Project Runway ends with a parade down the catwalk. American Idol lets you witness every performer’s triumphs—and failures. But Top Chef can never end with a taste test. Surely, many viewers wonder: do these dishes taste as good as they look?
Hedging their bets on a “yes”, Bravo and the Culinary Institute of America have begun a series of cooking demos from former Top Chef contenders. So, at the CIA’s Manhattan outpost, I spent an evening with The Foam God: Season 2 runner-up Marcel Vigneron and his Asian-inspired, highly technical, and inevitably espuma-topped creations.
Marcel was known as a would-be Wylie Dufresne, given to cutting-edge technique and terms like “spherification” and “sodium alginate.” Fun for the average viewer to watch, but impossible, perhaps, to replicate. I wondered about their choice of instructors. As a competent but strictly amateur cook, I can tell a foam from a gelée—but without a siphon or a stash of agar agar, can’t make either. Would there be anything a down-the-ladder chef could take away?
Luckily, Marcel proved a personable teacher—as flashy as ever, but behind the bells and whistles, a real professional with advice to impart. How to balance acidity and sweetness? “Add sugar until it tastes right. Always trust your palate.” How to set a gelatin? “Don’t add anything that leaches water.” How to use red onion in a salad? “A cold water bath will get rid of that bitterness.” His xanthan gum ratios meant less to me that the sound culinary wisdom that emerged.
And the food? Delicious. His first course encased fleshy uni in a lemon-vanilla gelée, topped with a silky fennel cream that tamed the salty-sweet suspension underneath. In a stylized tomato-and-melon dish, Marcel created an agar-based cantaloupe gelatin under Dungeness crab and a gazpacho espuma (Spanish for foam, of course). The night’s highlight was a Thai-inspired Kaffir-lime-dressed salad with raw Kona kampachi and—in a nod to El Bulli—a fluffy peanut vauquelin, pulled right from the microwave.
I may not be attempting his last cocktail anytime soon. (A dirty martini with a “twist”—the reverse spherification of olive juice—seems a little beyond me.) But putting egg-whipped peanut butter in the microwave? That, I can do.