"Let me show you something," said Philip Preston, inventor of the Grant Achatz inspired Anti-Griddle Coldplate, at the National Restaurant Association Show, the restaurant industry's annual mega-convention that ended yesterday in Chicago.
At the back of his booth - tucked in the lower level of the sprawling exposition halls swirling with some 75,000 restaurateurs, vendors, and chefs - Philip picked up what appeared to be a black plastic gun then lit the contents of the metal bowl fitted on top with a finesse I've not seen since a lost weekend in Amsterdam. At the flick of a switch a plume of smoke flowed from the barrel.
"Grant's planning to use this," he said grinning as the aroma of mesquite wafted around us. He described the potential future Alinea dish - details which I won't divulge.
Though Philip is the president of PolyScience, a manufacturer of laboratory equipment with a team of engineers and an industrial facility, he prefers to work on R&D for his new Culinary Technology division alone out of his garage. He's not only still tinkering with the tool itself but also its name. Look for the Smoking Gun, Mini Smoker, or perhaps the Blow'n'Smoke in the hands of top chefs by this summer.
During the show chefs from Charlie Trotter's cooked Tasmanian ocean trout with fennel in the new and improved PolyScience thermal circulator, now with a protective cage around the heating coil, and froze yuzu cream pops on the Anti-Griddle.
Upstairs at the show another kind of smokin' demo was going on with the red-hot Giada De Laurentiis cooking for Barilla and a crush of conventioneers. Giada also signed books and recipe cards while camera phones snapped non-stop.
From cheesecake to beefcake, Ajinomoto served up amongst their tasty samples slices of seared reconstructed ribeye steaks. The international food ingredient company makes Activa, known popularly though not appetizingly as meat glue. It's used notably by Wylie Dufresne at wd-50 for his shrimp noodles made with nearly nothing but shrimp. With the steaks, the layer of fat was removed between the cap and eye then the meat glued back together with Activa. There was no visible seam nor discernable difference in texture or taste.
Another item on my daily Ajinomoto menu was a long scallop roll formed from morsels of scallops bound with Activa. Unlike surimi, the product was uniform throughout. The scallop was rolled into maki-sushi as well as sliced, wrapped in bacon, and griddled until crisp.
A few booths over, iSi and Cuisine Solutions unveiled their new line of ready-to-use foam bases with flavours including lobster, basil, Roquefort, and parmesan. iSi - pronounced Eee-see everywhere else in the world but Eye-sigh in the US - makes Ferran Adria's favourite foam dispensers, while Cuisine Solutions is the industry leader in sous-vide food. The Cusine Solutions bases come frozen and, once thawed, are perfectly portioned for a one-pint iSi Thermo Whip to serve hot or cold. The flavours were mild but the consistency excellent, which says as much about correct handling of the whipper as it does the base itself.
Where might a home cook find the most au courant kitchen goods? The same place that a chef like Alain Ducasse does - Le Sanctuaire, the exquisite kitchen boutique in Santa Monica, California. While I missed charming owner Jing Tio as he jetted off to meet a chef in New York, I did speak at length with his enthusiastic younger brother Alex. Their elegant yet adorable mother was also present - it's her family's plantation that supplies many of their impeccable spices. An imminent addition to their perfect current selection, coveted by chefs, Le Sanctuaire will soon carry the Gastrovac, the sleek Spanish device that not only cooks under vacuum but also allows absorption once atmospheric pressure is restored.
And finally, conventions are nothing without their swag. The difference with food shows though is that while the swag is abundant it's often ephemeral - there are only so many scoops of gelato that even the most gluttonous gourmand can eat. Trust me. One of the most desirable items this year was, of all things, a full-sized domed cup of blue raspberry ICEE Slush sipped through signature spoon-ended red straws.
How do you say brain-freeze in your language?