Did you know that you can poach salmon in the dishwasher and have it turn out deliciously? Or fry an egg on a piece of paper? Or cook kebabs on a car engine? If not, then you’re probably not familiar with Stefan Gates, the British food writer, television host, and self-proclaimed gastronaut whose mission it is to make food extraordinary. “I love delicious food, but for me, I need food that makes you smile,” says Gates, who is in town for the launch of his new cookbook, The Extraordinary Cookbook, which features recipes for such quirky delights as bread baked in flowerpots, apple caviar, fried frog legs, and, yes, dishwasher salmon.
“We spend so much of our lives eating and cooking, and I see that as an adventure,” says Gates. “Every now and then you want to do something extraordinary. Lots of these [recipes] are fantastic for kids. You want kids to be inspired. When people come to my house, I try to transform dinner into a party. We’ll do something interactive, like sushi rolling. Everyone’s first attempt is rubbish but it turns the evening into a riot. Or I do a crab and hammer party. When the guests arrive they all get a crab and you get your hands dirty. I just like food that makes you laugh and smile and fall in love.”
Many of Gates’s recipes can be classified as modernist cuisine; he fashions caviar out of using ingredients like sodium alginate and apple juice, but where he sees himself differently is in the enjoyment process. “I’m not keen on a dinner where you just get food. I want to make you laugh and enjoy the meal.” One of his favorite dishes? The “bum” sandwich, which is made by wrapping a sandwich in plastic wrap and sitting on it, which takes inspiration from Gates’s days as a schoolboy accidentally sitting on his knapsack and squishing his lunch, and also the French pan bagnat sandwiches. “People think it’s naughty, sitting on food. It just transforms the eating into an amazing adventure.”
“Vegetable instruments are another way of getting people to be fascinated,” says Gates, who paused briefly to play his carrot clarinet during this interview. It sounded surprisingly good, though with more of a saxophone sound. “My life is about playing with food.”
But part of the reason Gates plays with his food so much is so that he can inspire children to expand their horizons about food and eating. “In the United Kingdom, kids have a monoculinary diet, just pizzas or burgers, so they retreat to the same food all the time,” he says, noting that if children can see food as something exciting, they’d be more interested in eating a varied diet.
“The craziest recipe in the book is how to fry an egg on a piece of paper. It’s something you do because it’s delicious,” says Gates. “What you do is get a piece of paper and wire coat hanger. Using pliers, you twist until you get a small square with a long handle. And then you clip a piece of paper to the square and put a bit of oil on the paper and crack an egg into the middle. Then you find the smallest flame and you keep it really low and literally put the paper frying pan on the flame and the egg will cook before the paper burns. The trick is to make sure the flame is under the egg and then it’s fine. The water conducts the heat. The great thing about it is that if you show it to your kids, you become a hero and you can eat the egg after. It’s a bit bonkers and crazy, but it’s fun to do.”
Slightly less work is that dishwasher salmon. “You know what? The salmon in the dishwasher has a noble pedigree. Vincent Price from the ’70s had a television show and he did it on the show. The amazing thing about the dishwasher is that it cooks at the perfect temperature. Chefs have water baths set at 63 degrees Celsius to cook proteins. Dishwashers on their normal setting run at 65 degrees Celsius. You don’t have to buy a water bath or fish kettles. Just wrap in foil and stick it in. When you do it at home with kids their eyes just burst. It makes people alive and smile and laugh. And it’s delicious as well. You can do it with pretty much anything that needs poaching.”
While it sounds ridiculous, Gates claims the fish comes out perfectly every time. “The other classic [trick] is to eat it straight off the table!” says Gates. “You literally put the food on the table, and it blows everyone’s minds. And you’re saving yourself the washing up!”