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Food Science

Chefs who are also inventors and engineers

By AMELIA LEVIN
Oil mixes with vinegar to create a dressing. Citric acid "cooks" raw seafood to create ceviche. The sugar content increases in carrots when sauteed. Onions sweeten and caramelize when coated with butter and heated. Why does lemon juice cause milk to curdle? How does yogurt become yogurt? "A lot of people forget that there's a chemical reaction every time you cook," says Sam Burman, an Avenues and Tru alum and the recently executive chef of Tramonto's Steak & Seafood in Wheeling, who just signed on to head up Bluprint (222 Merchandise Mart, 312-410-9800), the first full-service restaurant in the Mart. "A lot of that thinking gets lost in the mix."

It's an easy thing to overlook--the fact that cooking, perhaps more than a skill or an art, is a science. It's also easy to understand why science has formed the core of many Chicago-area chefs' work.

Take Burman and Grant Achatz of the acclaimed Alinea (1723 N. Halsted, 312-867-0110) as example. Both use specialized foodservice equipment to make ultra-creative dishes like immersion blends, flash-frozen froth and concoctions prepared sous-vide, a form of vacuum-sealed cooking that has become a growing trend due to its ability to cook fish, poultry, vegetables and other foods more gently. Achatz is currently working with Niles-based PolyScience, a manufacturer of constant temperature control equipment, to create new tools for these uses.

PolyScience's "smoking gun" tool has a chamber that captures aromatics like lavender or cloves and can be ignited, or simply released, to infuse foods with flavors and aromas without heating. Achatz says he has used the gun with the lavender to permeate lamb or even a dining room. "It's a new way of flavoring foods," he says.

Using a distiller, Achatz has extracted pure beet flavors for use in his dishes.
"The result will be completely clear as water, but it has the essence of the earthy sweetness found in the beet," Achatz says. PolyScience also manufacturers thermal circulators that heat oil at 350 degrees and then "swirl it in a whirlpool fashion," at which point, Achatz says he can drop different foods in the mix that will fry and take on interesting shapes.

Achatz has also steamed clams, captured the liquid, frothed it and then flash-frozen the froth at minus 40 degrees using PolyScience's "anti-griddle," a piece of equipment that can freeze the outside of a product while leaving the center creamy or soft. "We've paired the aerated, frozen liquid of clams with caviar, lemon and nasturtium, which are astringent flowers with leaves that are very spicy like horseradish," Achatz says. With such tools, "We're constantly nudging textures and experimenting with cooking."

In talking with the young, rising star, you would think he's a scientist working on the next new invention, but he insists that's not the case. Achatz remains extremely humble and modest when asked how he's come up with these ultra-creative ideas, saying he's not really that sure. "It's a continual evolution," he says, referring to his culinary career. "Like an artist, you have a certain way of expressing yourself through a medium, and it just evolves. At Alinea, we're forcing ourselves to constantly reinvent ourselves."

Chef Homaro Cantu of the popular Moto in River North (945 W. Fulton, 312-491-0058) isn't too far off from this idea that chefs can also be scientists. An inventor of sorts, Cantu says he views his kitchen as a laboratory where he can come up with the latest, and often patented, ideas in concoctions and cookware.

You wouldn't think an inkjet printer could be used in the kitchen, but alas, this represents just one of Cantu's eccentric culinary ideas. Using a Canon i560 inkjet printer, Cantu fills the print cartridges with natural liquids such as juiced bright vegetables and fruits, and for the paper tray, he's made edible paper out of starches. The result? A printed menu that you can eat.

Other tools Cantu uses? "I employ anything from proprietary software to Class IV laser for extracting flavors from food. Right now we're playing around with a lot of liquid nitrogen." The descriptions end there regarding how he's using those products, but Cantu says he's always experimenting with new tools and techniques.

"I like to think of myself as a learner and a teacher," Cantu says. "I believe all food consists of science, including classical-based cuisine. The science is all in the details."

Back at Bluprint, Burman treats the details like a science. Aside from using some pretty innovative equipment and tools, Burman also combines interesting ingredients to shape the menu at Bluprint, which he describes as "imaginative American."

Want some dressing with your salad? How boring. Instead, Burman adds a little twist to the standard, ubiquitous balsamic vinaigrette.

"We slice up some heirloom tomatoes and marinate them in sherry and extra virgin olive oil, add some torn basil, ricotta cheese and pine nuts, Burman says. "Then we run a strip of balsamic jelly instead of vinaigrette that we've created using by combining the vinegar with agar-agar, gelatin sheets, a little sugar." Sounds like a door that's open, but agar-agar is an all-natural form of seaweed that works like gelatin and serves as a vegetarian alternative to the popular use substance.

"We like to look for ways to present ingredients other than what you'd find everywhere else," Burman says. Another trick in his repertoire is to create what appears to be a cube of a watermelon, but it's actually reconfigured watermelon. Sounds confusing, but get this: Burman will take the watermelon juice, infuse it with some fresh mint and mix it with sodium alginate, which is a powder derived from algae. Then he'll dissolve calcium chloride in water and drop the original liquid in there, which will then jell. Burman quickly takes out the jelled combination so that the inside remains liquid and the outside retains its shape. Add some lime and Hawaiian black pepper to resemble the black seeds of the summery fruit, and voila, you've just tricked your customer, but in an amusing way. It's no wonder where the
term, "amuse bouche," referring to creative appetizers, came from.

"It's fun because you have this little thing that looks like a watermelon, and then you put it in your mouth, and it explodes with flavor," Burman says.

Burman's quick to stress that he's not ueber-creative with everything. Sometimes, he says, people just want to go out to dinner and have a nice piece of fish. "I always believe that there has to be a balance," he says. "Some people don't care for that super-creative type of cooking. We're trying to appeal to that sense of diner, as well as appeal to people who are looking for something a little more interesting. We like to have fun--we're not opposed to learning new techniques. That's the beauty of it--it's still all just cooking."

While it's safe to say the cooking styles of a majority of Chicago chefs rest at the cutting edge of creativity, ingenuity and vision, here are a few more chefs known for their ultra-unique, constantly reinvented menus:

Schwa
1466 N. Ashland, 773-252-1466
www.schwarestaurant.com

Come in, sit down, and you're suddenly at the mercy of Michael Carlson and staff. But that's meant in a good way. Carlson, an Alinea alum, frequently whips up new, creative and seasonal concoctions and then serves them to guests in three- and nine-tasting menus around $50. Service is minimal (ie...you refill your own water) and tabletops casual, but you'll feel like you're Carlson's personal guest at his house, and you won't bust your wallet, thanks in part to the BYOB status. Take note, the tiny room fills up, so reservations are recommended, and the place closes shop on Saturdays and Sundays.

Otom
951 W. Fulton, 312-491-5804

Spell it backwards. This new concept, pronounced "autumn," by Moto owners Joe DeVito and Adriana Carrasco opened this summer with a kitchen headed up by Daryl Nash, formerly the sous-chef at Moto. Expect exciting, creative inventions like you'd find at the sister restaurant two doors down. Traditional comfort food dishes get very untraditional twists with experimental, avant-garde cooking. Popular "mixologist" Myong Park, formerly of Enclave, keeps up the trend with cool cocktails and fun martinis.

Zealous

419 W. Superior, 312-475-9112
www.zealousrestaurant.com

Chose from semi-affordable options on the a la carte menu or one of the tasting options with lavish, artistic creations by Michael Taus, chef and owner. Influences from around the globe make their way onto the menu here, sometimes fusing together, sometimes not. Just as impressive as the food is the River North, lofted-ceiling eatery's wine list with more than 750 varieties.

Tru
676 N. St. Clair, 312-202-0001
www.trurestaurant.com

Having secured a place in the modern-day dictionary, most everyone in Chicago is familiar with Tru and the brains behind it: Rick Tramonto and renowned pastry chef Gale Gand. The Streeterville mainstay never ceases to disappoint--tasting menus change up frequently and with the season. Tramonto, in addition to being an inventive, culinary genius of sorts, also remains dedicated to the sustainability movement, serving as many local products as he can to support Midwest farmers.

MK
868 N. Franklin, 312-482-9179
www.mkchicago.com

Executive Chef Erick Simmons truly has maintained the legendary status of MK, the brainchild of Michael Kornick, with an American-global menu focusing on fresh, seasonal ingredients. Simmons keeps it innovative with classic-meets-unique flavor combinations and twists on traditional dishes. MK recently launched its "Market Mondays" program, with Simmons bringing back goodies from the weekend farmer's market and incorporating them into an affordable, three-course tasting on Sundays and Mondays.

Avenues
108 E. Superior, 312-573-6754
http://chicago.peninsula.com/pch/dining_01.html

It's no wonder why Executive Chef Graham Elliot Bowles has been declared one of the country's best new chefs. Head to this four-star restaurant at the Peninsula Hotel and your taste buds will excite over the interesting spice/ingredient combinations and artful presentations, like peekytoe crab salad with rhubarb gelee and tuna graced with avocado "paint."

RESTAURANT LISTINGS

Chicago Chop House
60 W. Ontario, 312-787-7100,www.chicagochophouse.com. Historic Chicago photographs brighten the walls in this charming Victorian mansion. But the real draw in this famous steak house is the wide selection of aged steaks, excellent prime rib and succulent lobster. Save room for homemade desserts. Open for lunch Mon.-Fri. Dinner nightly.

Chicago Diner
3411 N. Halsted, 773-935-6696, www.veggiediner.com. Since 1983, the popular Chicago Diner has served delicious vegetarian dishes in a casual diner atmosphere. For appetizers, start with the fabulous vegan potstickers. You can't go wrong with the Radical Reuben sandwich, the Thunder Salad or Pan Seared Tofu. Try the great portabella mushroom spinach caesar wrap. Leave room for the raw blueberry or mango cheesecake. Catering is available. Lunch Mon.-Fri. Brunch Sat. and Sun. Dinner nightly. Premium organic ales. Parking available after 6 p.m. Outdoot patio available.

Meritage Cafe and Wine Bar

2118 N. Damen, 773-235-6434, www.meritagecafe.com.This relaxing, sophisticated Bucktown restaurant is bustling year-round. Perfect for romantic dinners as well as large parties, the dark atmosphere is inviting. Try the eggplant with artichokes and mushrooms. There are plenty of dishes to satisfy meat lovers, while the excellently prepared fish specialties are standouts along with seasonal game dishes as well. The all-American wine list is award-winning and changes week-to-week. Carmelized bananas in a puff pastry is a favorite dessert offering. Dinner nightly. Sunday Brunch. Outdoor patio available.

Oceanique

505 Main St., Evanston, 847-864-3435, www.oceanique.com.
Chef Mark Grosz has combined creative French and American influences to offer exquisite meat and seafood in a simple, charming atmosphere. The changing menu of this splendid restaurant offers organically-grown vegetables and fruits in season. Try the slow-baked halibut with pickled red onions. The bouillabaisse with salmon, tai, turbot, scallops, shrimp and squid is excellent, as is the yellowfin tuna. Meat lovers will devour the filet mignon with escargot, Roquefort cheese, green beans, pearl onions and fingerling potatoes. Select from over 450 wines. Save room for delicate pastries including an unbelievably sinful chocolate cake with layers of chocolate mousse. Oceanique offers a 3-course $39 dinner Mon.-Fri. Dinner nightly. Closed Sun.

The Parthenon
314 S. Halsted, 312-726-2407,www.theparthenon.com. The Sotiris family serves up excellent Greek dishes and wines in the heart of Greek Town. Start with the calamari and shrimp salad or the dolmades. The classic eggplant dish, moussaka, is delicious, as is the lamb with artichokes and egg-lemon sauce. The jumbo shrimp flamed in brandy with light rice pilafi is unique. Try the pork or chicken breast shishkabobs with roast potatoes. For dessert there are succulent Greek offerings including the flaky baklava--phyllo pastry baked with almonds, walnuts and honey, or galaktobouriko--phyllo filled with vanilla custard, baked in syrup. Open daily from 11 a.m. to midnight. Free valet parking.

!Salpicon!
1252 N. Wells, 312-988-7811,www.salpicon.com. From the beautiful paintings on the walls to the tiger shrimp in garlic sauce to the delightful desserts, you'll know why such a charming spot is so highly regarded. The decor is attractive, the gourmet Mexican dishes are divine and the wine bar is one of the best in Chicago. Start with ceviche or the spinach salad with goat cheese and, of course, fresh guacamole. Chef Priscila Satkoff offers nightly specials, with favorites such as poached chicken with Oaxaca mole sauce. Try the nightly fresh fish entree--salmon and halibut specials with lime rice are excellent. Leave room for oranges poached in cinnamon sauce, cake with berry sauce, a luscious hot rich chocolate cake with a warm chocolate center or the stunning pineapple dessert. Reservations recommended, especially on weekends. Sun. brunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. p.m. Dinner daily. Outdoor dining available.

Published: August 07, 2007
Issue: Fall 2007

Comments

Awesome Article
I just had to write a quick comment...you guys have tremendous content on this site. The perfect source for great insights on the leading Chicago restaurants. We recently visited Moot with our printer ink cartridges customers based on what you had written above. Thanks again.
Stan Schott, Feb-04-2010