Martin Kastner of Crucial Detail designed The Porthole as well as a lot of the serving ware at Alinea which, like Aviary and Next Restaurant, are part of the Grant Achatz's elite Chicago dining portfolio. You can purchase some of that serving ware from Crucial Detail's web shop.
I'm learning so much about layering flavor. Normally, when you cook in the French palate, you have salt, fat, usually some form of acid—citrus, wine. Herbs, spices, but that's pretty much it. One thing that blew me away was the nam prik pow, the chile shallot relish we're making. You're going to get the snap of the chile right off the bat, but the finish is so layered: heavily caramelized garlic, the fish sauce, the acid punch. Not knowing all that much about Thai cooking before, I'm discovering a different way of building flavors.
There's always something really up front— raw garlic, raw chilies, these flavors are the first step, they push into your nose, you get them immediately. Then there's something mid-palate, then something stewed out and cooked down that gives you a long finish. It's fascinating.
That's Grant Achatz on Thai food, which is the focus of the new menu at Next Restaurant. The way he discusses flavors is the way oenophiles discuss wine, as a sequence of tastes, with a beginning, middle, and end. In his words I hear echoes of filmmaking with the emphasis on montage (the sequence of shots or tastes), and of course mise-en-place has always been a term spanning both fields, as the arrangement of ingredients for a dish around the chef's station in the kitchen, the arrangement of ingredients on a plate, or visual elements in a single frame of film.
This reflexive analysis or deconstruction of how cooking works is what I think of when I think of modernist cooking, paralleling the same self-aware meta nature of modern writing and film.