The Continuum

“It’s scary to think of our concepts being immortalized as recipes. Dishes we create change over time; they always get better. None of us would suggest that a particular iteration of a dish, drink, or technique is as good as it could ever possibly be. We can always improve.”

– Chef Grant Achatz


This thought – expressed in an email thread among Sarah, Nick, Chef and myself several months ago – has provided me with the single most interesting insight I’ve had since starting this project. It came as part of a conversation in which I explained some concerns about our progress collecting and writing recipes for this book. Some of the recipes seemed to be undergoing a churn of sorts: ingredients and presentations would change suddenly for reasons unclear to me. I found decreasing consistency in the descriptions of techniques, with multiple versions of each.

When I would ask the chefs which was “best” or “most correct”, they would often shrug. “You could do it any of these ways.” They would pause, then add, “Or, maybe a better way would be to…” Pressing them for the “best” anything was often a meandering, inconclusive conversation. I found the experience flabbergasting and frustrating.

This frustration, I think, stems from an unconscious bias of mine that assumes recipes are meant to be immutable, archival-quality things. I suspect this may partially be due to the way I generally see recipes presented. On the wall in my childhood home are framed recipes for my grandmother’s egg nog and my grandfather’s spaghetti; my mother’s family considers these nearly gospel. Food websites, no doubt interested in attracting traffic, share recipes with titles like “The Ultimate Smoked Turkey Recipe” or “The Best Way to Fry Chicken.” One stroll through the cookbook section of any bookstore and it’s easy to find books filled with similar ennoblement. These recipes carry a tone of authority, representing themselves as “THE way to do X” rather than “A way to do X”.

So I, the custodian of these Aviary recipes, assumed ours should be presented similarly. Discovering there’s not really one correct way to execute a given technique or one right ingredient to use in a particular drink has violated my understanding of where recipes come from. It’s particularly disorienting given the general aesthetic of lab-like precision present in the kitchen here.

Chef’s words, however, helped me realize that our chefs’ intention has not been to offer flighty or deliberately confusing notes. They’ve been asked to crystallize their experiments for an audience of thousands. These recipes were captured at one (or sometimes various) points along the continuum of a drink’s life. Sifting through our vast library of recipes (which, to be clear, is more-accurately described as “chef’s notes”) – some of which were created over half a decade ago – it’s entirely understandable how the benefit of hindsight could lead our chefs to think “Hm, I could probably do this a little better knowing what I know now.”

I can turn this insight inward and re-evaluate my own understanding of where recipes come from to address something I’ve been struggling with myself. When I read any cookbook on my shelf, I assume it’s written in a very authoritative tone. Thomas Keller, Rene Redzepi, Dominique Crenn, the EMP guys all write with this unassailable credibility predicated on countless hours spent refining their craft.

And then there’s me.

I knew little more than how to make a mediocre Old Fashioned before moving here. My writing game has historically been honed on a blog, where informality rules and I can get away with writing words like “pweeeep” if I feel like it. I’m a computer dork visual effects artist; I have zero educational or professional training as a writer. I don’t remember anything about conjugating sentences, for pweeep’s sake!  Surely, I often think, Chef and Nick have made a mistake asking me to work on this with them.

And yet, Chef Achatz’ words made it clear that having a sense of humility is ok – necessary, even – when trying to be creative. Recognizing this allows me to relax into my fears and try to leverage them to this project’s advantage. Perhaps my task isn’t pretending to be the voice of an expert with this material. Maybe instead I can work on trying to bring my perspective of curiosity into balance with the expertise of the staff here.

So, let’s talk about some ways we’re doing that.

DUMMY BOOKS

Two weeks ago, we received in the mail 3 dummy books. These are empty books cut and bound to the same specifications (page size, page count, paper type, etc.) that our for-realsies book will eventually be.

Each of the 3 books was made with a different paper. Two of these are smooth, coated papers that Sarah and I are considering. A third is an interesting textured paper that seems to be used more often for brochures than books.

We are considering this textured paper for our Office section of the book. Whereas the Aviary is tightly precise and modern, The Office is ardently rooted in tradition. Hand-written labels adorn the bottles, there is none of the flashy gadgetry or theatrics… it feels very classic. So, in addition to deserving a different design treatment and different photography style, we’re debating the idea of presenting it on this different paper type.

The decision to use coated or uncoated paper is one that affects how ink sits on the page when applied. Uncoated papers tend to be more absorbent, soaking the ink up a bit. This affects the edge quality of type and images, and dramatically affects image contrast. Images printed on uncoated paper tend to have a muted, rustic feel, with low color contrast. Some examples:

Coated papers tend to encourage ink to sit on rather than in the page. Edges are more crisp, and color contrast and saturation can be more vivid:

It’s probably obvious that we feel the Aviary’s content strongly favors the use of a coated paper. We care quite a bit about edge quality, and we absolutely want to maximize the vividness of the colors featured in our cocktails here.

The textured paper we’re considering is also coated. This means we could potentially offer the tactile experience of touching older parchment-like paper, while still preserving good color and edge fidelity.

EXPANDING CONTENT

When we showed these dummy books to the chefs, they had one predominant reaction: “Huh. It’s cool.” Long pause. Then, “it’s a little skinnier than we expected.”

We originally spec’d 100 recipes for this book. Having not actually seen them, Sarah and I roughly estimated the book to be around 400 pages…or about the page count of the Alinea cookbook. Our cocktail recipes are proving to be shorter than those in Alinea, which offers us some unexpected extra runway to play with.

So we’ve decided to add another 20 recipes or so.

In discussing other content we might like to include, we landed on one idea that I’m particularly excited about. Chef Micah, Aviary’s Beverage Director, has a fascinating obsession with antique spirits. He scours all manner of estate sales, auction sites, and a number of other sources he’s deliberately coy about, amassing an enormous collection of antique spirits dating all the way back to the 1800’s.

I find this fascinating, but hadn’t quite figured out how to make mention of it in the book in a way that didn’t sound self-aggrandizing. Then it occurred to me to ask Micah what he does with these things. He explained to me what he calls “dusty bottle cocktails”, a concept that’s pretty much exactly what you might imagine. A White Negroni he’s developed, for example, makes use of a Campari product that was discontinued over 25 years ago. The drink includes vermouth of a similar age, which Micah notes “is extremely oxidized, with a sherry-like finish that mimics the finish of a classic negroni.”  The solution here seemed suddenly obvious: rather than simply listing out a collection of antique spirits, why not include some recipes that highlight not only the spirits themselves, but how one might mix a drink with them?

Some other ideas we’re exploring is the inclusion of multiple versions of a drink, to show the evolution an idea undergoes during its lifetime on the menu here. The original Micahlada, a riff on the classic combination of beer, lime, and hot sauce, was served at the Aviary years ago in a pint glass with a spice rim. In its current form on the Aviary menu in New York City, the drink has been drastically altered to include two small food bite pairings and is served in a custom-made service piece. We will include both versions of this drink.

RECIPE TESTING

We forge ahead with recipe testing, confirming nothing’s gotten lost or mis-expressed in our transcribed recipes. We periodically gather as a team to taste and discuss clusters of recipes. Sarah and I filmed our most recent tasting meeting, with the intent of sharing some insight into what that process looks like:

ON A WIRE

We’ll conclude this update by sharing a recipe we’ve recently tested. On A Wire is a warming drink to offset the chilly weather settling in here. You can download a printable copy of the recipe here.

Let’s get geeky about this recipe.

  • simple syrup – recalling our original mention of how the Aviary makes simple syrup…this is how the Aviary makes simple syrup. It’s not the only way, it’s not “more correct” than, say, blending water and sugar in a blender, or heating them together in a pot. But this is how it’s done here, and here’s why: simple syrup is a foundational ingredient in cocktail making. For home use, small fluctuations in sugar-to-water ratio could be considered negligible, but here we make a lot of syrup, and we need it to stay consistent. The traditional way of making syrup by boiling water with sugar introduces evaporation. Depending on how long the water is allowed to boil, evaporation can significantly affect the concentration of the syrup. To eliminate this potential error, we mix equal measures hot (not steaming) water and sugar.
  • graham cracker syrup – avoid breaking up the graham crackers too much to yield a cleaner, clearer syrup.
  • batch/individual portion – this recipe exemplifies how we realize gains in efficiency by pre-making parts of our drinks. If you’re making this cocktail for guests (or, if you’re like Sarah and I and just dig having pre-made cocktail base stashed in your fridge so you can bang out a drink easily), pre-making a batch can significantly reduce service times once your party gets going. Our batches for service here often exceed 20 quarts or so in size, which we realize isn’t particularly useful for most readers. Rather than simply presenting our recipes in this format, we’ve dedicated quite a bit of effort to scale all batch components to yield approximately 6 portions.
  • other notes
    • With few exceptions, we buy spirits in the same form as a home bartender will (glass bottles, typically 750 ml). This means we have heaps of empty glass bottles on hand at any given time. Rather than simply discarding these, we repurpose them into storage containers. This works well for us: glass is durable, reusable, easily-storable, nonreactive, and is a familiar form factor for our bartenders to work with.
    • Cocktails involving citrus are typically shaken; experienced bartenders may find the lack of a shaking step here unusual. Our dilution here, however, comes from the spiced cider. As we noted in the Carrot Cake Ramos diagram a while back, the idea of optimizing use of “flavor real estate” (in this case: replacing the water that would come from shaking with ice with the spiced cider) is a common one for us.
    • After pouring the apple brandy portion into your serving glass, you can hit it in a microwave for 5 seconds or so to warm it enough to ignite easily. We hold a bottle of this brandy in a low-temperature water bath during service to streamline assembly of multiple portions.
    • We suspend the rosemary tip in a small custom-made service piece designed for us by Martin Kastner at Crucial Detail. A similar result can be achieved at home by lightly toasting a rosemary tip over the ignited brandy (use tongs or tweezers), dropping the rosemary into the glass, and pouring the cocktail over it.

Tidbits like this are a result of extensive conversations with the chefs about each of these recipes, as well as quite a bit of testing by Sarah and I. Noticing my fascination with these little bits and bobs, Sarah thought to funnel my curiosity into the recipes by introducing the idea of sidebars into her design template. These currently look something like this:

The above recipe for On A Wire has been redesigned to fit nicely onto a standard 8.5×11″ sheet of paper in anticipation of folks wanting to print and use copies over the holidays. This page size prevents inclusion of these sidebars, but they fit comfortably on the larger final page size we’ve chosen for the book.

And with that, I’ll leave you to enjoy your holidays.

–Allen

Readers

Hi friends;

This update is coming a few days later than we’d intended, but we’ve been waiting for something that we think is a little bit neat and we wanted to share.

Last week, we sent the most current version of our design files to iocolor and asked them to print several of what they call “readers”. Readers are low-cost, quick-and-dirty print and bound copies of work in progress. The paper used feels slightly thicker than, say, that of a magazine page (so, thinner than we ultimately intend to print on). But the page is printed and trimmed to our currently-selected size, and all text is represented as it will ultimately be printed in terms of scale.

Readers are useful to us for a number of reasons. Primarily, they offer us a physical understanding of where we stand with our content. This reader is about 110 pages, and contains just over 40 recipes in various states of edit. We can hold this in our hands and understand how it feels to flip the pages, and we can conjecture how the book will feel when complete. We can say “Hey this is too big” or “hey this will probably be way too many pages” or “hey we can probably include more stuff here”, and can make decisions about our page thickness correspondingly (recall that page count and page thickness impacts the structural integrity of the book, so we can push and pull things around a little to land at a page count and page thickness that feels ultimately satisfying).

The reader is our first opportunity to understand our book in a very analog, physical sense. Up to this point, our book has been more or less completely virtual. We typically view our photos and design on computer monitors, which can be either desktop- or laptop-sized, neither of which really do a great job of conveying the tactile feel of the end product. Having a physical copy to flip through is an exhilarating benchmark of progress.

A good deal of our book is still a work in progress; Sarah drops proxy photos or shapes onto pages to either sketch out design ideas or flag potential photos for me to shoot.

Several of the spreads in the reader are effectively prototypes. While we’re still honing our “cluster” section for In The Rocks, Micah and Ingi have delivered several other clusters for which we’re planning design. Here, for example, Sarah sketches approaches to the Porthole, using photography from the Alinea Group’s massive media archive. Once we’ve established some clarity in our ideas, we’ll shoot new photographs specific to each spread and recipe.

A second function of the reader: we’ve enlisted the help of one of the bar chefs here to take one of our readers and make every recipe as we’ve written it. This is a verification mechanism to ensure we’ve properly documented everything, that there are no omissions of information, steps, or ingredients, and to see if there are opportunities to augment the recipes with any further information that Sarah and I simply don’t know to ask about. Despite combing through the recipes as carefully as we can and re-verifying them with the head chefs after writing them, we’re still aware of potential mistakes that can fall through the cracks as a result of “screen fatigue”.

(A long parenthetical aside: Sarah and I pull our ideas for presenting the same information in multiple ways from a habit we’ve both picked up from our time as visual effects artists. VFX artists frequently flip  or rotate the images on which we’re working to gain fresh perspective on them, to avoid overworking areas that don’t deserve the honor or to spot mistakes we’ve become blind to. Any painters reading this will likely echo this habit with their canvases . Looking at things from a different perspective often provides new information, which can help creative decision-making.)

Anyway, back to the reader. On the technical side of things: the range of colors a given printer can produce is referred to as the printer’s “gamut”. A low-cost consumer-grade printer that uses only a few separate ink cartridges is only able to produce a limited range of colors. Use of more, specifically-chosen cartridges can address the ‘dead spots’ in this range, and can therefore reproduce more subtle shades of color. The gamut of the printer used to produce our readers is fairly limited, and so the dynamic color range of images in the readers does not represent the full potential of our images. iocolor was kind enough to produce a handful of wide-gamut test proofs, which are individual print tests of a subset of our pages printed on a printer with a much wider range of colors it can reproduce. We can see below that this wider gamut yields images with a fuller, more luminous quality that more-closely represents what the images will look like in our finished book (on the left we see the reader; on the right, a wide-gamut proof). The entire book will undergo a fairly rigorous color scrutiny later on down the road, but seeing spot tests like this is helpful for us to understand what kinds of problems are inherent to particular photo scenarios (flames are hard, we’ve learned, e.g.).

The pages of our reader are assembled together (“bound”) using a technique called “perfect binding”. Perfect binding is a process whereby printed pages are stacked and a thick bead of glue is applied to the spine to hold everything together. The pages are then neatly trimmed at their edges:

Perfect binding is an economical and tidy way to join pages for this purpose. The downside with this approach, however, is that it doesn’t allow pages to lay flat when the book is fully opened. If the pages are forced flat, the glue risks cracking.

Over time, repeated opening/closing the book – combined with aging of the spine glue – causes the glue to crack. Pages eventually come loose and fall out as a result. If you’ve ever picked up well-worn older paperbacks (which are typically perfect-bound) and noticed loose pages, this is the cause.

(Another long parenthetical aside: perfect binding is typically the mechanism used by print-on-demand services like Blurb and the like. While the short-term color fidelity of a book produced by these services can seem vivid and appealing, it’s the wrong measure of quality to apply to books produced in this way. The inherent limitations of this style of binding make books produced in this way not suitable for archival purposes.)

A higher-quality alternative to perfect binding is what’s know as Smyth sewing. In this case, clusters (“signatures”, recalling an earlier update) are gathered and sewn together, then all sewn signatures are fastened to a flexible stitched spine. This style of binding is more suitable to higher-quality books intended for archival, or books with large pages that need to lay pleasingly-flat on a surface.

Other things we’ve been working on in recent weeks include writing about and photographing drinks from The Office, and interviewing several staffmembers for the purposes of drawing information that we may use for designing and structuring this section of the book. Our recipe count has climbed to above 65 so far, again in various states of edit (our goal is 100). With so much information in play, we grow increasingly careful about ensuring accuracy and consistency; there is a lot of circling back to adjust previous recipes that we thought were locked as we continue to unearth new information.

From a personal standpoint, a thing I’ve found fascinating (and a point of personal leveling-up) is letting go of a sense of pedantry. Coming from a very technical, engineering background, it’s comfortable and natural for me to say “Ok, if we’re doing this here, we need to do it like this everywhere”. (And, in fact, I place a false confidence in myself when reading recipes that imply this kind of rigorous, lab-like precision, because it eliminates a need for subjectivity, which would otherwise put me on less sure-footing about my abilities in a new and unfamiliar matter. Sort of like buying a really nice digital camera and hoping its technology will do the work of making a person into a better photographer.)

But I’ve found repeatedly that the insistence on pedagogery often doesn’t quite make sense. Sous vide temperatures, for example, are often listed like “75°C (165°F)”. When I was given recipes involving dehydrators by the chefs, however, temperatures were consistently expressed in Fahrenheit only. I asked about this, and the chefs shrugged: “our dehydrators don’t have Celsius markers on them”. 

It is in moments like this that I realize the “kitchen as lab” aesthetic that is so fiercely fashionable is often projected unfairly on restaurants, and while the engineer side of me wants to shake my fist in the air and mumble “Why, they oughta FIX this and make it all consistent!”, the truth is that this is not a laboratory. This is a collective of artists finding new and interesting ways to appropriate tools that were not designed with them in mind to explore new ideas. Innovation, then, is messy. This puts me in the peculiar position of both wanting to be meticulously precise and understanding that doing so is not fully authentic. How to strike the right balance?

The only real choice is to continue to explore.

Aviary NYC

Hello friends;

We’re just nearing the completion of about 40 different recipes, which, given that we’re aiming for roughly 100 total recipes, puts us  a bit shy of being halfway done with this part. Photography is mostly complete for those as well, though I still have some image processing stuff to work through, and we’re constantly circling back to re-evaluate how everything looks in context (doing reshoots as necessary if things start looking too monotonous).

Included in our most recent round of recipes is what we’re calling a “cluster” recipe. Many of the Aviary’s cocktails are completely unique in terms of recipe structure, but in poring through the entire catalog of recipes for this book, we noticed many of them share a single fundamental technique. In The Rocks, for example, is a relatively simple idea: a classic cocktail served inside a sphere of ice. The kitchen periodically swaps out the classic cocktail contained inside the sphere – sometimes it’s an Old Fashioned, sometimes a Manhattan, etc. – but the overall technique is the same for all. Presenting, say, six standalone recipes for variations of In The Rocks would result in a lot of visual and informational redundancy, which would get boring. We could, of course, choose to just pick one… but that’s not all the way awesome, now is it?

So, we’ve flagged recipes like this with the intention of treating them differently from a photographic and design standpoint. Doing this requires a fair bit of planning (we want each cluster to look and feel unique), but the payoff is that we knock out 5-6 recipes all in one go. Sarah develops multiple designs, with illustrations (“storyboards”, to draw some lessons we’ve learned from working for years in the film world) to guide my photography, then I shoot stand-in photos for her to prototype with.

I have an itch to elaborate about our photography the way we recently discussed layout and design, but the past month has presented a unique opportunity that I feel might be worth sharing. That opportunity is the opening of a second location of the Aviary in New York City.

Sarah and I have experienced a handful of menu transitions at Next (for those to whom this is unfamiliar: Next is another of Chef Achatz’s restaurants, adjacent to the Aviary. It shapeshifts into an entirely different restaurant every 4 months; recent menus include “Hollywood”, “Ancient Rome”, and currently “World’s 50 Best Restaurants”). But this is our first exposure to an entirely new launch of a dining establishment. Last week, Sarah and I traveled to New York to document the final days of preparation before the bar opens for its first service.

Our time was spent moving between the Aviary kitchens and the space that will ultimately be the dining room. Similar to the ‘cage’ that separates the bar from the dining room here in Chicago, Aviary NYC features a large glass wall that allows guests to view the bar from their seat (along with a rather spectacular sweeping view of Central Park). From these vantages, we got to see the front- and back-of-house staff rehearsing and practicing their respective specialties.

In the kitchen, Chef Micah works with the Aviary NYC chefs and bartenders to rehearse the various drinks that will appear on the inaugural menu (many of which are entirely new and specific to the New York location). At the head of the bar (farthest from me, in the below photo), standing at what we call “the pass”,  is the Aviary’s equivalent of an air traffic controller: the Expediter (or “expo”). The expo is the liaison between the front of house and kitchen. When a guest arrives and is seated, the expo is notified, and the time is noted. From this point on, the expo has an awareness of everything about every event at that table (and all other tables): what time the last drink or food was served, how long the guest has been eating/drinking their current course, or how long each guest has been waiting for their next course. As drinks move from the kitchen to the guest, the expo checks every single one to ensure it has been made correctly and excellently (no drips on the glass, garnishes are bright and fresh, etc.). The expo is also made aware of any dietary concerns of every table, and ensures any drink going out to a table adheres to these concerns.

The expo is also in charge of distributing information to the bartenders and chefs. In contrast to the way a typical bar works, each bartender at the Aviary is assigned to a single station. Each station is responsible for a subset of all  drinks on the menu. As orders come in, the expo calls them to the various stations. The stations are trained to call the order back to the expo, to acknowledge they have heard the order and begun its preparation (the expo, then, is monitoring the status of all the bartenders to understand if any delays need to be anticipated).

While Sarah and I are there, the team is running hypothetical tickets, to simulate saturating the bar with orders. The bartenders spring to work, assembling the various orders that they’ve received and presenting them back to the expo. The whole kitchen then pauses to evaluate everyone’s work. This part is particularly fascinating to Sarah and I, as it’s in these evaluative moments that the bulk of the nuance of each drink (and, therefore, each recipe) is explained.

While the knowledge to be gained here is intensely awesome to witness, it’s also super-intimidating to Sarah and I, mostly because it underscores various gaps of missing information we realize we have in our recipes. These insights are passed along just as we’re experiencing: in the moment, by word-of-mouth from an expert. We try to frantically document as much as we can, but some things are just so perplexing we’re still wrapping our heads around how to handle them. One chef, for example, takes a moment to explain that he has multiple ways to shake a cocktail tin, depending on what he’s trying to do. He demonstrates each shake carefully, and Sarah and I exchange glances at each other as we wonder how we can possibly distill the subtle differences in his movement into a book.

As the drinks are honed to the point that they closely-resemble their final form, the kitchen staff brings several servings out to the dining room and presents them to the front of house. Here, the front of house are learning about the art of hosting a guest. Most of these staff members have not visited the Aviary here in Chicago, so the experience of rapidly learning a massive battery of new dishes, ingredients and preparations is a disorienting and intense one.

The kitchen chefs patiently explain each drink: how to properly say its name, the backstory of the drink, its ingredients, any serving instructions, etc. Then the front of house studiously sip the drink and begin to discuss it amongst themselves. They are led by John Schafer, formerly the General Manager of Alinea, who has relocated to New York specifically for this purpose. John is, simply, insanely brilliant at the art of effortless grace.

“Who wants to talk about this drink first?” he asks the group of staff members.

“I will,” one volunteers. He pauses, then begins, “This drink contains flavors of anise and blackberry,” he begins.

“Stop,” John quickly says. “That’s boring. Describing something by just reciting its ingredients is boring. Tell me what you thought when you first tasted it.”

The staff member pauses to consider, then, “Well, I thought it was great! The ice is fun to chew, that’s the bit I like the most.”

“Awesome!” John exclaims. “Talk more about that! Share that with the guest, talk about what you find exciting or interesting about it, or what questions you had when you first tasted it, or what flavor was most striking to you.”

As the bar staff is training, Chef Perretta is working with Chef Achatz to train up a completely different kitchen on the food that will be available at the Aviary. The kitchen staff is similarly rehearsing, and periodically present the front of house staff with servings of each dish on the menu.

“Who wants to talk about this dish?” John asks after Chef Perretta presents the staff with a dozen tiny bites that look like small candy bars.

“I’ll go this time,” another staffmember volunteers. “This one tastes like pumpkin pie to me.”

“Great,” remarks John. “What makes pumpkin pie taste like pumpkin pie?”

A few staff members volunteer their knowledge of the constituent spices in pumpkin pie. “What do we call these spices?” John asks.

Silence.

“What other things use similar spices?” John prods.

“It reminds me of, like, carrot cake or gingerbread or something,” a staff member wagers hesitantly.

“Awesome, yup, so maybe we refer to them as baking spices?” John suggests. “What else? What time of year does this remind you of?”

“Fall,” someone remarks.

“Exactly, so maybe we can also call them autumn spices or fall spices? Has anyone here had mulled wine? Maybe we can call them mulling spices? We want to have multiple ways to refer to any given thing, so that we don’t reuse the same words over and over during service. Find different ways to talk about the same thing to avoid being repetitive and to keep your conversation with a guest feeling fresh.”

The insistence on authenticity (and the recognition of its value to the guest experience) is one of my favorite things about working here, and it’s both refreshing and endlessly surprising to find the many ways this percolates through the veins of this restaurant group. It’s also the thing that gives Sarah and I the confidence to share updates in our own voices (rather than using some stuffy ‘customer service’ formality). It’s a scary thing, and one we’re still finding our footing with. One of the most involved issues for us in creating this book, for example, has been learning how to do it while at the same time learning to be new parents (you may have spotted our fresh little kiddo in the original video for this campaign). This has affected the decisions we’ve made in a very real and much larger way than picking a page size has, and talking openly about that is a thing that’s very interesting to us. We’re still working up the nerve to try that though.

In any case, if you happen to be in or around New York (specifically, in the lobby of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, on the 35th floor of the Time-Warner building, in Columbus Circle), stop by to say hello to the team and see what they’re up to.

Until next time;

–a

Design – Pt. 3

The State of the Art

Since our Kickstarter campaign ended, Allen and the Aviary chefs have been diligently writing recipes and photographing drinks. We use Google Docs as our collaborative writing tool; this has proven useful as part of our team has temporarily relocated to New York to open our second Aviary location there. But the recipe text eventually needs to be moved to inDesign, our design software. For the Alinea Project, Allen composed his text in an offline writing tool called Scrivener (which worked well for him), and once he was completely done writing, he delivered a PDF to me that I think I copied and pasted over into inDesign. This move strikes me as remarkably amateur now, and not one that’ll work for us on this project. As much as we aspire to completely lock the recipe writing off before I typeset it, we’ve learned this isn’t practical: we’re constantly finding ways to correct or re-word things as our recipe collection grows, so we need a more robust way to move text from Google Docs to inDesign.

Our solution for this came during the Kickstarter campaign. The campaign made its way onto Hacker News, at which point we got an email from Chris Ryland of Em Software, offering us access to a plugin his company had developed called DocsFlow. DocsFlow is awesome. The plugin provides a bridge between inDesign and Google Docs: I can link text directly from our online recipes, and when we edit text in Google, it’s updated in inDesign. It’s made keeping track of edits effortless. Two big thumbs up.

Once we got our writing pipeline sorted and began to get some recipes completed, I started exploring two-column designs. These allow me to fill the page better while keeping line lengths readable:

The fact that we’re providing both single and batch portions for most drinks has been a fun design problem to solve. The layout below works well for me as a clear solution to this choose-your-own-adventure problem…

…but it’s ultimately problematic for us. The design is based on a single column, which splits into two columns at the end of the recipe, emphasizing there’s a decision to be made. But I worry the book will get enormous if I limit myself to one narrow column per page for the majority of each recipe.

I tried adding thin line rules between recipes, and instantly liked the organization the lines provide. At quick glance, it’s easy to understand where one component ends and another begins:

I’m actually a little annoyed that I like this design; it hasn’t been the most straightforward to typeset. As far as I know, inDesign doesn’t support unequal column widths in text frames (if you’re reading this and know otherwise, let me know). I could use tables…but I hate tables. I’m currently going with a wonky workaround, using an empty frame with text wrap applied to push the columns around. The whole thing feels inelegant from a file organization standpoint, and makes me a little itchy, but I’m pushing forward with it for the time being.

With a general page layout dialed in, I’m now able to obsess over the smaller typesetting details. For this, I often find myself consulting my favorite design book, The Elements of Typographic Style. This book has the most amazing turns of phrase:

On adjusting space between letters within a word:
“A man who would letterspace lower case would steal sheep,” Frederic Goudy liked to say. If this wisdom needs updating, it is chiefly to add that a woman who would letterspace lower case would steal sheep as well.

On using a font you don’t need:
The marriage of type and text requires courtesy to the in-laws, but it does not mean that all of them ought to move in, nor even that all must come to visit.

On the importance of negative space on a page:
If the text deserves the honor, a handsome page may be made with very few words. […] However empty or full it may be, the page must breathe, and in a book — that is, in a long text fit for the reader to live in — the page must breathe in both directions.

This book offers advice about all manner of typesetting minutiae. I’m typesetting fractions properly, for example –  ½ not 1/2 – and ensuring the 2 in CO₂ is a proper subscript. I’m picky about em dashes and smart quotes ( ʼ vs ‘ ). But there are questions at every turn. Should there be a space before units? Should recipes read as “8g” or “8 g”? (I prefer the latter):

What happens when ingredients stretch to two lines? Do they get tabbed over or should I just use more space after each hard return?

What’s my rule with rules? If a recipe continues onto two pages, should the component at the start of the second page have a rule above it? Each recipe offers new design problems to solve.

After we completed preliminary photography and design for a dozen recipes or so, Allen and I printed everything out, hung it on our wall, took a step back, and surveyed the scene to see what the overall rhythm of our book felt like. We used this early design work to talk about what we wanted to change, and how we wanted to refine our approach to further work.

This spread, for example, caused us to drastically change how Allen is approaching photography:

It’s worth noting that Allen’s not a professional photographer. He taught himself how to use a camera over the course of his Alinea cooking project. For that adventure, his photographs were going onto his blog, which is a pretty simple 1-column text layout. The most consideration he afforded his photos was whether they were being viewed on a desktop screen (for which horizontal photos tended to work better) or a phone (for which vertical photos were more pleasant). Without having control over his page size (since a browser window can be arbitrarily resized), he could only really hedge his bets and take some of each orientation. But in almost every case, his photos stood on their own. When we decided to create our Alinea Project book, we treated the text and photos as two independent elements.

But when regarding the above spread, we both immediately noted how awesome it would be if we had a single photo spanning across both pages, with the vapor from the cocktail spilling into the left page and the text hovering above it. But Allen had composed the photo vertically, so we didn’t actually have any photo data to stretch across the page. Furthermore, while the camera we used to shoot this photo (the Canon 5D mkiii) offers ample resolution for a single full-page image, using it to shoot full-spread images would result in a loss of resolution that would force us to either scale images up or scale our entire book down (neither option was particularly appealing to us). What we needed, we decided, was a reshoot of this cocktail with a different camera and a different composition.

When we originally began testing for this book, we discussed what photographic equipment we would use. Allen rented a medium-format digital camera and shot some tests, but we ultimately discarded the idea of using this camera because it was slow, expensive, and produced images that were much higher resolution than we would ever need for a single-page image. But we hadn’t considered the idea of full-spread images like the layout above begs for. So, after some discussion, we decided that we do want to be able to make spreads like this, which mandated a camera upgrade. (We’ll talk more about the photography side of things in a future update.)

We are able to make decisions like this – which we feel will ultimately yield a better book – because we made the unusual decision during our Kickstarter campaign to forgo offering stretch goals or extras, which we worried would spread us thin, distract us from our ultimate goal, and expend finances in areas that were less important to us. That decision bought us runway to be able to modify or upgrade things mid-production as we learn during this process.

There’s still a lot of work to do, and we are far from settled on many creative issues on this project. When I see 20 recipes in a row, the design starts to feel too rigid and predictable, so Allen and I are both pushing ourselves to add visual interest to break the book up more. He’s exploring ways to incorporate different textures and lighting into his photos, for example, while I’m exploring illustrations and layouts for essays to scatter throughout the book. Understanding our page canvas and considering how our text will fold around his photographs informs Allen on how he composes images moving forward.

And what of the cover of the book? We have a handful of ideas, but that’s a different update…

 

Design – Pt. 2

The Art of Typography

Hi all! Sarah here. I’m snagging the reins for a moment to continue our discussion about page design. Before I get into specifics, though, I’d like to talk a little about the art of typesetting in general.

Consider the following bit of text:

Consider which of the above feels most comfortable to read. In the case of the longer, 90-character lines, the eye gets a little fatigued before it gets to the end of the line, whereas for the shorter, 40-character lines, the eye is constantly having to jump down to see how a given thought resolves. One of these passages has been given too much leash, while another is too confined.

These feelings of discomfort often aren’t articulated by readers; many people just find the experience of reading these passages itchy without knowing why. This is where the art of typesetting becomes important. Just as Allen is considering the voice of our recipes, I’m considering the voice of our design.

It can be tempting to design text such that it calls a lot of attention to itself. I mean, this is my domain on this project, so shouldn’t I really swing for the fences with the typography here? But, let’s look at some examples from cookbooks we have at home:

There’s a lot going on in the above spread; it can be hard to know where to look first. Multiple typefaces, colorful text and accents, and a complex design hierarchy complement a cooking style that’s typically characterized by bold and complex flavors. The voice of the type treatment seems to work with the overall style of cooking presented here.

This example also suggests bold, confident flavors; the text feels loud and challenging, maybe a bit pushy.

One final example. I find the above text beautiful; the page is a piece of art. But the deliberate lack of clear hierarchy or flow might not translate well to content that needs to suggest a clear progression of steps.

To be clear, I really love all of the above examples…we own these books because we love them. But these ways of treating text aren’t really reflective of my personality, nor are they reflective of the voice of Aviary. My design style has always had minimalist tendencies, and I feel this couples well with the needs of the Aviary book. My goal with this book is to let Allen’s photography do the heavy lifting here. My thought is the text should be beautiful and – above all – functional. It should be clean, comfortable and easy to read, to give readers the best chance of success at the recipes. A person should not be struggling to make sense of my text and layout on top of the already-complex recipes themselves (I mean, one of these recipes involves a branding iron. You’re gonna have your hands full enough as it is without having to make sense of bad text layout).

I started design work on this book shortly after Allen and I moved to Chicago last year. At that point, we had very little recipe text to work with, so we needed to make something up to serve as a placeholder. I started by exploring some fairly traditional cookbook layout strategies. Most cookbooks present recipes with all ingredients listed in one cluster, with a separate conversational block of text describing the procedure of the recipe. Here’s how that might have looked in this context:

The problem here is that – as we’ve explained in updates previously – Aviary recipes aren’t really structured like this. The chefs, in seeking measures of efficiency and optimization, tend to break a drink into various components, each of which can be prepared separately and then assembled into the final drink only when it’s needed during service.

Aviary’s recipes, then, consist of a series of component recipes which get assembled in one final step. Similar to the Alinea cookbook, there are multiple recipes within a recipe. This renders a typical cookbook page layout like the one above more clumsy than useful.

Working with this knowledge (though still without final recipes), I tried some other layouts that honored this multi-component structure:

I like many of these, but ultimately had to rule them out once I saw the actual Aviary recipes, which are longer than I anticipated. I realized thin columns and large headers would force our recipes to unnecessarily span multiple pages, which wouldn’t be an efficient use of space. I needed to modify my design hypothesis for the practicalities of this project.

Design – Pt. 1

Hi everyone. We’re going to approach this update a bit differently than in the past. We’d like to talk about the design process of our book, but doing so will get pretty involved. Trying to encompass everything in one single update would be fatiguing to read, so we’re going to break it up into pieces over the next few days. I’m going to lay some groundwork in this update, then I’ll hand it over to Sarah to let her discuss what things look like from her perspective as the book’s designer.

The Canvas

A thing that strongly impacts Sarah’s design choices is the page size on which she’s working; it is her canvas. This one factor affects almost every subsequent decision we will make while creating this book, so it’s something we have to carefully consider right from the get-go. But how do we decide on our page size?

A book effectively begins with a large roll of paper created at a paper mill. This paper is one of a broad selection of widths, weights, textures and opacities, and the available choices vary from mill to mill around the world. We are currently considering papers made at mills in Finland, Japan, and China.

Paper mills routinely cut a subset of their rolls into sheets for book printing plants to use. It is these sheets that you’re ultimately buying when making a book, and the goal is to make as efficient use of your chosen sheet as possible. If the available choices of standard-sized sheets don’t meet your needs, it’s possible to have a roll of a particular paper stock custom cut into sheets by a mill. The mill’s general willingness to do this is highly dependent on the quantity of paper you need. For our Alinea Project book, Sarah and I knew our potential audience was quite small (as was our ability to house and distribute our books by ourselves), so the print run we did for that book was small enough that ordering custom-cut paper wasn’t an option. In the case of the Aviary book, however, we hope to reach a far larger audience, so we intend to do a much larger print run. This makes us interesting to a paper mill if we want to have custom-cut sheets made.

We are working with a company called iocolor in Seattle to navigate these waters. Gary Hawkey at iocolor was an incredible resource to us for our Alinea Project, and electing to work with him on this project was an obvious choice for us. He’s seriously awesome. Gary helps us balance the various qualities we seek in a paper with what’s available and economical for our goals. For example, we seek a paper that feels nice to touch and which will allow us to faithfully reproduce the brilliant colors and details we’re capturing in the photography for this book.

Paper is usually made from wood or other cellulose fibers, so its natural color tends to be somewhat warm, which can tint images when ink is applied to the paper. To offset this warmth, mills add various optical brighteners to paper, pushing it towards warm or cool tones of white. This allows photos to be printed in truer, more vivid color. Some optical brighteners, however, fade over time, which can lead to white pages appearing to brown. This is more pronounced at the edges of the page, where the book is more likely to be exposed to UV rays and environmental fluctuations. We seek to balance printing quality with archival quality to ensure this book looks good on day 1 and continues to look good for many years.

The thickness of the paper we choose will be dictated by the total number of pages in the book. If we elect to have fewer pages, we can stand for the pages to be thicker, which will feel more luxurious and add to the satisfying heft of the book. But too many of these thick pages would threaten the structural integrity of the book and cause it to fall apart more easily as it’s used, so again we must balance our final paper choice with how much content we want to generate.

Once we’ve narrowed down a paper stock, we can turn our attention to the aforementioned cut sheets from the mill. On this sheet, we will print several geographically-adjacent pages (“folios”); these pages are printed on both sides of the paper. Once the sheets have pages printed onto them, they’re referred to as “forms”. A form can hold multiple folios:

We can see that if we print at a size that allows us to fit 4 folios on a sheet, but only actually fill the sheet with 3 folios, we’re incurring a bit of waste. Likewise, if we want a particular page size that can’t fit efficiently onto a given sheet of paper, we need to bump things up to a larger (and more expensive) sheet of paper, which might potentially incur waste if we don’t use it up completely.

We needed to decide early on, then, how big we’d like our page to be. To do this, we used a super-scientific, hyper-precise procedure: we sat around with Nick and Chef with a bunch of cookbooks and held them all. We talked about heft, dimensions, and overall feel of the various books. Do we want a small, short, thick Bible-like book? Do we want something large and thinner? How do we feel about the page aspect ratio? Do we like a square format?

We shortlisted five books, ranging from “this is the absolute smallest we’re willing to go” to “ridiculously big”. Our five choices were:

Of these, we decided that a square format (Eleven Madison Park) wasn’t ideal for us, as most of our “dishes” are fairly vertical.

We also noticed something curious about the larger sizes. It’s easy to imagine that bigger is better, especially with large, colorful photography. But the page size is also the canvas for text. In early design experiments, Sarah felt that filling a large page with our recipe text meant either scaling up the text size (which ended up making the book feel as if it were written for kids or those with poor eyesight), or having large swaths of empty space. It was a bit like trying to fill a really large room with furniture. We also realized that above a certain threshold, page size began affecting the usability of the book; it began to feel cumbersome to flip through when sitting on a kitchen countertop. This led us to ask ourselves whether we wanted this book to be purely an art piece, to be displayed on a table, or a usable book (we’ve decided on the latter).

Our current favorite size is close to that of Quay, which is just over 10×12”. At this size, Gary explains to us that we can order custom-cut sheets on the paper stock of our choice. Our pages will print on the sheet like this:

As a point of comparison, here’s a full sheet of signatures from the Alinea cookbook. The form contains eight folios, or sixteen total pages. One could imagine something like this being a cool thing to have mounted and displayed as a piece of wall art.

After being printed, the forms are folded in such a way as to bring the various pages into their correct order. Arranging the pages on the form such that they fall into their correct order when folded is called “page imposition”. The folded form can be stitched together along its spine, yielding what’s called a “signature”. The edges are then trimmed to yield the final pages of the book.

Here is how the form of the Alinea cookbook above is folded into a signature:

The complete book is made up of many such signatures gathered together. Because of the gathering process and the way pages are printed, we need to be careful about content that spans two adjacent pages (e.g. a panoramic photo). If we don’t choose the placement of this kind of content carefully, we can run into alignment issues. The ideal spot(s) for full-spread content is on pages 8/9 of a set of gathered signatures, and a decent plan b is between the last page of one gathered signature and the first page of another.

We originally estimated that we’d have around 400 pages to fit into this book. At 12 pages per sheet, it’s ideal to come up with a page count that’s a multiple of 12, to minimize waste and maximize paper use. To that end, 408 pages would be a more ideal page goal for us.

We hone our decisions by working with Gary to create dummy books. These are simply cut and bound books with blank pages made using the page sizes and paper stocks we’re considering. Dummy books help us make physical sense of our book and help us verify or discount the choices we’re making.

Once we’ve established some page guidelines for ourselves, we can begin to consider other matters of design.

Story Mining

What’s the recipe for simple syrup?

If you’re reading this, odds are good that you already know how to make simple syrup, a mixture of equal parts white sugar and water.

But, but! Equal parts by weight? Volume? Do you boil the water? Do you put both ingredients in a bottle and shake until dissolved? Do you stir? Whisk, spoon, or spatula?

Having spent about 5 years with my head in the mental space of the Alinea cookbook, I developed a habit of making simple syrup the way that book instructs: combine equal parts by weight of water and sugar in a pot, warm over medium heat, stirring to dissolve sugar completely. Let cool, reserve in an airtight container.

Near the end of that project, I came across a ‘hot tip’ (I think it may have been a tweet by Dave Arnold, but I’m not sure) that mentioned the idea of making simple syrup by combining tap water and sugar in a blender, blending on high until the sugar was completely dissolved, and storing in a squeeze bottle for easy dispensing. I loved this: it saved me time and felt efficient and cool.

So, when I sat down to transcribe the first Aviary recipe from “Chef shorthand” to the actual text you’ll eventually read, the first component I needed to write was for simple syrup. After brief consideration, I decided to describe it using the blender method above.

A couple weeks later, while shooting cocktails with Chef Ingi in our studio, he casually remarked that he and Chef Micah had noticed my recipe, and remarked to one another “that’s not actually how we do it here though.”

This, of course, totally piqued my interest. I assumed his implication was that the Aviary makes it the same way the Alinea book outlines, and so my second iteration phrased things exactly as the Alinea book does. This, I figured, made sense: both Chef Achatz restaurants, both the same pedigree and adherence to precision…surely the techniques are standardized across the restaurants.

So, I presented my Alinea iteration to Micah and Ingi, and was surprised to find that I’d again gotten it wrong. “We don’t heat the water in a pot,” Ingi informed me. “Doing this introduces the potential for evaporation, which throws off the 50/50 ratio we need.” Simple syrup comprises a much larger relative portion of any given drink than it does in a dish at Alinea, making consistency and accuracy of its preparation extremely important. Also, a prep chef here is managing a dozen or so tasks at once, so finding ways to remove the potential for errors (e.g. leaving a pot to boil a bit too long) becomes a significant factor in recipe structure.

This also exemplifies the issue of voice we touched on in a previous update. Are we interested in re-examining every little technique and trying to improve upon it as much as possible for the home chef? Doing this involves another octave of detail and consideration in translating these recipes, and also inaccurately portrays the methods and personality of the kitchen here. Our current thinking is that we do not wish to threaten the latter, so we’re deciding to remain as faithful to the Aviary techniques as possible. Besides, the measures of efficiency in our Aviary kitchens assuredly differ from that of a home kitchen (or any other kitchen, for that matter) and are unique to our setup here.

The spelunking involved in discovering and documenting this information is what a significant portion of my/Sarah’s time is spent doing at the moment. It’s probably easy to imagine we spend hours every day, snapping photos or typing up recipes. But most of our time is actually spent talking to various chefs, teasing out information or stories about everything we can possibly unearth to help build a complete picture of every drink in this book.

This, for example, is the Aviary’s Carrot Cake Ramos Rum Fizz:

It’s a creamy, delicious, rich cocktail that tastes like liquefied carrot cake. When served this drink at the Aviary, a guest may be informed that it took Chef Micah over a year to develop. This factoid suggests quite a bit of time spent problem-solving how to craft this thing, but I lack the experience and perspective to understand what that problem-solving might have looked like. So I asked Ingi if he might be able to tell me the story of this drink.

It started years ago, when Micah was attending Tales of the Cocktail, a prominent annual cocktail industry event held in New Orleans. On this particular year, Micah had the opportunity to taste a rum that reminded him of carrot cake. Inspired by this, Micah thought to try riffing on one of New Orleans’ most popular classic cocktails — the Ramos Gin Fizz — to develop a drink with similar characteristics that highlighted the carrot cake flavor he’d found so interesting.

A Ramos Gin Fizz, Ingi explained, is made with gin, lemon and lime juice, cream, simple syrup, egg white, orange blossom water, and soda water. The drink features a creamy, frothy head that — if made properly — is stable enough to rise up out of the top of the glass as the soda water is added.

Micah started by replacing the gin in the Ramos with the rum that had originally inspired him (one of you is going to ask, so I might as well tell you it’s Old New Orleans Cajun Spice Rum). He decided to enhance the carrot cake notes by infusing the rum with cardamom, ginger, mace, allspice, grated carrots, and other baking spices typically used in carrot cake. 

Micah next needed some acid, but lemon and lime juices both have distinctive flavors that could distract from the carrot cake flavor he wanted to highlight. Instead, Ingi explained, Micah mixed carrot juice with citric acid, which allowed him to “buy back” the liquid real estate that would otherwise be consumed by the citrus and push more carrot flavor into the drink.

Similarly, he replaced the real estate occupied by simple syrup in a traditional Ramos Fizz with more carrot juice, in which he steeped a gingerbread-flavored tea to further heighten the baking spice flavors. This heavily-flavored juice is mixed with sugar, replacing the water that would otherwise dilute the cocktail if only simple syrup was used.

The cream in the original Ramos is replaced with thinned cream cheese, which adds a unique lactic acidity that compliments the carrot flavor and provides a recognizable quality of carrot cake. And while the final step in a classic Ramos Fizz is topping the drink with carbonated soda water, Micah chose to replace this with a carbonated soda made from distilling green carrot tops and nuts.

I find this recipe infinitely more interesting understanding the insane development process, the trial and error, the difficult periods where breakthroughs weren’t coming and the concept needed to be shelved and picked back up weeks or months later with fresh perspective, and the sheer tenacity that went into bringing it to life. But accounts like these aren’t documented, and only take shape with significant time spent in the kitchens with the chefs, asking questions, taking notes, and trying to piece everything together. And even once we begin to amass a collection of these stories, we’re then faced with the challenge of fitting it gracefully into the book alongside the recipes in a way that feels, as everything else at the Aviary does, invisibly effortless.

 

Organization

Hi there friends;

If I may offer an update on book progress (we hope, incidentally, to share updates on our progress roughly once a month or so):

As we outlined in our last update, most of our time is being spent now on re-structuring, re-writing, and photographing recipes. This, we noted last time, will take a while (on the order of months); we’ll try to avoid sounding repetitious about it.

Additionally, Sarah and I also spend time discussing various challenges this book presents. One challenge is the question of how we organize these recipes. An obvious mechanism for this is clustering drinks by predominant spirit used: e.g. a bourbon section, a gin section, etc. This, however, poses a few problems. First, that’s how almost every other cocktail book is organized, and we find that uninteresting and unimaginative. Second, it’s often not how people think about what they want to drink, nor is it at all the way our Chefs here think about our cocktails. Finally, almost none of the Aviary recipes lean heavily on the character of a single spirit. The Green Thumb, for example, features rum and gin, but I doubt those of you who’ve tried making it would describe it as either a rum drink  or a gin drink per se.

Rather, Sarah and I ask ourselves what we think when someone asks us what we want to drink or offers us a menu at the Aviary. The first thing we often ask ourselves is “What do I feel like drinking?”, which is more a mood than a particular spirit. A gin drink, for example, can be deep, savory, and spirit-forward (as in the case of a Negroni), or can be presented in a light, refreshing, citrus-based form (as in the case of a Gin & Tonic). It’s not enough to simply say “I’m in the mood for gin”, we posit. So we’ve been exploring ways to cluster the recipes based more on the experience one has drinking them.

We’re not convinced this particular example is the best one, but it’s a thing we’re exploring as we slowly familiarize ourselves with the Aviary recipes. If it’s not obvious by now, a good deal of the effort involved in this stage is simply acclimating ourselves to the vast library of Aviary recipes. We (Sarah and I) are not intimately familiar with every single one; we don’t know every backstory or creative process that led to every drink, so a good deal of our effort is simply trying to snag time with the Chefs to talk with them about all of this. We find ourselves in the peculiar position of being designers, photographers, and impromptu journalists, each of which requires its own skillset that we’re honing as we go.

Another discussion we’ve been having with ourselves, Chef Achatz, and Chef Micah is about exploring ways in which we can present not only finished recipes, but material that exemplifies the creative process here. This could take many forms. We’re debating a section, for example, of Ideas That Have Failed, or Things We Can’t Do But You Can. The latter case is a particularly fascinating one for us to explore: we have many recipes here that are complete, 100% delicious, awesome recipes, but for one reason or another simply can’t be scaled for restaurant production. Sometimes these recipes are presented to people who book the Aviary’s Kitchen Table, sometimes the chefs may simply surprise a guest and send one out to test it, but ultimately many great ideas don’t actually make it onto the menu because of the overhead involved in making the drink for dozens of guests a night. Such recipes would be totally reasonable to offer to someone making these at home, though.

What about food? The Aviary serves food (incredible food!). How does this sit into a book about cocktails without feeling out of place? Does it belong at all? Sarah and I, being fans of the Aviary first and foremost, definitely would like to include it. But such a decision requires lots of conversation with the chefs about which dishes should be included, which nicely express the personality of the bar, etc.

Most of you reading this probably know that hidden within the Aviary space here in Chicago is a small speakeasy we call The Office. While The Office does offer a very, very small menu of drinks that visitors are welcome to order, the real magic of a visit to The Office is what the bartenders here colloquially refer to as “Dealer’s Choice”. Here’s roughly how this goes: a guest is asked what they’d like to drink. Or maybe they’re asked what they like, in abstract terms. Oftentimes a guest THINKS they know what they like (“a gin drink”, e.g.), but isn’t thinking about flavor in an abstract sense. Sometimes the guest is asked to describe a favorite memory, or a favorite dish, or even weirder questions like a favorite scene from a movie or a favorite past relationship. This information is whisked away to the Office bartender, who creates a drink on the spot for the guest based on the information given. The whole experience has an aggressively bespoke, conversational, gossamer quality that Sarah and I both love immensely and find exceedingly difficult to capture in a bottle. How do you present such an experience in a cocktail book? We’d like to figure out how to talk about it elegantly without dissecting it to the point that the magic is lost.

Progress on all of this is currently a bit slower than it might normally be, however, due to our efforts opening a second Aviary location in New York City. This has involved sending a portion of our Chicago team to NY to help train new staff members, develop the space the new bar will occupy, etc. Part of this team includes Sarah and myself, who, in addition to dedicating our time and attention to this book, also manage all media matters for the Alinea Group (which covers photography/videography/illustration/design/web needs across all of our restaurants: Alinea, Next, Aviary, Roister, and now Aviary NYC). This past week, for example, she and I were in New York photographing the new locations, along with some of the food being developed for the menu there.

More news on the state of things again next month.

Until then;

–a

Recipes

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
Build
Glass : Stacking Chemex
Carbonate Batch
Add Three Pond Ice
Add 125g by weight batch into glass over ice
Swipe glass with green curry tincture
O Doyle Rules
Batch
O Doyle
2500g banana/Meyer clarified (Clear Bananas)
1266g journeyman rum
1266g Pierre ferrand 1840
1202g giffard banana
664g simple
1930g water
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)
Strain, bottle.

 

Clear Bananas
1200g roasted banana
260g Meyer lemon oleo
940g Meyer lemon juice
Blend. Pour into cambro
160g water
80g sugar
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:

Demerara Base

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.

Goslings Spheres

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;

–Allen

 

Green Thumbs Up

Hi Friends;

As we enter the last week of this Kickstarter, there’s much for us to feel gratitude for. Many thanks to each of you for the encouragement and support you’ve offered this project so far; we’re deeply grateful!

While the campaign itself still has a bit more time left before it closes, we’ve nevertheless been busying ourselves with starting work in earnest on this book. Chefs Grant Achatz, Micah Melton, Ingi Sigurdsson and myself have been sifting through the Aviary’s extensive recipe catalog to begin selecting which ones we’d like to include. As we green-light various recipes, we begin work transcribing each recipe and verifying it for correctness (a process I’ll be detailing more thoroughly in an upcoming post). Principal photography is also underway (and again, I’ll be elaborating on this in detail a bit further down the road).

Ingi chooses glassware from the Alinea Group’s serviceware library
Micah and Ingi discussing layer densities for the Layered Hurricane recipe in our studio kitchen
Some glassware selections: on the right are “on deck” choices, to the left is our “graveyard”…no piece will be used twice for our book

You can download a fullsize digital copy of this recipe for yourself here.

Caroline and Ingi help set up our wheatgrass stage for the Green Thumb

Until next time;

–Allen