If you've never thought of making pork belly look like Styrofoam or turning Brussels sprouts into paper, you're not alone.
But the chefs who put together the experimental food at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry's Science in the Kitchen Gala over the weekend clearly relished the chance.
More than two years in the making, a handful of our city's top chefs joined their out-of-towner contemporaries to orchestrate the nearly flawless evening of playful, hyper-creative flavors and texture combinations for more than 750 guests.
First there were drinks, mixed by Mint's Lucy Brennan. Twisting bar standards into a new shape, Brennan topped her Lemongrass Cosmopolitan with a sticky and delicious coconut foam, and served it in a thin glass beaker. Her dirty martini had a caramelized olive juice lollipop in it—just gooey enough for some good lip smackin'.
Other ideas were ingenious and funny; Gabriel Rucker's Creamsicle appetizer deconstructed and re-invented a familiar casual favorite. A crowd favorite, a neon orange square of mandarin orange gel was topped with rich creamy foie gras and a sprinkle of flaky black sea salt. Salty, tangy, creamy and sweet, this tiny treat was a way to see how Rucker's culinary brain works.
While tasting drinks and appetizers, guests were treated to scientific cooking activities and demonstrations from the New York chefs.
Dinner might have pushed creativity a little too far for the sake of eating alone, but all six courses yielded a testament to each chef's abilities. Who else but Carafe's Pascal Sauton would think to combine an earthy duck consommé with floral jasmine tea, punctuate it with tiny pearls of foie gras and serve it cold in a plastic lidded cup? Pierced with a day-glow pink straw, it's ‘bubble tea'! Though probably not the tastiest dish of the night, it was by far the most inventive, giving us an insight to Sauton's sense of humor and capable hand with the ingredients.
Noteworthy too, was the camaraderie and ego-free environment in which the 2,000 plates that made up the six-course meal were composed and delivered to their final destination. Seven 25-foot-long rows of tables stretched to fill the open space that is usually OMSI's casual café. What seemed like an endless army of crisp-dressed students from Western Culinary and Oregon Culinary Institutes gathered instantly at a nod from one of the chefs in charge. In mere moments, a flurry of hands put together separate ingredients, assembly line style, executing course after course with military precision.
The only time voices were even slightly raised or tension could be felt in the air was with the finishing of the final savory course, Vitaly Paley and John Gorham's Suckling Pig Sous-vide. Each of the 400 servings, a thin six-inch medallion of tender meat stuffed with truffles and sausage, had to be seared at OMSI's lunch counter flat-top grill, a hopelessly small piece of equipment for such a Herculean task.
The results were brilliant, nonetheless. Matched with a lacy, buttery thin crunchy cookie studded with bacon and truffles, each final plate was topped with more of the fragrant mushroom, generously shaved by Gorham.
Roux owner Dwayne Beliakoff planned and organized many of the night's details, including recruiting 40 of "the city's premier waiters," so that each table could have their own. Plate and Pitchfork founder Emily Berreth led the cadre of black clad servers.
Beliakoff was proud to see the fruit of his hard work.
"It is neat to see people explore food this way," Beliakoff said. "This punctuates what I already believe about Portland – which is that we are a food town and that's here to stay."
One last thought: Now that it's over, we've heard grumblings from Portland chefs about the unpleasant presence of Homaru Cantu at the event. An acclaimed television Iron Chef, Cantu did not participate in the dinner itself. Instead, he ended the night with a talk about scientific cooking at his own Moto restaurant in Chicago.