Who knew science tasted so good
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.