Stroll through Johnson County Community College’s innovation kitchen with Aaron Prater, an associate chef professor in the Hospitality and Culinary program, and you might think you took a wrong turn into the chemistry department.
But the rotary evaporator, sonic dismembrator, freeze dryer and other equipment lining the stainless steel counters are exactly where they’re meant to be — the heart of Prater’s desire to introduce JCCC students to modernist cuisine.
“This new approach to cooking isn’t taught in most schools, so I want to teach it here,” says Prater, who is also co-owner of the Sundry.
It’s an approach very much on Kansas City’s mind these days, thanks to the recent opening of Ferran Adrià’s “Notes on Creativity” exhibit, which was on display at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art through the summer.
Adrià pioneered the use of foams, sous vide (vacuum cooking) and thickeners such as xanthan gum and agar to create mind-bending food at his now-closed restaurant, El Bulli, in Spain. These just weren’t tricks of science, though. Adrià’s approach formed the basis of a movement couched as molecular gastronomy, a phrase practitioners now generally eschew in favor of modernist cuisine.
Regardless of what it’s called, exposure to these techniques is essential for young chefs, Prater says.
“This isn’t just about wowing customers with liquid nitrogen,” Prater says. “It’s about making a better product. That, to me, is the most exciting piece.”
Prater grew up in New Orleans and was firmly rooted in the city’s food culture. He developed the habit of exploring local markets while serving two tours with the U.S. Marine Corps as a journalist and public relations specialist, and then moved into wine sales in Kansas City.
And that’s where he fell in love with the kitchen, Prater says. He went to culinary school, cooked in a number of restaurants and traveled through Europe and Asia before returning to KC where he began teaching at JCCC. Although he describes himself as “peasant food kind of guy,” Prater is fascinated by the potential modernist cuisine holds.
He delved into books; watched You Tube videos featuring Wylie Dufresne, of the now-closed wd~50 in Chicago; traveled to restaurants like Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck in England; and called suppliers to talk technique and request samples.
“It fueled my desire to bring some of that knowledge here, so our students aren’t getting out into the world without knowing what this is,” Prater says.
When JCCC built its new culinary academy in 2013, a successful fundraising campaign meant Prater could stock up on dream tools. Now he’s learning how to best use them and incorporate them into the classes he teaches.
There’s a centrifuge, which can be used to clarify stock or make tomato water in a fraction of the time while yielding results that aren’t possible with traditional methods. “In theory, if I spin this long enough, I’ll get roasted veal-flavored water and a puck of beef concentrate that can be added to sauces or other dishes,” Prater says.
There’s a pacojet that can micro-puree frozen foods; a variety of ovens; an anti-grill that freezes food; liquid nitrogen; and a sonic dismembrator (or ultrasonic homogenizer) that uses sound waves to combine ingredients. Prater usually uses that last to make mayonnaise and other emulsions, although he’s also discovered that by combining whiskey and wood chips, it rapidly infuses the liquid with color and character to create a “super-aged” spirit.
Prater’s also experimenting with a freeze dryer, which uses a pressurized vacuum chamber and low temperatures to draw water vapor from food and liquids. The day I visited, Prater completed a trial with coffee from PT’s Coffee Roasting Co., and he’s toyed with another ingredient close to my heart — whiskey.
For that one, Prater collaborated with local laboratory equipment manufacturer Labconco (which made his freeze dryer) and chocolatier Christopher Elbow to develop a method of freeze-drying whiskey. Why? Because Elbow wanted to make a whiskey chocolate, but adding liquid to chocolate is tricky. Too little and the flavor doesn’t come through. Too much throws off ingredient proportions and can cause the chocolate to seize.
Prater presented the results in March at Pittcon, a global laboratory instrumentation expo. Unfortunately, his freeze-dried whiskey’s potential is limited, given that about a liter of whiskey yielded a mere tablespoon of solids. Fruit purees and coffee seem better bets, Prater says.
“This way I can add pure strawberry flavor or pure coffee flavor to chocolate or ice cream without affecting the freezing properties or consistency,” says Prater, who notes they also make for exquisite cocktails.
“Imagine making a daiquiri without adding syrup or sugar, just the flavor of a classic lime daiquiri,” says Prater, who’s tinkering with coconut and pineapple flavors for pina coladas.
What’s got him most excited, though? His rotary evaporator, a fragile collection of glass vessels that, once assembled, Prater says will resemble something like Hawkeye’s still on the TV show “M.A.S.H.”
“This is going to be the coolest thing ever,” Prater says.
Certainly Dave Arnold, a food science writer, educator and co-owner of the high-tech bar Booker & Dax in New York, agrees.
“Rotary evaporation can make distillates of fresh products taste fresher and cleaner than you’d think possible,” he writes in Liquid Intelligence.
That’s because the rotovap, as it’s called in industry, distills ingredients under vacuum. The process captures their essence in water, spirits or other liquids to create unusual stocks and infusions.
As Prater expands his understanding of modernist cuisine and its tools, he’ll fold more of that knowledge into his classes at JCCC. He also wants to collaborate with area chefs, bartenders and companies to address their kitchen challenges.
Because as much fun as all this shiny new equipment is, it’s not about showing off, Prater says. It’s about learning and solving problems.
“The process for me is understanding how this works, understanding how we get a better product, and then teaching that to the students,” he says. “Because a more informed cook is going to be a better cook.”
Anne Brockhoff is a freelance writer who lives on a farm on the outskirts of Kansas City. Email her at email@example.com.