J. Peter Clark

How are popular trends in dining likely to influence food processing operations? Do they really matter? I was prompted to ponder these questions after an exciting meal at one of chef David Chang’s establishments in New York. Some of his restaurants, most called some variation of Momofuku (meaning lucky peach), do not take reservations and are notoriously difficult to patronize. It helped us greatly that we were with Peter Meehan, a New York food author who is writing a cookbook with Chang. Menu items served at Momofuku Ssam, including this steamed bun with Berkshire pork, pickled Kirby cucumbers, hoisin, and scallion, steer clear of traditional approaches to food preparation.

We were in New York to celebrate my wife’s birthday with our jeweler daughter and Meehan, who had previously co-edited a collection of biographical stories from chefs called How I Learned to Cook. Chang’s entry told how he had gone to Japan fascinated by ramen, endured a painful apprenticeship and returned to New York to open a 27-seat ramen bar, since converted to the 12-seat Momofuku Ko, which, incidentally, requires reservations. He now has three restaurants, all small and creative in their offerings, and all full all the time.

Momofuku Ssam bar, where we ate, offers dishes from a raw bar, seafood, artisanal country ham from Kentucky and Tennessee, vaguely Oriental dishes such as steamed buns, others based on offal—liver, tendons, and pig’s head, and conventional-sounding entrees that are anything but ordinary. The menu unapologetically announces, "We do not serve vegetarian-friendly items."

As another indicator of Chang’s creativity, he has opened a milk bar serving various sweet and savory baked goods and flavored milk (chocolate, strawberry, and corn flake flavors), among other beverages. The corn flake infusion tastes like the milk left in your breakfast cereal bowl after all the soggy flakes are gone.

So what is a meal at Momofuku Ssam like? We had Honeycrisp Apple Kimchi, Satur Farm’s Fried Brussels Sprouts, Banh Mi, Sichuan Beef Tendon, Steamed Buns, a plate of translucent Finchville Country Ham, two dishes that were not yet on the menu, and Marinated Hanger Steak, washed down with several wines that the skilled sommelier was trying out.

Each dish offered at least one new idea. The steamed buns were reminiscent of dim sum, but used braised pork belly, a cut usually cured for bacon. Kimchi is a distinctly Korean pickle made of fermented cabbage, garlic, and chilies. (Korea is the largest consumer of garlic in the world!) Chang, a Korean-American, likes to use kimchi, fish sauce, and miso in many of his dishes. He also uses artisanal hams and bacon from Appalachia and identifies the source of many of his ingredients. This is consistent with the trend toward local sourcing and branded ingredients that might formerly have been thought of as commodities.

The Brussels sprouts were finished with a fish sauce vinaigrette. I was surprised that Brussels sprouts under any conditions could be that good. Banh Mi is a delicious Vietnamese sandwich on good French bread. The beef tendon, another delicacy from an unexpected source, should have been tough, you would think, but instead was tender. Finally, the hanger steak, ordinarily a chewy and inexpensive cut, could have been mistaken for tenderloin.

Low-temperature, Long-time Cooking
The hanger steak is cooked at 120°F for 40 minutes and then seared on the outside before serving. A short rib at Momofuku Ko is cooked at 127°F for 48 hr and then crisped in a deep fryer. This is similar to sous vide cooking, which vacuum packs meat and fish in plastic bags before cooking in water at relatively low temperatures. Some health departments are skeptical of sous vide because the temperatures are too low to kill spores of potential pathogens, so even with refrigeration, there might be some risk with foods cooked this way. However, there are years of experience with the technique, which originated in Europe. Chefs like it because they believe it preserves flavors that are otherwise lost when cooking in the open.

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The marinated hanger steak, treated at the low temperature, probably undergoes some indigenous enzymatic tenderizing. This is a technique that could be used in an industrial setting for a foodservice product or even a consumer product intended for finishing at home on the grill or in an oven.

Chang is among a group of chefs who are applying food science in their kitchens, in some cases under the label of "molecular gastronomy," a term coined by Herve This in France and made famous by Ferran Adria of El Bulli in Spain. Grant Achatz of Alinea in Chicago is a prominent American practitioner, as are Wylie Dufresne and David Burke of New York, both of whom have participated in the IFT/RCA Chefs’ Challenge at past IFT Annual Meeting & Food Expos®. Many chefs dislike the term molecular gastronomy and see it as an awkward way to describe their creativity. The concept is associated with new forms of food, at least for a restaurant setting, forms such as foams, emulsions, and frozen shapes achieved with liquid nitrogen.

The commercial food processing industry has been manufacturing food in forms that are difficult to reproduce in a home kitchen for a long time. Think of whipped dessert toppings, instant puddings and gelatin desserts, emulsified salad dressings and sandwich spreads, and safely cured sausages and lunchmeats. Creative chefs have studied the functional ingredients and technologies used in these products and applied them in new ways with new combinations of flavors. Food product developers have often been inspired by culinary creations, and with the increasing significance of eating away from home, new products for foodservice are constantly needed.

In this context, one of Chang’s contributions is the introduction of a distinctive flavor such as kimchi to a wider audience. This presents a processing opportunity, or at least a topic for investigation. Kimchi, like many other pickles, is normally made by fermentation of relatively large pieces, such as whole cucumbers, olives, chunks of cabbage, and cloves of garlic. The rate of conversion is governed both by the biochemical reaction and by relatively slow mass transfer by diffusion of organic acids and other flavors through the flesh of the substrate. If the flavor of the pickle is more important than the texture (not always the case, of course), would the process be shortened by reducing the size of the raw materials before fermentation? Chang actually does use smaller pieces of daikon radish and cabbage. The concept would be to make a puree or coarsely ground slurry and then to ferment that. Even while suggesting this engineering approach, it is important to recall that other efforts to shorten biochemical flavor development processes have often failed.

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Some Things Cannot Be Rushed
Some familiar flavor development processes that seem resistant to acceleration include aging of wine and whiskey, aging of cheese, and conching of chocolate. Efforts at acceleration include size reduction, changing temperature, and increasing energy input. For example, some inexpensive wines are treated by passing over oak chips in a tower. This simulates some of the extraction of phenolics that occurs when wines are aged in barrels, but cannot simulate the formation of esters and other compounds that contribute to subtle flavors. Cheese flavor development seems to improve with low-temperature storage and is difficult to control at higher temperatures. Conching of chocolate combines size reduction, removal of volatiles, and chemical reaction and is a clear case of more usually being better. An effort to make "30 second chocolate" in a twin-screw extruder did not work very well for just this reason.

Fermented Italian sausage can be made in about 48 hr, but the flavor is not the same as that in sausage hung for 30 days. There is a world of difference between the dry-cured artisanal country hams and bacon served by Chang and ham and bacon mass produced by large companies using injected cures.

If molecular gastronomy is inspired by industrial processes and food science, what do industrial food processes have to learn from creative chefs? Some answers, I think, include the following: novel combinations of flavors, often from ethnic sources; new textures achieved by culinary techniques, such as braising and slow cooking; application of less-well-known meat cuts and seafood species, often driven by the need for cost reduction (think skate wing and hanger steak); and presentation of food in new forms such as foams, emulsions, and frozen shapes.

Not every culinary novelty is a success, but the courageous enterprises such as Chang’s can be fruitful sources of inspiration for product developers. Meanwhile, we food engineers need to be thinking about how we would manufacture these novel products in a safe and cost-effective way while retaining the qualities that made them attractive in the first place. Some firms respond by hiring trained chefs to operate cooking kettles, but in other cases, we must adapt existing equipment and less-well-trained staff. Understanding of the underlying processes and reactions is key to devising systems and procedures that accurately reproduce the flavors, textures, and appearance of chefs’ creations.

J. Peter Clark,
Contributing Editor,
Consultant to the Process Industries, Oak Park, Ill.
[email protected]