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