The Forward Feed

News, breakthroughs, and inspiration from gastronomy's cutting edge.

At Cusco's MIL, An Agricultural Exploration 500 Years in the Making

High in the Andes, Virgilio Martínez resurrects experimental agriculture, and more

MIL, Cusco

[Photo credit: Gustavo Vivanco]

In the late 15th or early 16th century, the Inca built a center for experimental agriculture at Moray, 40 kilometers outside of Cusco, and 3500 meters above sea level. Some 500 years later, Vírgilio Martínez, chef of Lima's Central,  is doing something along the same lines. Just off to the side of the spectacular bowl of terraces where the Inca planted quinoa and potatoes, Martínez and colleagues have opened MIL, an “interpretation center” that works with anthropologists, scientists, and artisans—and that includes a restaurant, a research lab, a distillery, and community outreach programs—all devoted specifically to Andean culture. Now, one of its first projects is about to come literally to fruition.

Collaborating with a scientific organization called CITE, and with the Choque family, who donated indigenous seeds, the center turned over 1.5 hectares earlier this year to the local community for farming. Their Mater Initiative—a program that registers, studies, and develops new uses for Peru’s indigenous products—paid the wages of the local growers who devised a rotational system for cultivating, thereby diminishing the risk to the farmers for trying experimental crops.

On June 25, the results of that first planting will be harvested, and split 50/50 with the community. But Martínez doesn’t have to wait until then to know the project has been a huge success. “55 varieties of potatoes, 5 types of quinoa, legumes, root vegetables—the list is long and nutritional,” he says. So successful, in fact, that MIL has already expanded the project, adding more land for next season and building a potato nursery. “We know it’s generated positive changes,” he says. “Higher quality seeds, a more varied diet, and great value placed on traditional Andean farming techniques, which were being lost.”

--by Lisa Abend

At Singapore's Circa 1912, A Quest for A Forgotten Cuisine

David Yip Revives the Lingnan Cuisine of China

Circa 1912, Singapore

Sometimes, innovation means looking to the past. At Circa 1912, which opened earlier this month in Singapore, restaurateur David Yip features the century-old recipes of Lingnan cuisine, a variety of Cantonese which predates the present one, and which encompasses the food of the minority Teochew and Hokkien cultures.

Lingnan dishes are rarely seen anymore—even in China—and come steeped in history. “They were far more elaborate and decadent,” says Yip. A meal at Circa 1912—the name refers to the year the Qing dynasty collapsed and China entered a period of decadence—begins with a welcome tea soup, in this case perhaps a consomme of coconut water and duck, infused with 25-year-old tangerine peel. The congee that accompanies the poached chicken is unusually creamy, cooked over high heat for almost two hours before it is infused with the essence of chicken. For Golden Coin Chicken (pictured above) a trio of candied lard, chicken liver, and pork, is first marinated in Chinese rose wine and buried in sugar for about a week before being roasted--the skill lies in not overcooking the liver, while obtaining the proper crunch on the fat and pork. 

All the dishes at Circa 1912 are prepared using the original techniques, which requires oyster sauce made from scratch, and knife skills that can transform a piece of squid into something resembly an impossibly fine feather. The handmade approach matters to Yip, a trained chef, food writer and passionate food historian. In some ways, he is on a quest to replicate the dishes that still lingered in his childhood. “These are the flavours that I grew up with,” says the 58-year-old. “I want to share these forgotten recipes with my diners.”

--by Evelyn Chen

The Zen of Asparagus at Barcelona's Enigma

Albert Adrià creates an asparagus spear that is simultaneously raw and cooked

Enigma, Barcelona

[Photo credit: Moises Torné]

It sounds like a culinary version of a Zen koan: how can a single spear of asparagus be both raw and cooked? When it comes to this particular puzzle, though, Albert Adrià and his team at Barcelona’s Enigma have achieved asparagus enlightenment.

“We wanted to create a great dish with the minimum of ingredients—with one single spear of asparagus,” says Adria. “We were trying to do magic, by giving it two textures.” He and his chefs began by surrounding the tip of the asparagus in ice held in place by film, but that didn’t work--the ice melted too quickly. It was then that they hit on the idea of suspending the tips in a Porex punched through with asparagus-sized holes. The container acts as enough of a barrier to keep the ice frozen while the stalks are lowered into boiling water. The tips are then seared in a Josper just long enough to mark them, while the stems are protected with aluminum foil. The finished spear is dressed only with olive oil and salt.

The full technique can be seen on a video that Adrià’s restaurant group ElBarri has just uploaded to Youtube and Instagram—itself another innovation. When it first opened, Enigma restricted photography in order to maintain the element of surprise for its guests. But now, in keeping with elBulli's long tradition of sharing knowledge, they've launched a full series to demonstrate their techniques. “We’re revealing all our tricks," says Adrià.

Watching the video provides one of those “doh!” moments: once you see it, the technique seems so obvious you can’t understand why you didn’t think of it yourself. But of course, it takes a mind like Adrià’s to conceive of creating a spear that changes texture and flavor as you eat it. Sounding not unlike a Zen master himself, he says of the dish, “It’s complex simplicity.”

--by Lisa Abend

At Aponiente in Cádiz, Dinner Glows in the Dark

Angel León comes closer to getting bioluminescence on the plate

Aponiente, Puerto de Santa María, Cádiz

It was Angel Leon’s white whale. Once the chef of Aponiente in southern Spain began working with plankton, he became as obsessed as Ahab himself with the idea of capturing on the plate the creature’s most fascinating characteristic: its capacity for emitting light. Yet for years, the ability to harness bioluminescence—let alone cook with it—eluded him. Until now.

León began researching plankton in 2008. A year later he was serving it at Aponiente as part of a tasting menu that recreated the marine food chain (these days, his plankton appears on Noma 2.0’s seafood menu). The innovative chef behind the Clarimax (a device that uses fish eyeballs to clarify stocks) was captivated by the many varieties of plankton that can emit light, and soon became researching bioluminescence in earnest with the University of Cádiz. It would take him until 2016 to discover the variety of zooplankton that would make it all possible:  the ostracod. Working with the CTAQUA Foundation, he spent a year experimenting with the tiny crustacean. Finally, this season, he was able to add bioluminescence to every diner's experience at Aponiente.

Binding the ostracod to dehydrated crab particles allows them to be activated in water.  Now, during each service, the dining room lights are turned off, music fills the room, and waiters enter bearing glass bowls filled with the zooplankton powder. Once the water is added, the specimens glow in the dark in ethereal blue swirls. “It’s a magical moment,” says León.

Not quite magical enough though: León is still working on incorporating bioluminescence into an actual recipe. And because he is a fierce advocate for marine conservation, he wants to first ensure that he has a sustainable supply of ostracods. “The key is to replicate ocean conditions in reservoirs, so that we can reproduce the species, as if it were a form of aquaculture, without having to extract organisms from the sea.” But the chef welcomes the challenge. “Without a doubt,” he says. “the sea still has a lot to give us.”

--by Lisa Abend

See-Through Banana Bread from Bangkok's Gaa

Garima Arora uses ice clarification to make a lighter—in both senses of the word—version of cake

Restaurant Gaa, Bangkok

[Photo credit: Yarek Pajewski]

How do you make a cake that isn’t a cake? That was the question confronting Garima Arora, chef of Bangkok’s Gaa restaurant. She wanted to add something more pastry-like to her dessert list, but she needed it to fit with her distinctive Indian-by way of Noma-by way of Bangkok style, and—because it would come at the end of 14 course tasting menu—she needed it to be light.

When she and her team began trying a new clarification technique, it gave her ideas. “At the time, we were ice clarifying a bunch of ingredients, and banana just happened to be one of them,” Arora says. She blended the banana with water until smooth and froze the juice, then let it slowly defrost until she got a clear liquid. As soon as she and her cooks tasted it, the solution for longed-for cake sprang to mind: a wholly transparent, liquid banana bread.

To make the experience even more true to life, they serve a glass of the crystalline liquid with a tuile made of local riceberry flour, Thai gabok almonds, watermelon seeds, persilla, and pumpkin seeds. “It’s a fun way to have banana bread,” says Arora, “Without the heaviness of the original.”

--by Lisa Abend

For Dessert at London's Ikoyi, 'Shrapnel from Two Millenia in the Future'

Jeremy Chan combines Nigerian ingredients and his own idiosyncratic aesthetic to make a dessert that looks like it fell off a spaceship

Ikoyi, London

Like all his ideas, the black benne seed dessert appeared to Jeremy Chan wholly formed in his head, needing only to be written down. “I had a vision of a piece of shrapnel, from two millenium in the future, that got thrown down to earth,” Chan says. Within a day—on Tuesday of this week, to be exact—it was on the menu at Ikoyi, the nine-month old London restaurant he runs with his business partner Iré Hassan-Odukale.

As a chef, Chan is driven primarily by aesthetics, and in this case, his aesthetic concern was to produce a dish that looked like an unpenetrably black piece of metal. “What would the emotional reaction to that be?” he asks. “How would metal make someone feel?” As the diner responsible for eating that metal, you might initially think: not good. But in fact, the dessert is delicious, hiding a bubblegum pink parfait of beetroot, sumac, and hibiscus beneath a gunmetal-colored exterior made from buttermilk, lime, and caramelized black benne seeds. In a neat trick, the dessert combines all five flavors—sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami—in one bite; it is, as Chan puts it, “monochromatic, but multidimensional.”

The fact that Chan uses Nigerian ingredients to express his ideas confuses a lot of diners who come expecting West African cuisine. But it’s the novelty and range of the Nigerian larder that capture his imagination, not the challenge of recreating Nigerian dishes. As that shrapnel-esque dessert proves, he wants mainly to provide his guests with an affectingly new encounter. “What is life if not a stack of experiences?” he asks. “We want to give people an experience that will be at the top of their stack.”

--by Lisa Abend

A Lardon for Dr. Seuss, via LA's Rustic Canyon

Good intentions and an accident with spring vegetables lead to Rustic Canyon’s latest dish

Rustic Canyon, Los Angeles 

[Photo credit: Jeremy Fox]

Jeremy Fox literally wrote the book On Vegetables, so it's safe to say they take them pretty seriously at his Los Angeles restaurant Rustic Canyon. Which is why, when a dish intended to showcase this spring's asparagus didn’t turn out as expected, his head chef, Andy Doubrava, was initially distraught.

To avoid wasting any part of the vegetable, Doubrava usually purees the woody root ends of their asparagus for soups or sauces. But this season, he was determined to do something different, and together with sous chef Nestor Silva and chef de partie Gabe Rudolph, he hit upon the idea of using the juice from the ends to flavor and color a steamed egg. After charring the woody pieces on the grill, they pressed them and mixed the verdant juice with parsley, green garlic, and sieved eggs.

Poured into pans, the mixture was then gently steamed. Doubrava had been aiming for a uniformly bright green egg, but that’s not what he got. As it cooked, the mixture separated into layers, with the eggs and asparagus juice sinking to the bottom, and the herbs rising to the top. “At first glance, I thought I had messed up,” he recalls. But then he looked over at his chef. “You could see the lightbulb go off in Jeremy’s head.”

Where Doubrava had seen disaster, Fox saw striated pork fat. He diced the bi-colored concoction into thin rectangles the size and shape—if not exactly the color—of lardons. “Once chef cut into it, I don’t think we stopped smiling the rest of the night.” Doubrava recalls. The asparagus lardons are currently on the menu at Rustic Canyon atop an asparagus dish adorned with Castelvetrano olives, and cultured cream. “Lots of our ideas come from snacks that our cooks make at the end of the night,” says Doubrava. “This one was a happy accident.”

--by Lisa Abend

Prix Non Fixe at Mexico City's Molino el Pujol

At his new tortillería, Enrique Olvera considers the true price of corn

Molino el Pujol, Mexico City


(Photo: Maureen M. Evans)

The most radical thing about Mexico City’s newest tortillería isn’t that it grinds its own kernels from indigenous varieties of maize, or that it sells side dishes, like grilled ears of corn slathered with coffee mayonnaise and chicatana ants. It’s not even that it has a famous chef behind it. The most radical thing about Enrique Olvera’s Molino El Pujol is that its tortilla prices aren’t fixed.

Five years ago, Pujol acquired a mill to make its own tortillas. “It opened the door for us to recognize the flavors of landrace maize,” says Olvera. But when the restaurant moved to a new location, the mill no longer fit. The solution: Molino el Pujol, which opened at the end of April with a short menu of corn-based dishes, including a version of Pujol’s famous elote. But the big draw are the tortillas, even customers never know exactly how much those tortillas will cost.

Industrially-produced tortillas sell for 13 pesos a kilo (a kilo contains 32-48); artisanal tortillas sell for a set price of 18-26 pesos per dozen. Molino el Pujol’s prices fall within the same range, but aren’t fixed. “The price of our tortillas isn’t determined by the typical standards of supply and demand,” he says. “The cost varies depending on the variety of corn and its provenance.”

Charging the real price of maize matters to Olvera. Working with Amado Ramírez Leyva, who has spent most of his career protecting farmers and agricultural biodiversity, he is determined to build enduring relationships with small family farms. “We invest in them so that they can produce enough in their subsequent harvests, and do it sustainably,” Olvera explains. “So the price is determined by two factors. One is tangible: the cost of production. The other is intangible: the cultural and historical value.”

--by Lisa Abend

At NYC's Dirt Candy, Recipes Older than God

The takeaway: For her latest inspiration, Amanda Cohen looks back—way back

Dirt Candy, New York


(Photo credit: Robban Toleno)

To make vegetarian lung, Amanda Cohen, chef of New York City's Dirt Candy, blends fermented red rice, mung bean starch, nuts, and water until she gets a texture like  bologna. She then stirs in bits of youtiao, so that the tiny pieces of fried cruller look not unlike chunks of fat, presses the mixture into a bowl, and steams it. And that’s more or less it, or so she believes. If Cohen isn't exactly sure, it’s in part because the recipe she's using is roughly 1000 years old. Also, it’s in Chinese.

For the past few weeks, Cohen and Robban Toleno, professor of religion at Columbia University, have been testing recipes from the Song Dynasty (960 to 1279 AD). A specialist in the food of premodern Chinese Buddhism, Toleno translates the recipes first into English, and then into something approaching a recipe. After that, Cohen steps in to execute. “There are hundreds of recipes, and they are definitely not written the way we are used to,” she says. 

Figuring out the corresponding ingredients and cooking methods has been a challenge. And then there's the problem that many of the recipes, like Stretched Jade, ‘Medicine of the Mountain’ (that’s the whole thing, not just the title) read like random strings of words. Cohen thinks that particular recipe refers to lightly cooked mountain yam macerated in raw honey, and she says it’s actually tasty, unlike, say, the recipes for glutinous rice balls, which came out unpalatably bitter. “Probably our modern day rice flours aren’t up to the task,” she says.

The vegetarian lung, however, is another story, and a version of it will soon be appearing on Dirt Candy's menu . “One you get past the name, you realize that it is a brilliant invention.”

--by Lisa Abend

The Taste of Sauna, from Helsinki's Ora

The takeaway: Sasu Laukkonen discovers a way to turn the most iconic of Finnish leaves into an intensely delicious snack.

Restaurant Ora, Helsinki


(Photo credit: Sasu Laukkonen)

“You know we tie them into bunches, dip them in water, and slap ourselves with them, right?” Helsinki chef Sasu Laukkonen delights in the fact that the newest snack he serves at his restaurant Ora is made of the same thing that Finns beat themselves with in the sauna: birch leaves.

He started working with the leaves in 2016 after asking the municipal government of Espoo, where he lives, if he could forage in the city park. “Birch clog the forest there,” Laukkonen recalls, “They told me I should feel free to pick every single one.”

He went home with a carload of inedible-looking foliage. At first, he tried blending the fresh leaves in milk for ice cream, but that tasted, he says, “like licking a tree.” Pickling in vinegar wasn’t any better. Then he tried brining them in 3% sea salt. Overnight, the leaves turned translucent in a way that suggested something good was happening. He put them back in the brine, intending to check on them again in a couple of days. Five months passed before he remembered them.

By that time, the leaves had turned into something unlike anything he had ever tasted. “The flavor is almost of olives,” Laukkonen says. “They are so intense.” He whips some of the birch brine into a cream that he spoons onto crackers made from dehydrated porridge rice, and slices a leaf on top. “That,” he says of his new snack, “is the taste and smell of the sauna.”

--by Lisa Abend

Welcome

At The Forward Feed, we’re tracking innovations in real time, bringing you regularly updated news and inspiration from cutting edge restaurants around the globe. From the discovery of an ingredient to the development of a new technique; from an initiative that promotes better environmental stewardship to a project designed to improve working conditions within the industry, we showcase the latest innovations from chef-driven restaurants.

The Forward Feed is part of the White Guide’s new website and app, 12forward, which features restaurants that are advancing the food scene in key cities around the world. Our hope is to make this newsfeed a go-to resource of compelling ideas and inspiration for people within the industry. To that end, we’d love to hear from you. If you’ve got an interesting project underway—front or back of house—that you think we should know about, please get in touch with us at info@12fwd.com.

12forward by White Guide lists 12 eateries in each chosen city that represent the very forefront of gastronomy.