Three or four flakes of sea salt.
Now, some readers might stop right there and think that’s what it usually takes to get through one of my columns.
But, with apologies to those expecting the bleeding-heart take on an issue of the day, this is merely a column about food. And performance. And the elevated status that chefs have achieved in our culture of adventure and the good life.
The sea salt was my contribution to a culinary creation that was part of an extraordinary food event Monday night at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
Chef Debbie Gold, the French-trained, James Beard Award-winning stalwart of the Kansas City dining scene, had suggested I join her ad hoc team for this occasion. Her mission was to prepare one of 10 dishes on a menu meant to impress one of the most famous and accomplished chefs in the world.
Piece of cake, as it were.
Ferran Adrià is the forward-thinking and inventive Spaniard who operated the ridiculously sought-after restaurant elBulli, near Barcelona, before turning it into a research lab and training center. He arrived in Kansas City on Sunday. His visit coincided with the art museum’s exhibit featuring his sketches and details of his thought process, probably one of the most unusual arguments for art that the Nelson-Atkins has ever mounted.
But Adrià showed up and was subjected over 48 hours to a whirlwind tour of Kansas City food culture. Farming. Locavore cooking. Liquor distilling. It’s all the happening stuff right now. And to cap it all off was this 10-course dinner at the museum made by some of the top chefs in town.
Adrià gave a pre-dinner talk through his interpreter, and then, from the time appetizers were passed to the clinking of the last glass, about 30 diners spent close to five hours feasting in the museum’s elegant, ancient Cloisters room.
One after the other, the chefs presented mind-blowing dishes that evoked the best of the region. They orchestrated their plates with medleys of surprising ingredients and splashes of artistic color. The Nelson’s own executive chef, Jonathan Pye, began with a plank of something like a citrus goat cheese flan adorned with slivers of white and green asparagus, micro marigolds and other intricate items. Ryan Brazeal wound up the entrees with rare sirloin slices over a lemongrass short-rib braise and rice noodles. A similarly inventive crème caramel by Megan and Colby Garrelts of Bluestem and a layered cocktail, or digestivo, by Ryan Maybee ended the night — at least until the after party elsewhere.
But at a midpoint of the meal, I stood next to Gold at the start of an assembly line that composed her small but surprisingly potent dish in what seemed like a blur over just a few minutes.
Hers was the sixth course on the menu, and she knew she ought to give diners a pause. She conceived of a coddled duck egg, layered with sunchoke puree, a coffee-and-chocolate crumble, a dollop of whipped cream, a chip of dried sunchoke, dashes of a thickened sherry vinegar and a pungent micro green from Linda Hezel’s Prairie Birthday Farms. In other words a highly complex spoon-worthy collision of tastes and textures in a relatively small package.
Hezel had supplied Gold with the eggs, and she and I earlier had spent a good 40 minutes separating the brilliantly hued yolks from the oozy whites of about three dozen sizable duck progeny. I only broke one yolk in the process.
Gold spooned each raw yolk into a presentation shell. As her serving time approached, Gold gently cooked the yolks to a less-than-firm state for about two minutes in a steamtable pan of hot water. After coddling, she transfered the yolk-bearing shells to a metal serving cup. I sprinkled a pinch of salt atop the yolk, then slid the cup down the line for successive ingredients.
Focus, focus, focus. Salt, salt, salt. Too much or too little, and I imagined I could throw off the whole balance of Gold’s dish. In other words, this is a high-pressure performance.
Among those helping to assemble Gold’s dish were chefs Jennifer Maloney (of Cafe Sebastienne) and Ted Habiger (Room 39), whose previous two entrees we had helped to put together. At the end of the line, Hezel slipped a tangy micro-green from her farm atop the cloud of whipped cream that crowned the little dish. All told, it took seven of us to put the whole thing together before a procession of servers took the dish out to the diners.
Yet, this definitely was not a case of too many cooks in the kitchen. There’s a community spirit when chefs gather and share their moments of creativity.
As a former restaurant critic, I’ve come to appreciate the art, the science and the devotion that so many inspired chefs bring to the game. I’ve also come to be wary of the hype of invention and the star-making machinery that has grown to excess in the culinary world. Kansas City’s food scene is on a nice trajectory and has many admirable and locally generated elements. But it’s hardly a revolution, as some want to call it. Let’s applaud the great achievements, but let’s not get carried away in the process.
Those of us who love to eat in high style — or in low style as well, for that matter — have much to keep us busy and to celebrate in Kansas City. That includes moments like some of us got to experience on Monday night in the backshop of an ambitious and very expensive benefit dinner.
Adrià apparently was impressed. From the dining room, the Catalan superstar summoned Gold to tell her how much he liked her coddled duck egg. I don’t think he mentioned the salt.