If you think the terms molecular and gastronomy don't go together, you are not alone. But to a small group of culinary professionals, playing around with the physics of cooking is just an extension of experimenting with the fusion of flavors, except this is fission cooking -- a transmutation of elements. Molecular? Transmutation? It may be too early in the year for this.
A number of restaurants are devoted to this kind of cuisine. You may have seen a whisper of this 21st century cuisine style: Scallop foam, anyone? Heston Blumenthal, owner of the three Michelin-starred The Fat Duck in Britain, Ferran Adrià Acosta, chef at El Bulli in Spain, and American Wylie Dufresne in New York are only a few of the chefs who have taken on this playful gastronomy. By bringing science into the kitchen and breaking down components and cooking methods into understandable units, recombined dishes can be created. This is not boiling beakers and wild-haired mad scientists; it's more like, well, clean-shaven Charlotte Chef William Schutz.
Schutz is one of those culinary professionals enamored with molecular gastronomy. He is the executive chef of the University Events Center at Johnson & Wales University. (The University Events Center at J&W is not part of the culinary program and is an independently staffed operation of the university.)
The Events kitchen unfolds inside innocuous double doors off to the right of the main entrance to the university. Schutz's office, with its door perpetually open, is just inside. On one shelf in his office is a container of house-made powdered olive oil. That's right, powdered. "If you sprinkle it on top of a salad," Schutz says, "It will reconstitute in your mouth for that same flavor." On the opposite wall is a framed menu from renowned Manhattan chef David Bouley's Bouley Bakery where Schutz was the chef de cuisine. At Johnson & Wales, Schutz blends both facets of his culinary life: the inventive with the artistic.
Schutz rushes into his kitchen for the interview with a student in tow and arms full. That night his staff would be catering off site. Schutz, who caters about 70 events annually, has days, even weekends off, which is a welcomed change from the rigorous schedule of a chef de cuisine in a highly rated Manhattan restaurant, and a restaurateur, which he was been as well.
"I love this job," he reports. "The hours are better: The conditions are better." Schutz's schedule allows him the luxury few chefs in Charlotte have: the ability to eat out and see what is here. He is surprised by the popularity of chains in Charlotte; after all, the independents are the place to be in Manhattan. He also readily admits to his penchant for Capital Grille and Penguin burgers.
Schutz says for most of their catering events, he crafts the menu and this is where he can play with molecular gastronomy. He tells of taking vegetables and fruits down to their basic structures and flavors, then reinventing them into small balls the shape of caviar or paper thin flakes. "Imagine a taste of lemon -- or cucumber -- in that shape and how you could use it," he says enthusiastically. Then he talks about the "most perfect" poached egg. "It takes 35 minutes in the circulation pump, but the white and yellow are cooked precisely the same." Not that many of us have the 35 minutes for the perfect egg, but then not many chefs know the ins and spins of an autoclave either.
Schutz has used peanut butter powder on a spoon to accompany a chocolate dessert. In order to make these powders, he has the UEC kitchen equipped with laboratory equipment. A little too Aston Brown? "Well, you can go too far," Schutz concedes. "You know, Homaro Cantu (Moto restaurant) in Chicago displays a Class IV laser, normally used for surgery, in his dining room."
Before his tenure at J&W, Schutz moved to Charlotte in 2004 to be the executive chef at Bentley's on 27th. Once hired, Schutz was surprised to find the menu had been determined by the owner and thus left little room for creative interpretation. This was even more surprising given his pedigree from the kitchens of Bouley Bakery, TriBeCa Grille, La Caravelle, and his own restaurant, Midway, which was just starting to hit its stride in the West Village when 9-11 happened. "David (Bouley) and I were coming back from catering a wedding in Nice that day. After the attack, Giuliani quarantined the area where my restaurant was -- so we were shut down for a while. When we reopened we could never regain the momentum."
In the UEC kitchen he strives for "great flavors, eye appeal, texture, and crunch. A good balance." Schutz' kitchen is typically quiet unlike the frenetic energy of some kitchens. There's no rock music blaring and salty epithets bantered. His staff is respectful and inquisitive.
His reputation among J&W student workers is stellar as one told me, "He'll teach you anything you want to know." In contrast, as a protégé of David Bouley, Schutz commonly saw culinary students banished to routines of cutting bread or other mundane tasks during their tenure instead of working the line. Schulz says Bouley was not "willing to share with just anyone." But Schutz is generous with his employees, most of whom are upperclassmen and have finished with their culinary program at J&W. "I won't volunteer the info, but if someone asks questions, really wants to learn, and shows the initiative, I'll give them more then they asked for." This is also what UEC diners experience when Schutz serves salads dusted with foie gras powder or presents tiny lemon "caviar" bites.
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