potatoes. The micro-speckled green mashed potato is achieved using liquid nitrogen. Ramp greens are quickly blanched, shocked, and drained to retain the vibrant color before being combined with liquid nitrogen in a Vita Prep blender. Once strained through a coffee filter-lined chinois, the powder is then dusted on and folded into mashed potatoes. Besides the visually stunning appearance, the flavor is incredible. The ramp greens, blanched only briefly, retain a potent ramp flavor, and because it is powdered with liquid nitrogen, the texture of the mashed potatoes isn’t compromised by any stringiness. Together with a savory-sweet, perfectly tangy mushroom sauce, the kombu duck and ramp mashed potatoes made for an incredible flavor combination leaving many in the audience asking for seconds.

passion fruit methocel f-50 meringue with white-chocolate fennel cream
passion fruit methocel f-50 meringue with white-chocolate fennel cream

For dessert, passionfruit methocel meringues were served with fennel and white chocolate ganache. These meringues take most people by surprise the first time they taste them. Made with Methocel F50 instead of egg whites, these meringues are basically pure, sweetened passionfruit in every airy, crispy bite. Their tartness makes you instantly pucker. However, balanced with mildly sweet, fennel-perfumed ganache, the two elements combine to create a perfect harmony of sharp acidity softened by buttery creaminess. Interests thoroughly sparked and appetites for discussion peaked, the 60+ participants were ready to embark on a passionate (no pun intended) discovery of the nature of taste for themselves.

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