Eleven Madison Park: A tribute dinner

When I said I would be cooking out of the Eleven Madison Park cookbook “soon,” I neglected to mention that it would be as part of another “tribute” dinner, this time hosted by chef Murray Wilson of Atelier.

Murray’s affinity for “EMP” dates back to 2008, when he dined there. That meal, and a subsequent one in 2010, made enough of an impression on him that he decided, along with Atelier regular Pej Vongpaisal, to host a 10-course meal featuring recipes from the recently released book.

Initially, my plan had been to attend this event strictly as a guest, but as the menu grew from 10 dishes to 16, Murray asked me if I would be interested in helping with prep – and that’s the sort of request I can’t easily turn down! Especially when it means working under professional guidance on recipes as refined as these.

I’m always surprised when I hear of people looking to EMP’s food as an example of “molecular gastronomy,” because I find it to be very heavily rooted in traditional European cuisine, aside from the occasional foam, agar fluid gel or touch of xanthan gum. Witness the fact that my first task when I arrived Sunday morning was to make up a batch of chicken stock, a preparation that isn’t even listed in the Alinea book, for example.

The challenges of a pop-up or one-off event are very different from the challenges of running a regular restaurant: we had only two days, Sunday and Monday, to prepare everything for all 16 courses. Sunday was the most chaotic I have ever seen a professional kitchen, with piles of product scattered throughout the kitchen (and some dry goods even in the dining room). That was the day that I finally grokked the phrase “mountains of prep.”

The gougères that gave me trouble

If I have one complaint about the EMP cookbook, it’s the obstinate adherence to volume-based measurements. For most savoury recipes, this isn’t much of a problem, but when it comes to pastry, it can mean the difference between success and failure. When I was asked to prepare gougères, I thought, This shouldn’t be a problem; I’ve made these before! But somehow everything went wrong, and I had to get chef Luis Calero to bail me out and help me rescue the pâte à choux.

Monday was much calmer, as prep lists quickly filled with checkmarks. Components started the day before had chilled and set and were being portioned, ice cream bases were being churned with liquid nitrogen, and the final garnishes were being carefully picked over. The previous day’s chaos had relaxed into a more typical rhythm.

Finally, everything was ready in the kitchen, and while the cooks sorted their mise en place, I started to make the transition from staff to guest. It was a very strange feeling for me; at Atelier, I’ve both worked and eaten, but never for the same meal. As I said to a friend, this would be the hardest I had ever worked on food I was paying to eat!

Chilled pea soup with buttermilk snow

Once the other guests arrived, though, I quickly lost myself in conversation. I was a little nervous when the gougères came out as the first course; the tone of the meal would be set by a dish I had nearly ruined! As we progressed, though, it became apparent that the discord I had witnessed earlier in the kitchen had resolved itself and, like musical resolution, watching that transition from dissonance to consonance simply added to my experience of the meal. For me personally, the high points were the avocado roulade with shrimp and the chilled pea soup with buttermilk snow, but every dish was enjoyable.

One of the courses that I most enjoyed, and that was most meaningful to Murray, was the chicken velouté, which – to the surprise of one of the guests at my table – is thickened with a classical flour roux. Eleven Madison Park recipes may not be Modernist, but they’re nothing if not solidly modern: using avant-garde technique where useful to enhance, but also drawing on the catalogue of classical technique where it makes sense. I’m looking forward to trying more of these dishes on my own, but more than that, excited for my next trip to NYC, when a trip to Eleven Madison Park itself will be requisite!

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