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Foam Follows Function

At a handful of restaurant bars around the country, you’re likely to find the bartender in the kitchen—well before prime bar time—using a Vita-Prep or a Cryovac. He or she may be taring a laboratory scale to weigh out precise amounts of gelatin or xanthan. or maybe the bartender is rolling out a liquid-nitrogen tank to perform a spherification or clarification technique for a component of a libation in progress. What’s going on here?

 

Techniques Support Tastes
A small but growing cadre of inventive bartenders have appropriated or built upon the culinary techniques of their chef friends—José Andrés, Katsuya Fukushima, Wylie Dufresne, Sam Mason, Grant Achatz, and Homero Cantu, among others. These culinary conjurors are part of a movement—often referred to as “molecular gastronomy”—whose spiritual godfather is Ferran Adrià, the acclaimed Catalan chef who owns the Michelin three-star El Bulli.


Eben Klemm, senior manager of wine and spirits for B.R. Guest Restaurants, is one of the founding members of these forward-thinking bartenders, but don’t call him a “molecular mixologist.” Klemm insists, “I and others who work in the genre hate that term. It sounds sexy and cool, but it’s misleading.” Inventive barman Todd Thrasher, co-owner of PX and sommelier at Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, Virginia, doesn’t mince words: “Don’t call us ‘mixologists’ or ‘bar chefs’—we’re bartenders!” Daniel Hyatt, the creative force behind the bar program at Alembic in San Francisco, concurs: “I agree with Eben and Todd in rejecting the term ‘molecular mixology.’”

So how do these adventurous cocktail mavens describe what they do? Klemm relates, “I like to call what I do ‘cognitive mixology,’ because it’s postmodern thinking. It’s holding a drink up to a lens, examining its components, and imagining a new way to express the sensations of the drink or one suggested by it.” His modus operandi is to use these culinary techniques to build a cocktail using complementary ingredients that enhance a particular flavor or texture, to express it vividly—not bury it—in the drink. He insists, “The only point in using any technique beyond a classic one is to see if traditional ingredients behave differently.”

 

Thrasher, who worked with Andrés and Fukushima for six years and now prepares his homemade bitters and tinctures in Cathal Armstrong’s kitchen, confesses, “I don’t use gels and foams a ton, and the technique should not be the main focus of the drink.” Hyatt defines his metier by saying, “Techniques developed in laboratory environments have viable, working applications behind the bar, but in the end, I am in search of an exciting and pleasing experience for my patrons and myself.”


Eben Freeman was influenced by the techniques of chefs Wylie Dufresne and Sam Mason at wd-50. Now serving as the spirituous half (to Chef Sam Mason’s culinary half) of SoHo’s Tailor and its cutting-edge sensory experiences, he notes, “It was being surrounded by a certain culinary ‘language,’ working around interesting people, that changed the way I think about cocktails and about how I go about what I do.” Like Klemm, Thrasher, Hyatt, Jim Meehan (at New York City’s PDT), London’s Tony Conigliaro, and others, Freeman uses the new culinary tools and techniques to help develop cocktails that elicit what he calls a “sense memory” that he can share with his guests—not to demonstrate merely the flash of the technique. Hyatt comments, “In my initial excitement a few years back, I found myself using these [techniques] as a novelty . . . making garnishes or serving cocktails in components on spoons. I acquired a facility with the materials, [but] at Alembic, I have scaled back. . . . Sometimes it’s just a touch of xanthan to give body to a thin tincture or a bit of gellan to suspend a little fruit or spice in a cocktail. I like liquid gels; they break down in your mouth, resulting in a perception of viscosity, and I also like using airs [foams] to separate flavors.”

 

Stealing Originals
Freeman sees himself in a supporting role at Tailor (“A bartender should be secondary to the chef,” he asserts), but his cocktail creations, whose foundations often lie in the culinary techniques he’s gleaned from Mason and others, have earned as much notoriety as Mason’s inimitable dishes. Freeman’s libations at Tailor include the signature Waylon, a campfire riff on Jack ’n’ Coke with cherrywood smoke infused into the Coke, and the White Russian, a shooter-sized “breakfast” version of the classic with twice-dehydrated Kahlúa-soaked Rice Krispies float- ing in a mini bowl of vodka and cream. Freeman sees his creations as an attempt to share these regional, very personal sense memories with his guests and concludes, “That’s the gratifying part: making the connection and being able to ‘brand’ those customers—to have them come to Tailor for the experience.”

But both Ebens—Klemm and Freeman—are wary about having their signature drinks ripped off by others. Klemm wonders, “Is it time to start thinking about ‘intellectual property’?” Freeman concludes, “We are happy to share recipes and explain techniques, but the techniques should not be used to duplicate our signature drinks. Use the techniques to develop original cocktails, as we do.”

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