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

Why We Are Self Publishing the Aviary Book — An Article on Medium

Nick here…

For about 10 years I’ve wanted to do this project… and it’s been a hard follow up to get everything in order after what we learned doing the Alinea book.

I started writing out the economics of publishing a cookbook and including it right here on the Kickstarter — but then things got detailed and complicated.  So I spent the proper time writing it up as a Medium post.  Click there <— to read it.

I hope you’ll understand why we’re doing this Kickstarter and how your funds will contribute to a totally independent publishing project that strives to deliver more than a typical cookbook.

Thanks for your pledges!  We’re already hard at work!

— Nick

Clinebell machines are insane.

I mean, look at this crazy thing! The Aviary Ice Chefs use an engine hoist to lift frozen blocks from the beds of our Clinebell machine, then saw it down with a Japanese ice saw (they used to use chainsaws, but these were noisy and made a pretty big mess in the relatively enclosed environment of the Next/Aviary prep kitchen) before hand-chipping the ice down to its final size.



Clinebell machines are typically used to make large blocks of ice that are used for ice sculpture. Their charm is that they continually stir water as it freezes, which keeps impurities in motion as the ice solidifies, allowing it freeze perfectly clear. When guests visit the Aviary, everyone is served a glass of water with a large, hand-chipped shard in it. The bit of the ice shard that’s submerged in the water appears totally invisible, which still seems like a magic trick to me each time I see it.

The water itself, incidentally, is chilled to a temperature just above the dew point here in Chicago, which prevents condensation on the glass, so guests can see the ice (or apparent invisibility of it) more clearly.

 

It begins with gratitude

Hi there friends;

This is Allen writing; it’s lovely to meet you all. It will be my honor to be the primary host of this Kickstarter update process for the duration of our Aviary Book project. We have lots of work ahead of us, but we’d like to take a moment to extend a very warm thanks to you for your support and enthusiasm for our project. We hope to make it a great experience for you.

Thank you, from all of us here.