People have been eating snow since the fourth century BC, but nowadays the behaviour is discouraged by parents the world over. People make ice creams, sorbets, gelatos, etc. every day. We wanted to make snow. In the kitchen. It's hard.
Among the reasons a dinner at Alinea resonates on an emotional level with so many people is that Chef Achatz consciously tries to remind guests of their childhood. Nostalgia is a powerful emotion that gets a bad rap.
One of the most successful and beautiful dishes served at Alinea involved taking a twig of oak leaves that had turned red and orange in autumn, using the branch as a skewer for food, then lighting the leaves on fire just before bringing them to the dining room. Guests would smell burning oak leaves and—if they grew up in the northern US basically anytime before the 1990s—it would transport them back to an earlier time in their lives and evoke the feeling of autumn: cool crisp air, back-to-school, raking leaves and jumping in them. This didn't just work once or twice—nearly every night people were overcome with emotion when this was brought to their table.
When it comes to the winter menu, hearty foods are obvious choices in the cold Chicago weather. And holiday references such as pine boughs, cinnamon aroma and goose are emotional triggers. But there is one more basic than all of those: snow.
What kid has not reached down, picked up a handful of (hopefully) fresh snow and eaten it? Or looked up to the sky, squinting their eyes, and tried to catch snowflakes as they fall down? The question was, how do you make the stuff—preferably lemon flavoured—in the kitchen?
When we were building Alinea we wanted to buy a cost effective thermal circulator to precisely control the temperature of sous vide baths. I found one on eBay, noticed that the company, PolyScience, was nearby in Skokie, Illinois, and gave them a call. I explained that we would be using the circulator for culinary purposes, and was handed over to the CEO…who happened to be a fan of Grant's work at Trio and a die-hard foodie.
Thirty minutes later we were at PolyScience and Grant and Philip were talking about making a griddle that would freeze, not heat. From that first meeting, the Anti-Griddle was born, and a food-technology collaboration started.
When the snow idea came up, Grant approached Philip and asked him how they could make it in the Alinea kitchen. Shaving ice, even with a temperature-controlled precision blender like the PacoJet, did not produce snowflakes—it produced finely shaved ice. Grant wanted real snow that was puffy, crystalline and looked like the real thing. This is the kind of problem that Philip likes, so he said he would work on it.
About a week later he called us up. We headed over to his house—or more precisely his garage. It is not a typical garage—it is filled with hand-restored antique motorcycles and cars and tools of uncertain use and origin. There's a second-floor studio for good measure.
There in the studio, Philip had a tank of liquid CO2, a 1.2-metre tall clear plastic tube, an air brush and compressor and a small vat of lemonade. The airbrush was mounted at the top pointing downward, the CO2 was piped in a few inches below that and a collection point sat at the bottom. Philip flipped on the CO2, turned on the compressor and started up the airbrush. Sure enough, a vortex of freezing lemonade ensued, a little tornado of freezing crystals. He shut down the rig and at the bottom there was, in fact, lemonade snow…of a sort.
As any skier knows, snow machines do not produce quite the same texture as the real thing. In order to produce the crystalline structure of snow, you need 3000 metres—all of that falling time and the right mix of moisture and temperature. Philip had bought a book properly entitled Snow and explained the science of the problem to us. He got it, but despite his best effort, this initial foray into tabletop snow making yielded few actual snow flakes, and far more icy crystals that looked like hail.
Despite working for the next several months on variations of the rig, Philip never quite got a great powder snow. The best results were very good, but yielded enough snow for only one or two servings per night. Alas, our tabletop snow machine sits idle in Philip's garage, used perhaps for a dinner party or two. I can certainly imagine Philip after a few too many glasses of wine saying, "I'm headed out to the garage to make snow for dessert…"
Top image: Philip Preston with his table-top snow making machine, and a picture of himself skiing in Jackson Hole, for inspiration
Nick Kokonas co-founded Alinea with Grant Achatz in 2005, and works with the chef on Alinea-related projects, recruiting innovators to challenge and improve every aspect of the cooking and eating experience. A finance guy and web-oriented angel investor by trade, Kokonas got his start back in his teen years writing business software on an Apple II. You can grab the gorgeous Alinea cookbook here, or just visit Alinea's home page.
Taste Test is our week-long tribute to the leaps that occur when technology meets cuisine, spanning everything from the historic breakthroughs that made food tastier and safer to the Earl Grey-friendly replicators we impatiently await in the future.