Achatz likes “thermal reversal,” as he calls the exploding-ravioli effect. He uses it for the raspberry ribbon, freezing a sheet of boiled-down, thickened raspberry puree and syrup raked to a perfect 16th of an inch; cooks cut the sheet into ruler-straight ribbons to lay across the flavored dots placed along rectangular plates, and then partially melt the ribbon with a blowtorch, just before it is served, to create the molten-plastic effect. Broken slabs of dark Venezuelan Ocamari chocolate wait beneath a lamp all evening, heated to 94 ºF, until they are transferred to a dessert plate with dehydrated chocolate pudding, cassia mousse, and figs braised with port; the shards just hold their shape but melt in the mouth like s’mores.
These dishes require low-tech methods to achieve the desired results, and Achatz can even find use for low-tech thickeners like plain gelatin and the lab staple agar (for those pert beads of buttermilk pudding). But my own favorite use of a gelling agent was the mixture of caramel and sodium maltodextrine, which absorbs fat rather than water, the way cornstarch and most other thickeners do. The caramel flakes look something like white-chocolate nut clusters and re-form as chewy dime-store vanilla caramel in the mouth. It’s a gee-whiz moment that’s plain fun.
Fun is something Achatz wants diners to have, along with the occasional scare (those acupuncture-reminiscent needles). But some of his ideas don’t go over. He once bought black atomizers and filled them with essence of shrimp cocktail, made by pushing shrimp shells, stock, tomatoes, horseradish, and vinegar through a countertop wine press. Waiters sprayed the atomized essence into diners’ mouths. The effect was uncanny, but it provoked an outcry. Critics said Achatz wanted to divorce diners from actual food. Among other things, he says, he was accused of wanting to change the molecular structure of food and feed the world with essences. Achatz, not an especially whimsical fellow himself, wanted to tell critics to lighten up: none of the accusations were true. But he nevertheless threw out the atomizers.
Many gadgets have wound up in the crawl space behind the kitchen. Even the vacuum-packing machine that is now a staple of ambitious restaurants across the land is kept in a low, closed cabinet, though on any night a few meats will have been cooked in vacuum-packed bags, which give meat and fish a satiny texture and focused flavor. The infamous soda siphon also comes out seldom. Achatz thinks foams have gotten a bad rap, defending them as a “legitimate saucing technique” that allows chefs to aerate ingredients without having to dilute the flavor of, say, chocolate with the beaten egg whites and whipped cream that go into a mousse: “Come on, it has its uses.” But foams are usually just supporting players, not the stars, in his kitchen. He’ll make a tomato-water foam, for instance, but hide it. Curtis Duffy, his longtime chef de cuisine, will form to order small balls of fresh mozzarella, kneading a wad of curd he keeps warm and pliable all night over a freestanding electric burner with an LED temperature readout. Just before he seals the ball, he sprays in some of the tomato foam, as a filling. The cold foam unexpectedly comes out of the mozzarella, like thermal-reversed chicken Kiev.