Beginning this update with “I hope this finds you healthy and safe” feels somehow – I dunno – boilerplate-y to write, but I truly do hope it nevertheless.
The TL;DR version of this note is that Sarah and I have finished work on two new book projects; Zero and The Aviary: Summer Cocktails. If you’d like to learn more about the making of these books, read on.
Sitting here in my apartment, trying to write while my kid runs in circles behind my desk telling me about all her new superpowers she’s discovered she has (“Meatball powers. Um, I have two meatball powers: I can turn anyone or anything into a meatball, or I can shoot an endless stream of meatballs from my hands. If you’re a nice person, I can turn you into a delicious meatball, but if you’re evil, I can turn you into a stinky meatball…” We’ve been reading a lot of chapter books about superheroes lately), a word that comes to mind is “constraint”.
We’re all engaged in a world-wide experiment in constraint at the moment. I’ve long been infatuated with this idea – specifically, the challenge it presents. Things are easy when access to resources is easy, but in my experience, there’s a lot of creativity and growth to be found when you can’t do something easily. I watch in rapt fascination as we collectively navigate this global crisis, admiring the newfound creativity it is breeding.
When Sarah and I were working to create The Aviary Cocktail Book, we had the opportunity to learn a great many things from the chefs with whom we found ourselves working. On a near-daily basis, we found ourselves immersed in topics like how to pair cocktails with food, how to think about ice as a way to add flavor rather than diluting it, or how to leverage time as a virtual ingredient to change a cocktail’s flavors as it’s consumed. But one of the most fascinating corners of the beverage world (about which I knew nothing before working here) was the art of crafting non-alcoholic beverages.
This fascination caught me by surprise, and I’ve spent no small amount of time asking myself why I find it so interesting. The answer came to me one day when I was chatting with one of the chefs at Next. Of the many menus he had worked on during his tenure, I asked, which was his favorite?
“The Vegan one,” the chef responded without hesitation.
“Really? Why?” I asked.
“Because of the constraint,” he responded. “Making meat taste good is easy. But if a guest comes in and loves steak, and we can feed him a meal that he finds just as satisfying as a meal at a steakhouse, that feels amazing.”
I found this thought beautifully relatable, and also one that helped me understand my own fascination with non-alcoholic drinks: they are an opportunity to embrace constraint to create something amazing.
While the art of designing a non-alcoholic beverage (“n/a’s”, as we call them here) may seem an arcane one, it’s actually something that makes complete sense when considering the larger context of this restaurant group. Alinea and its siblings are a collective hive of ultra-talented chefs. In many ways, n/a beverages are a natural extension to what they already do: these are simply flavors, combined excellently, which happen to be expressed in liquid rather than solid form. As with most everything else our chefs design, these beverages are surprising, complex, and delicious.
Space constraints afforded us limited opportunity to fully explore this corner of The Alinea Group’s kitchen efforts in The Aviary Cocktail Book. But after the dust settled on our production of it, I found myself drawn back to this peculiar area of culinary development. As Sarah and I neared completion of our Holiday booklet, I wondered about making a similarly-sized project about n/a’s.
To pitch the idea, I drew 10 recipes from our recipe library at work. I worked at home to scale them down to a reasonable size, and ‘plated’ and photographed them on my kid’s play table. Sarah and I worked in our free time to put together a physical demonstration – a pitch – that we could show Nick and Chef as a way to persuade them to let us make a non-alcoholic magazine.
Our proposal was this: 25-30 recipes, around 90 pages or so, and I would do all of the recipe scaling, testing, etc. myself at home, to avoid impacting the kitchen. I wanted the project to be lean and to use few resources. Also, selfishly, I wanted to explore these recipes myself, and I wanted to see how good of a job I could do with them at home in my own kitchen.
“So, what do you think?” I asked Nick after presenting him with our prototype. “Can Sarah and I make a booklet of this?”
“No.” Nick responded flatly, tossing the prototype on my desk. Then he smiled at me. “You guys should make a whole book of it. This is awesome.”
So, we got to work.
I spent several months poring through the Alinea Group’s massive non-alcoholic recipe library. There are hundreds of recipes, each scaled to multi-gallon restaurant proportions. These needed to be refactored to be doable at home. I also wanted to eliminate the need for any fancy equipment…no centrifuges or rotovaps, nothing more involved than straining or juicing.
I also declined to use any ingredients from any of the restaurants, or to source anything from purveyors through them. I wanted to understand what it felt like to find these ingredients as a home user. When things were too challenging to find easily, I rebuilt recipes with substitutions. My “workspace” in our kitchen started to overflow with these experiments.
(this is the same workspace after Sarah threatened to send Chef Achatz the above photo).
As I worked, I periodically brought batches of drinks in for the chefs to taste. I wanted to make sure I hadn’t damaged their original intent for flavor. When something didn’t taste good, they would offer me ideas for how to fix it, but ultimately left me to cross the finish line with each recipe on my own.
An interesting constraint of n/a’s in the restaurant environment is that at Alinea and Next, there is no bar station, so non-alcoholic drinks needed to be “ready to pour” or “RTP”. This constraint isn’t necessary at home, and in fact for cocktails, it’s the mixing that’s part of the fun. So I broke apart and rebuilt many recipes to be in a cocktail format rather than in a more wine-like RTP format.
Some recipes took dozens of retries before we landed on something we all agreed was delicious. Once each recipe was completed, I borrowed glassware from our serviceware library and brought it home to photograph. Everything in the book was shot on my kid’s cleverly-disguised playtable.
In the middle of the project, some of the chefs suggested the idea of some entirely-new recipes. They liked the idea of formulating a non-alcoholic “backbar” – spirit-free “spirits” that could be used as 1-to-1 substitutions in classic cocktail recipes.
After building these, we tested them in dozens of classic recipes. Our goal was not necessarily to formulate something that tasted identical to its alcoholic counterpart. Rather – as with the Next: Vegan menu – we aimed for something that was equally satisfying (though, having said that, the Negroni we came up with is pretty darn close).
As with the Aviary book, our N/A book ballooned wildly in scale. While we started with 30 recipes and a very brief introduction to non-alcoholic cocktails, we ended up with a 250-page tome containing nearly 120 recipes and a fairly lengthy exploration of the restaurants’ culinary approach to beverage design.
As luck would have it, we had completed all work for this n/a book before the coronavirus crisis set in; our time sheltering at home has mostly been while China’s businesses have been coming back online, so we have been able to step through the proofing and printing process via some strategic mail service trickery. And so, a few weeks ago, we got our first copies from the press.
As if that weren’t enough though (because, I mean, if you’re going to make a book during a global crisis, might as well make two, amirite?), as we have been working on Zero, we have simultaneously been working on a second Aviary cocktail booklet.
This booklet is made in much the same style as that of the Holiday one; it contains over 30 new drinks that have been designed to be even easier to make at home. Sarah would like me to highlight the holographic foil she selected for the title on the cover, which involved no fewer than about a dozen tests before we landed on the exact right range of hues as you tilt the book. It’s very fabulous.
The recipes themselves rely less heavily (which is actually to say: not at all) on fancy technique and more on delicious, summery, flavor combinations. There’s a Roasted Banana Sazerac, a Jamaican BBQ Margarita, and even a Mango Tequila Granita for the Italian ice lovers out there.
Both of these books are available for preorder now. Over the coming weeks, we will be overseeing their transfer into our fulfillment warehouses, and anticipate them to begin shipping by mid-June.
That’s what Sarah and I have been up to. If one or both of these books bring you some comfort or small joy, we will be delighted to have helped. Again, I truly do hope you are well. Please stay safe and healthy, and above all, know that you’re awesome and you’re doing a great job managing this. Hang in there.
I apparently need to prepare myself to be turned into a meatball now.
Until next time;