Want a little technology with your cocktail? If so, be sure to stop by the bar at L'Ecole, the restaurant of the French Culinary Institute, where techno-genius Dave Arnold works side by side with beverage-master Alexis Kahn to create cocktails on the cutting edge.
Laren Spirer: L'Ecole is the restaurant of the FCI, run by students in the Career Culinary program. As such, does your approach to creating the cocktail list differ in any way from a traditional restaurant?
Alexis: The front of the house is run by professionals so the students are just in the back. So in a lot of ways we set up the cocktail program just like any other restaurant. I think what's different is that we have access to a lot of people like Dave and to students who are very interested in cocktails so there's a lot more brainstorming and fresh ideas being circulated than in a regular restaurant setting. We're trying to have a balanced list with seasonal ingredients with cocktails that'll be interesting to people, but there's a little more innovation and creativity. We also change our list more than a lot of other restaurants - every couple of weeks, when we come up with something new.
Dave -- you run the Culinary Technology department and co-author the Cooking Issues blog with Nils Noren. Do you utilize any of the high-tech techniques you write about as part of the cocktail program?
Dave: On technology side, it's hard for us to put things on the menu. We try to find things we can do in the cocktail program to use things we've come up with upstairs in the lab.
A: So we try to make a cocktail menu that showcases the technology that the food menu isn't necessarily able to do.
D: We've just started, and we have maybe three collaborations so far.
Tell us about some of those.
D: There's the Cold Buttered Rum. One of the techniques we teach is the ability to emulsify oil, fat, anything, into a simple syrup, so that when you mix it into a drink, it stays emulsified. It doesn't taste heavy, just kind of creamy and buttery. It was originally formulated as hot buttered rum, but when the warm weather came around we thought that maybe we could do this with a cold drink. What's cool about it, is that when we're doing it, we're trying not to interfere too much with the regular work flow of the cocktail staff. This just sits at the bar and acts like a simple syrup, so that to me is an ideal thing.
A: This drink is great because its easy for him to make and its easy for us to store and to serve. It holds well, it serves beautifully, and we don't need to track him down every time we need more.
Which came first, the concept for the drink or the ingredient?
D: I had the product, I came down and said, let's play with this, it's pretty easy to make, what do you think? So whenever Nils and I have an idea that we think will work in the restaurant we come down and talk to Alexis and see if she likes it.
A: They'll usually bring a mixture and then we'll play around with some different types of spirits and then different brands of spirits and then go through and actually make some drinks and try them all together.
D: See if they fit into the bar program.
A: Test the logistics of making the drink.
D: The toughest one was the Red Hot Poker, where we built this red hot poker. I brought it down, and it was waaaay outside the realm of what bartenders are expected to have to do but they worked it into the program because it was a really cool drink. That was the hardest one, especially because the unit was a prototype and I had to keep it running like it was a finished piece of equipment for service. That was challenging. Next year, it won't break down as much.
A: It'll be the one good thing about cold weather coming back.
D: Another one we did was where Alexis wanted an ingredient to be made, so we made it. She knows what we can do, and she came to us and said, "I want strawberry cachaca, can you make it very fresh tasting with the vacuum?" And I said, "Yes, I can."
A: A lot of bars are doing infusions - you hear about that all the time. We have essentially a better way to do it that makes a tastier and better looking product.
D: Fresher, superfresh. The trick is at this point is ensuring that when we want to do something that it works into the normal workflow of what's going on here. If there's any kitchen craft, it's going to have to go through the kitchen. I think it's good, because anything we come up with here is workable in the normal, real world. We do many things that aren't workable upstairs.
A: It breaks down the stereotype that innovative cocktails aren't able to be produced in a real bar setting. We've got a very small bar here.
D: And sometimes your limitations force you to come up with some very cool things. The other time we get to use a lot of the tech is at special events.
A: That's actually where we get to test a lot of these things to see how it works on a larger scale.
D: We do some crazy things that we can't put on a normal menu because then I can gear towards production of those special events. That's when I can come and take the oak out of a bourbon and add an extremely rare apple that we've clarified. That's when I really get to go nuts because I don't have to worry about whether or not it can be fabricated regularly or ensure supplies. We have to make 200 drinks for this event - give me something cool. That's when we'll get together and ask, "what's on the menu and who are these people?" We'll tailor it to the event and we can then do some very cool things that wouldn't otherwise be possible and really showcase the technology that's nowhere else. That's where we get to break out the roto-vap and things like that. We made a carbonated gin and juice that was delicious. When you clarify grapefruit juice, it takes away some of the bitterness, and then when you carbonate it and mix it with gin it adds the sense of bitterness back, but it's not a harsh bitterness. It also maintains the bubbles because it's clear. It looks like champagne.
A: It's amazing to see this clear liquid emit such strong aromas - the grapefruit and the herbaceousness of the gin.
D: We've also made some other products that could potentially be used in cocktails. We make these nut oils, and Audrey Saunders from Pegu Club thinks they could be used on top of a cocktail. We make this pistachio oil that's amazing - bright green, a pecan oil.
A: Hello, bourbon!
D: Without going through the fat-washing step that they go through at PDT and Tailor. There are other products too. We're not in the dirty martini business, but I can make a kalamata brine from kalamatas. I take the olives and spin them, and it becomes this delicious, intensely flavored brine, flavorless paste, and really cool oil that tastes like cured olives. You only need a little bit.
Are students involved in creating cocktails?
A: They're more involved on Dave's end, experimenting with technology. On my end, it's more the staff having input, not the students.
D: The students are actually fabricating a lot of the stuff. We were doing the strawberry cachaca, and the students would fabricate it. My interns who, as we speak, should be making macadamia nut oil up there. I always encourage them if they have an idea. One of the cool things about having me here as part of the program is that any student if he wants to gets to work with the tech stuff. I get to let them play with stuff they'd never get to play with. There's a bunch of things that we do upstairs cocktail-wise that are never going to make it down to the bar because they're too difficult. I'm trying to come up with a way that people will get comfortable with chilling champagne flutes with liquid nitrogen down here but I don't think it'll work.
A: I already said yes!
D: The bar staff have to be comfortable with everything. In the past week or so, we've come up with a technique to make clarified lime juice using no equipment, in about a half hour. But, that's going to take kitchen prep so unless we're going to have someone at the bar make it, they're not going to chase me down every day to make lime juice. So these are things in the future that we can hopefully streamline.
What is your driving philosophy behind the cocktails you create generally, and the list you created for summer?
A: We want to have something for everybody. A lot of people make their cocktail list based on different styles of spirits, but I think what we're going for is different flavors, and if it happens to work that several of the drinks work the best with gin, we're not going to say there are too many gin drinks on this cocktail list. I feel like so many people put together a list and say, we need a gin drink, we need a whiskey drink, we need a tequila drink, but that's not really how we approach it. It's more about the seasons and the ingredients we can get and trying to bring something really exciting to the list.
How do you find new spirits to work into the menu?
A: It takes a lot of "research." I have a lot of friends in the industry, a lot of eager tasters around. That's another fun collaboration that we have - Nils is very passionate about spirits, Dave is, I am, so when we come across something we like, chances are that over the next few weeks everyone else will try it and if we all like it we'll put it on the menu.
D: If I have something I like I'll bring it just to taste. Alexis has friends who are distillers, and she keeps bringing these new products upstairs for us to taste.Alexis, on your blog, A Thirsty Spirit, you write about spirits, cocktails, wine, beer, even coffee and tea -- is one area your favorite?
A: I tend not to discriminate. I have the most background in wine, so you could say I'm the most passionate about that, but I've been having so much fun learning about and writing about the other things that I'd be hard pressed to pick a favorite. More often than not, I'm writing more about spirits and cocktails because that's the phase I'm in right now.
I also noticed you've been working lately with products from Finger Lakes Distillery. Any on the current or upcoming cocktail menus?
A: We're featuring their gin right now in a Ruby Blossom drink with a little St. Germain and a little vermouth and we also have their Vintner's Vodka in our Fire & Ice cocktail. I've been playing with a few other products of theirs that will probably show up on the list in the next couple of weeks.
Dave, how would a home bartender learn about/experiment with some of the high-tech techniques you write about on your blog?
D: They can come take the class that Nils and I teach on how to make high-tech cocktails at home. They can read our blog. We try to make the blog equal parts food and drink. It looks bad for me only to do drinks - I've got to put some food up there too. We aren't a recipe blog - we're much more of technique/idea-driven blog, but when a technique requires a recipe, we give it. Anyone who reads our blog who can use agar at all, and even if you can't, you can read the blog and go home and clarify lime juice. I've had a few people run into problems and leave a comment on the blog, and I respond to them. I try to help people as much as I can. At FCI, our business is to get people to come here and pay to learn, but it's my feeling, and I think Nils' as well, is that people are paying to come take a class with us - it's our people that make people want to pay, not just the information that we have, so it's advantageous to us to give out information on the blog.
Were either of you bloggers before this?
A: No. But the impetus for me starting the blog was that I took Steven Shaw's food blogging class that we offered for the first time this year. I was very skeptical of the whole thing. I did a couple of posts and was totally hooked.
L'Ecole at the French Culinary Institute
For reservations visit OpenTable or call 212-219-3300.
Get more information about L'Ecole on Savory Cities.
Don't miss these upcoming classes at FCI that focus on spirits/cocktails: Alexis is teaching Food and Wine Pairing on Wednesdays through October 14, and Dave and Nils are teaching a Holiday Cocktails class on December 2.