This morning at the French Culinary Institute, Nils Noren and Dave Arnold showed me around their cocktail lab, where they are turning a high-tech, molecular gastronomy-ish eye to drinks. Noren worked at Aquavit for ten years, and is now the vice president of culinary and pastry arts at FCI. Arnold is the director of culinary technology at the school, and is also a contributing editor to Food Arts.
The two of them look like mad scientists as they putter around the lab in chef whites, vacuum-infusing a cucumber with gin or clarifying tomato juice. Their goal is simply better cocktails through science–like stabilizing butter with a slurry made of water and Ticaloid 310S gum so you can make a creamy buttered rum without the butter separating and getting gloppy. “There are many more people thinking the way we do about food than cocktails,” Noren told me. Both Noren and Arnold love PDT and Little Branch, but they’re coming at cocktails from a different angle–a combination of serious culinary thought mixed with an emphasis on technology. “I don’t start by thinking about a particular liquor,” said Noren, “I start by thinking about flavors.”
Speaking of flavors, to the left you can see Dave holding one of his bar snacks–pork rind cracker jacks. Essentially, they’re bite-sized puffs of pork rind, caramel glazed and tossed with peanuts–just as ridiculously good as you’d expect.
Sometime soon, Noren and Arnold will start to take over the bar at L’Ecole for one night every other month or so. And there’s talk of Arnold opening his own spot, or of the FCI opening its own bar to showcase the pair’s ideas. But for now, you can sample the wares and find out how to make some of the futuristic cocktails yourself on June 12th, when the pair will host a class, High-Tech Cocktails at FCI. The class will sell out, so buy tickets now if you’re interested. You can also read about Noren and Arnold’s beverage exploits on their blog.
After the jump, see the pair in action, and get tips for home bartending.
Here, Noren and Arnold with their vacuum machine, in which they can vacuum-infuse liquors with various flavorings.
The other fun thing they do with the vacuum is transform ingredients like cucumber into cocktails. A dish of gin, vermouth and simple syrup with two slices of cucumber goes into the machine, and the vacuum removes all the air from the cucumber. In place of the air, the gin-vermouth-simple syrup mixture rushes into the vegetable. Take it out, sprinkle coarse salt on top, and crunch down a very refreshing cocktail/snack.
Without the gigantic vacuum machine, you could accomplish the same trick at home, using smaller slices of cucumber and a fat plastic syringe. Fill the syringe with the gin mixture and the cucumber, remove any air that’s in the syringe, and then pull the plunger all the way out, creating a strong vacuum that will flood the cucumber with gin.
You can buy these big tapioca balls at a well-stocked East Asian market. Arnold’s wife came up with the name Long Island bubble iced tea for the cocktail that features the chewy orbs, below.
Although Arnold makes this drink with vodka distilled with tea, you could do it quickly by dunking a white tea bag (white tea tends to be lighter and less bitter) into some vodka, tasting it often until the desired flavor is reached. Mix the tea vodka with honey and lemon juice. Prepare the tapioca balls: simmer them in water, drain, and mix them with a bit of simple syrup (water boiled with sugar). Put a couple spoonfuls of the tapioca balls into the cocktail, and serve it in a Champagne glass with a wide bubble-tea straw. Arnold carbonates this cocktail with nitrous, which gives it a creamy mouth feel. But the at-home, non-carbonated version would also be good, or you could top it off with a little seltzer.
Finally, a few home bartending tips from Noren and Arnold:
1. Don’t forget the salt. Add a pinch of salt, to taste, to any fruit-or-citrus-based cocktail–not so that it tastes salty, but just to heighten the flavor. To see what a difference it makes, make one mojito with salt, and one without and see how the salt brings out the flavor of the other ingredients.
2. Home infusions work well when you use flavoring ingredients like berries or horseradish–just plunk them in the bottle and taste it everyday until you like it. But greens really won’t work at home, so don’t try to do a cilantro-infused tequila, for example.
3. Strain your citrus juices before you use them.
4. To make clarified juices at home, use gel clarification: take 5 grams powdered gelatin for every liter of juice. Melt the gelatin in water on the stove top, and then pour it into your juice, and freeze the mixture. When it’s frozen solid, place the block in a cheesecloth-lined colander, and let it melt. What drips out will be crystal clear, but will have a vibrant taste.
5. “Bartender” is an honorable word. There’s no need to call it anything else. [i.e. mixologist]