Who knew science tasted so good

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence - Ed Charles

I’ M in the Melbourne restau­rant of much-awarded molec­u­lar chef Robin Wick­ens, who is in­vent­ing a new dish, and I’m sneak­ing a preview.

My ex­pe­ri­ence of pro­fes­sional kitchens so far has been through Gor­don Ram­say’s Ram­say’sKitchenNight­mares . But in Wick­ens’s kitchens at In­ter­lude (211 Brunswick St, Fitzroy), the 32-year-old Bri­tish chef doesn’t stomp around and clat­ter pans; ev­ery­thing among the five chefs here is calm and hushed.

In fact, the qui­etly spo­ken Wick­ens, who has worked un­der such famed chefs as Bruno Lou­bet (now at Baguette in Bris­bane) and Ray­mond Blanc, seems more David Beck­ham than Ram­say.

Wick­ens is one of that breed of chefs who bends food to his will, fol­low­ing the lead of in­no­va­tors such as El Bulli’s Fer­ran Adria in Spain and the Fat Duck’s He­ston Blu­men­thal in Berk­shire.

At In­ter­lude, prawns are some­how wo­ven into noo­dles, a chive puree is trans­formed into caviar and then there’s the glass straw, but more of that later.

I can’t help notic­ing that some of the equip­ment Wick­ens uses would be more at home in a science lab or a doc­tor’s surgery than in a busy restau­rant kitchen.

There are var­i­ous con­tain­ers of chem­i­cals, such as sodium al­gi­nate and cal­cium chlo­ride, which are used, to­gether with sy­ringes, in a process that pro­duces a syn­the­sised caviar.

I’m par­tic­u­larly taken with the re­verse grill, which is ex­actly what it says it is, cook­ing — if it can be de­scribed that way — on an ul­tra-cold plate at -40C. At the other side of the kitchen an in­duc­tion ring heats to a pre­cise tem­per­a­ture, as does a clin­i­cal-look­ing oven.

In a typ­i­cal restau­rant, meat and fish are ei­ther pan-fried or cooked in a very hot oven and rested for 10 min­utes. Here al­most ev­ery­thing is cooked for a short time at 60C, leav­ing the flesh ten­der. That’s with the ex­cep­tion of Wick­ens’s twist on tra­di­tional eggs and ba­con. Here the eggs are cooked for two hours at 62C, cre­at­ing an even tex­ture for both whites and yolks.

To­day Wick­ens tells me his lamb tartare is a bit sum­mery and has come to the end of its sea­sonal run. He wants a new lamb starter for the menu.

‘‘ The flavour is go­ing to be fig and cof­fee,’’ he ex­plains.

‘‘ We make the dish and we make a cof­fee essence that goes in an atom­iser, which we spray while you eat it.’’ He’s talk­ing about cof­fee air. A lamb neck is boned and sealed in cling­film so it looks like a fat sausage. It is then cooked for a short time.

Cof­fee beans are roasted and sub­merged in vodka, then sealed in a bag and left to mar­i­nate.

Wick­ens re­jects the no­tion that he’s cre­at­ing molec­u­lar cui­sine. Rather he says he’s bring­ing new twists to the clas­sics, the lamb necks with fig and cof­fee, for in­stance. ‘‘ We’ve done cof­fee and lamb be­fore,’’ he says. ‘‘ This is tak­ing it to the next level.’’

The figs are stewed in a pan and a skin forms. The chef stirs agar, a gelatin sub­sti­tute made from sea­weed that stays solid at room tem­per­a­ture, into the pan at an un­usu­ally hot 120C. The mix­ture is then cooled and blitzed in a blender so the sauce won’t form an unattrac­tive skin when it is served later that evening.

Mean­while, the cof­fee essence goes into an atom­iser.

That evening we are called to the ta­ble for a 10-course de­gus­ta­tion. De­spite my spray­ing cof­fee essence in an­other guest’s eye, the lamb dish is bril­liant, eaten to the ac­com­pa­ni­ment of the freshly roasted cof­fee aroma.

But this restau­rant is more than a sin­gle dish. It is about a jour­ney that will chal­lenge in terms of in­gre­di­ents and the food’s forms and meth­ods of in­ges­tion.

For the record, cocks’ combs are ten­der and de­li­cious and the only foam is in a de­con­structed pina co­lada that fin­ishes the meal.

But it is the glass straw that chal­lenges me the most. I bring a small glass pipe to my mouth. It con­tains pars­ley jelly, ap­ple puree, her­ring roe and cau­li­flower puree. I’m in­structed to suck on the white cau­li­flower end. It looks as if there is too much in the tube and I’m wor­ried I won’t be able to man­age it. It feels as if I should be do­ing this in private. The flavours erupt into my mouth. It is de­li­cious, but I ad­mit I feel con­fronted. It’s all part of the jour­ney. You can eat a stan­dard three-course meal at In­ter­lude, but I sug­gest you bend with the chef’s menu.


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