Hey there friends, let’s learn about making a cookbook. How does one even begin such a thing? For us, it begins with recipes.
When Sarah and I arrived in Chicago in November, we found ourselves quickly overwhelmed. We had just moved to a new city from the other side of the country to begin new, drastically-different careers with which we had no prior experience. We would be working on a project that — as we’ve now discovered — would have an audience of thousands; any mistakes we made were likely to be very public (also, making a mistake on behalf of a group of people for whom you’ve spent about 8 years nurturing a large amount of respect and admiration for is, as it turns out, super-terrifying). It felt scary and exhilarating and hard and fun all at once.
For my own part, I was most apprehensive to be coming into the Alinea Group as an ‘outsider’; I didn’t know the lingo in kitchens (what does “all day” mean? What’s a deli?), nor how to move around these environments during service, which requires a physical grace that had never been asked of me working in an office environment for a few decades. I had a lot to learn.
Thankfully, we were coming to work with a group of people who excel at making a person feel welcome. As we’ve met staffmembers, many have insightfully offered comments to Sarah and I like “You’re going to feel awkward about asking too many questions, but we want you to, so don’t feel like it’s an imposition”. Knowing when and how to say these kinds of things gives me the same feeling I had when I first dined at Alinea: it makes me think “how did you KNOW??” in a way that feels nearly magical.
One such moment came early on from Chef Micah. Sensing that we didn’t really know where to begin creating a cookbook, he emailed me to volunteer an evening wherein he and I would photograph a small handful of Aviary drinks together. We arranged to do this in our newly-set-up office a few floors above the Aviary. Shortly after meeting, Micah signaled the kitchen to begin bringing us up the drinks he’d scheduled. I had rented a Canon 5DS for the occasion, curious about the notion of shooting this book at medium-format resolution (we’ll discuss at length the photography side of things in a later update), and began shooting.
When I got home later that night and began offloading and sifting through the photos I took, I had an odd feeling: something about the experience and the photos felt somehow hollow to me. To be sure, the drinks were beautiful and delicious…but something felt a bit off. I realized that a big part of the inspiration I felt taking photos during my time working through the Alinea book was because I was getting to be part of the process of creating the dish. Just shooting a completed drink offered no context about how it was made, or even what was in it.
So I wondered about the idea of trying to make one of these myself.
I asked Micah if it might be ok for me to see one of the recipes, and to try making it at home. Micah responded by sharing with me a giant folder of the entire Aviary repertoire, pointing out the recipes for the drinks we’d photographed together. I decided to choose the recipe for a drink called “O’Doyle Rules”. Here it is, in its original form:
O Doyle Rules
Glass : Stacking Chemex
Add Three Pond Ice
Add 125g by weight batch into glass over ice
Swipe glass with green curry tincture
O Doyle Rules
2500g banana/Meyer clarified (Clear Bananas)
1266g journeyman rum
1266g Pierre ferrand 1840
1202g giffard banana
47.5g green Curry tincture
19g red curry tincture
Meyer lemon oleo saccharum
2 parts peels to 1 part sugar by weight in a hotel pan. (Remark weight of sugar on blue tape)
Muddle, let set for 4 hours, constantly muddling and stirring.
Add the same amount of hot water as sugar (1/2 the weight of the peels)
1200g roasted banana
260g Meyer lemon oleo
940g Meyer lemon juice
Blend. Pour into cambro
15 sheets gelatin
Melt in pan, whisk into banana purée.
Freeze in hotel pan
Invert onto cheesecloth covered perforated hotel pan with a 400 hotel pan underneath. Let drip until dry.
This decidedly does not read like most recipes I’d ever seen before. And almost all of the recipes read like this. It took me a few minutes to decode the O’Doyle, to understand the order of operations and what was going on. In so doing, it became clear that the recipe needed to be rewritten into a format friendlier for wider consumption.
Talking this over with Sarah, Chef Achatz, Nick and Micah led us to the first big (and perhaps most important) question for this project: who is reading this book? What is the voice of it? We want it to be useful for people like Sarah and myself, who might want to make these recipes at home. But we also want it to be useful to professionals. The tone we choose when writing recipes defines the personality of our book; but what is that personality?
To explore this, I tried writing a section of one of the recipes (specifically, the process of making Gosling’s Spheres for a drink called the Jungle Bird) a couple different ways. Here, for example, is a version written in the tone of the original Alinea cookbook:
Combine water, demerara and white sugars, and calcium lactate in medium saucepan. Bring to boil over medium-high heat, whisking constantly. Remove from heat and let cool. Reserve.
Sodium Alginate Bath
Combine water, sugar and sodium alginate in blender. Blend on high for 25 seconds, or until alginate is completely incorporated. Strain through chinois. Reserve.
Freeze demerara base in 3/4” hemisphere molds. Drop frozen hemispheres into alginate base for 2 minutes. Rinse in 1000g water bath. Reserve in airtight container with Gosling’s rum in refrigerator.
Here is the same information written in a tone similar to that found in Thomas Keller’s cookbooks:
We make our Gosling’s spheres by first making a demerara base. Combine water, demerara sugar, white sugar, and calcium lactate in a medium saucepan. Warm this mixture over medium heat, whisking to incorporate everything. It’s not necessary to bring the mixture to a boil. Once the solids have dissolved, remove the mixture from the heat and let cool, then refrigerate it.
While the demerara base is cooling, make a bath of sodium alginate by combining water, sugar and sodium alginate in a blender and blending on high speed to incorporate completely. The aggressive blending will whip air bubbles into the mixture; you’ll have best results making spheres if you let this mixture sit for several hours (or overnight) to let the bubbles surface and dissipate.
Once the demerara base is cool, fill 3/4” hemispheric molds with the mixture, and freeze until solid. Warm the alginate base slightly in a microwave, then drop the demerara spheres into the alginate bath. The heat from the bath will cause the hemispheres to begin to melt; the liquefied demerara will interact with the alginate to form a ‘skin’. It takes about 30 seconds for this skin to reach a thickness that is robust enough to survive plating but delicate enough not to be overly ‘chewy’ for guests. When you can see that the outer bit of the sphere has formed but the interior is still slightly frozen, remove the spheres from the bath with a strainer and transfer to a container filled with clear water. Separate the spheres with a spoon or pair of tweezers, discarding any that leak or burst. Transfer the remaining intact spheres to a second clear rinsing bath to rinse one final time. Then, finally, transfer the spheres to a container filed with Gosling’s dark rum. Allow the spheres to steep in the rum for at least 4 hours, to infuse them with the rum flavor.
The former iteration is clearly quite clinical and precise. The second iteration has a more conversational, casual voice, which is helpful from a utility standpoint but may also slightly misrepresent the voice of the Aviary itself. Part of the effort of rewriting the Aviary’s recipe notes is striking the right personality and level of information.
But getting back to our O’Doyle recipe: once I felt confident I understood how to follow it, I went about trying to source the ingredients. I resisted the invitation to raid the pantries here because I wanted to understand what it would feel like for someone who didn’t work here to try making one of these things.
To help explain what’s going on in the O’Doyle recipe, it helps to talk a bit about how drinks are designed at the Aviary. Development generally seems to begin with a small, individual portion. The drink is prototyped at this scale until the chefs are happy with it. It’s then scaled up to a ‘batch’ size to be more-easily deployed to a large number of guests quickly during service. In the case of the O’Doyle, there’s a long, time-consuming step involving gelatin clarification of bananas, which isn’t the sort of thing you can do on demand when a customer orders the drink. Rather, things like this are done ahead of time and reserved until needed for the next step in making the drink.
The O’Doyle is a carbonated drink. Rather than carbonating each individual drink à la minute, the staff makes a big batch of the drink, fills several carbonation bottles to capacity, carbonates them all at once, then stores them to deploy during service. It’s a fascinating study in efficiency.
This development process highlights several other questions that Sarah and I need to consider. The batch size outlined above, for example, has an enormous final yield: enough for a bar to get through a shift or two of service with. You can make it at home…but you’d end up with several gallons of banana-flavored cocktail that your wife might not be super-excited to dig past in the fridge for weeks and weeks until you’re forced to drink it all, hypothetically-speaking (please, learn from my experience and do not try making this at home, it’s seriously insane). So how do we handle the yield of these recipes? Do we reverse-engineer things to get back down to an individual portion size? Do we present the batch scale as-is?
And what of units? The measuring tool of choice for a bartender is without question the jigger. Here in the U.S., jiggers are measured in ounces. But almost everywhere else in the world they’re sized in milliliters. We could plug everything into a simple unit converter calculator to arrive at conversions like “measure 0.5oz (14.78ml) of cognac”, but that would more or less make us jerks to all our friends overseas. And at any rate, when things get scaled up to batch sizes, the jigger becomes useless and we move to grams at the Aviary to help ensure consistency.
What of dilution? When making an individual drink, it’s often stirred or shaken with ice. As the very-excellent “Liquid Intelligence” thoroughly explains, chilling a drink with ice involves diluting it, which is a critical component to a drink’s final flavor. But if you’re making a several-gallon batch, you’re not stirring all that liquid in a bucket of ice. Rather, the chefs at the Aviary weigh their prototypes before and after chilling to calculate dilution, then factor this into batch scaling by simply adding water, and using a refrigerator or freezer to chill before service.
Our current line of thinking is this: rather than choosing to present either an individual cocktail or a batched version, we are choosing (when it’s appropriate) to present both. Batch portions are presented in grams, as we use at the Aviary to ensure consistency. Individual portions are presented in oz and ml, to attempt to make the lives of our friends both here and overseas easier.
Choosing to structure recipes this way is something we’re all excited about here, but it comes at a fairly significant manpower cost. We still need to scale batch versions of recipes to something reasonable to attempt at home; we’re aiming for a yield of somewhere between 6-8 for a batch size. This requires recalculation of all Aviary recipes. For this, we developed a massive liquor calculator, into which we’ve catalogued every spirit we have in-house:
Having an individual portion of a drink in both ml and oz plus a batch version means we have three variations of every drink we intend to include. Chefs Micah and Ingi explain to me that when testing these recipes, the goal is not necessarily to ensure all three variations taste the same, but to ensure they taste great. There is no analog, for example, to a 1/4 jigger measure in ml (ml jiggers tend to round to the nearest 5ml), so rather than forcing inconvenient, fragmented measurements on anyone, we instead rebalance everything for each unit of measure to ensure it tastes good. We taste each of these versions on the day we photograph them, so we ensure any recipe that makes it into this book has been tasted for accuracy by multiple people, in multiple formats.
I have to admit that being party to the Chefs tasting and commenting on each drink is completely fascinating to me, and they graciously encourage me to taste as well, thoroughly explaining what they’re looking for or what they feel is out of balance. Developing a palette for cocktails in this way is a pretty amazing experience.
In the coming months, we will be working our way through the entire collection of Aviary recipes to re-write and re-formulate them for the purposes of this book.
Until next time;