A Culinary Institute of America Student's Catalan Immersion

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Article from Catalan Cookery By Kate French. Photos © Kate French

In 2009, Prodeca sponsored a Catalan Immersion for a select group of CIA students and faculty. The students were treated to a 2 month stay at the Alicia Foundation. Read on to learn about student Kate French's experience, through excerpts from her blog.

October 16

I want to fill you in a little more on exactly why I’m here. For the next two months, I’ll be working at a research center called the Alicia Foundation, a food and science institute in the heart of Catalonia, Spain. Alicia has recently partnered with my culinary school, the CIA, and so I, along with two other alumni, was sent here to participate in a collaborative exchange program.
The Alicia Foundation was founded a few years ago by a famous Spanish chef named Ferran Adria. Okay, I know that a lot of you reading this are chefs/foodies yourselves, so please, by all means just skip ahead a few paragraphs here. (Or risk being offended by the vast over-simplification I’m going to spin on the following topic.) But for all of my friends and family who aren’t so immersed in the world of food, I’m going to now give you a little bit of basic background information, which should help elucidate what I’ll be up to…

For several years, and in many, many people’s opinion, Ferran Adria has been considered to be the best chef in the world. Not one of the best. The best. He owns a restaurant named El Bulli, which is located in the same region of Spain where I am now. Just as its chef is the best, El Bulli has been rated time and again, the absolute best restaurant in the world. Among many other contributions to the culinary world, Chef Adria is known as being one of the main driving forces behind a modern, scientifically-focused style of cuisine often referred to as Molecular Gastronomy.

This is a word that not a lot of chefs like, but to be honest, there is no agreed-upon term to describe this type of cuisine, and so, for the sake of simplicity, Molecular Gastronomy is the word I’m going to use. It refers to cooking methods that utilize specific chemical products, industrial equipment and scientific techniques to give a whole new twist on food. Dishes are deconstructed into their prime ingredients, and these ingredients are transformed, through manipulation of their physical and aesthetic qualities, into something unfamiliar, or altogether new. Even though you may have never heard the term itself, I hope you are at least vaguely familiar with the type of cooking I'm describing. Portions are often small, and it’s usually pretty high-end fare. Food of this style seems almost futuristic, and just well, in a word, scientific. For a good picture of the kind of food I’m trying to describe, check out this site. I’m actually sending you to the website of a famous Chicago restaurant called Alinea. It is completely unrelated to the Alicia Foundation, but the El Bulli site doesn’t have too many pictures, and Alinea has some great ones. I just really wanted something visual to support what I’ve been trying to explain in mere words, because I want you to have an idea of the kind of stuff I'll be dabbling with while I'm here.

Okay, on to bigger and better things! And that brings us back to the Alicia Foundation. I feel so blessed to be here because I truly think that there’s no other place on earth quite like it. Alicia is a culinary research institute focused on the health and science aspects of food and cooking. It’s dedicated to exploration, research and technological innovation in the kitchen, and education for the cooking industry, and society as a whole. At its heart, Alicia is a pure celebration of food and science.

October 22, Carrot "Air"

I’m definitely getting into the swing of things here at Alicia! Every day brings on fun and interesting new projects. An especially neat endeavor of mine this week was making carrot 'air’. In other words, freeze-dried carrot juice froth! The steps are simple, the ingredients few (only carrots and gelatin), and the result is fabulous: a brittle orange sponge that instantaneously dissolves to nothing on your tongue, leaving an intense carrot flavor as the only clue that it was ever there in the first place.CarrotsCarrots

Here is the basic technique: Carrots are peeled and juiced, and then a carrot foam is made. To do this, gelatin is dissolved in the juice, and the mixture is added to a siphon charged with pressurized N2O, i.e. nitrous oxide, i.e. laughing gas, i.e. the stuff inside whipping cream canisters. Actually, that's a good point – foams, fancy as they sound, are basically no different from whipping cream. Only instead of cream, another liquid is used. In this case, carrot juice. The gelatin is added to support the formation of the froth.Carrots in processCarrots in process

Carrot AirCarrot Air
So this carrot juice/gelatin mixture is poured into a siphon, charged with pressurized N2O, cooled in ice water for a few hours, and then the frothy carrot foam is pumped into small cups, just as you would pump whipping cream from its canister. Then these little cups are placed into the freezer. Once frozen, they’re placed under vacuum and freeze-dried over the course of a few days until all the moisture is evaporated, and all that’s left is pure essence of carrot. It really is a spectacular treat – a little poof of pure carrot-ness that just melts in your mouth.

Kate French is a a professional chef living in the city of Chicago. She has a start-up cooking company there, embarking on all sorts of culinary endeavors - catering, personal cheffing, and teaching private cooking classes, just to name a few.

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