food for THOUGHT
YOU CONSUME WITH YOUR EYES AND MIND AS WELL AS YOUR STOMACH AT THIS TABLE
BOSTON, NEW YORK CITY & SAN FRANCISCO
IF THEORY KITCHEN WERE AN ARTIST, IT WOULD BE : MARINA ABRAMOVIC
The initial theory behind Theory Kitchen was that we are unconnected to the food we eat on a daily basis. But it doesn’t have to be that way. What started as a college thesis project for Chef Theo Friedman has evolved into something far loftier: to get people talking, thinking about and savoring their food instead of simply eating it.
OUR EXPERIENCE AT
“What would I like to eat for dinner tonight?” This is the question many of us ask ourselves as we meander down the grocery aisles or peruse a restaurant menu. Far fewer of us ask “what would the farmer who grew this food like me to eat for dinner tonight?” If that seems like a silly question, allow Theo Friedman to share some thoughts. “We’ve really lost touch with this basic thing of: where does our food come from. Who does it come from?” Friedman explained over coffee a few days before I attended a dinner at his supper club, Theory Kitchen. “My goal is that when people come to our dinner they start talking about that, and that leads to other conversations.”
Although Theory started in Friedman’s dorm room at Tufts, it’s grown into something far more than an academic exercise. “Experiential dining”, as Friedman refers to it, means that the food starts the discussion and provokes emotion and thought, rather than serving as a background for a date or a night out with friends. The kind of food that Friedman prepares lends itself to this level of consideration. On the night I arrived at Theory, I was greeted with a fizzy homemade earl grey and lavender beverage (not yet available in SodaStream syrup packs, in case you were wondering) that would turn out to be about the most straightforward recipe of the evening.
This includes the cocktail and wine pairing which some guests (the smart ones) opted into. John, the properly pierced and tattooed bartender behind an impressively appointed setup, was measuring, pouring and mixing as the guests arrived. He set down an elegant little pink cocktail made with gin and rhubarb to align with our first course, a dish of English peas, citrus and avocado with charred pea shell broth that was a springy and supple welcome. The charring of the pea shells (they also infused an olive oil used in the dish) had the benefit of upping the flavor ante of that delicate vegetable so it wasn’t overwhelmed by the grapefruit and kumquat.
This was followed by two dishes that were virtually guaranteed to foster conversation around the table. The first was what appeared to be a large slab of mint chocolate chip ice cream. “Are we already on dessert?” the woman next to me wondered aloud. The gentleman on the other side, however, had already given away the surprise…sort of. “Ooh, this is the salmon dish!” he exclaimed, a veteran of several previous NYC Theory Kitchen dinners. (Friedman and team also host them in Boston, San Francisco and beyond). Being told that it was salmon and understanding how salmon can resemble mint chocolate chip ice cream, however, are two different things. Friedman had taken hunks of sushi-grade salmon and coated them completely with a ramp puree and an oyster emulsion (creating the misleading pale green and chocolate hues). The end result was surprisingly rich for what was essentially the world’s largest piece of sashimi; it was a beautifully marbled piece of fish and the ramp-and-oyster concoction was earthy, silky and liberally applied.
“Sooo, this next dish is uni,” Friedman began mischievously as delicate wooden bowls were placed in front of all the diners, “but done with pizza flavors. It sounds crazy, but I think it kinda works.” It did sound crazy – but it looked beautiful, delicate tongues of uni nestled amongst dehyrdated tomatoes, torn basil and a mozzarella foam. When you considered it, the intense brininess of uni has a counterpart in that actual (though much maligned) pizza topping of anchovies. It was an exceptionally balanced dish in each bite. The “regular” next to me was awestruck. “I mean who would have thought of this? But he’s right, it works!”
The menu skewed ever so slightly more traditional after those two cheeky turns, and involved a continued emphasis on Asian influences. A roasted carrot soup made use of some unusual grains and was satisfyingly paired with a 2012 Alondra Chardonnay. There was an offal course, in which sweetbreads glazed with maple and sherry were given a savory boost with the addition of Chinese five-spice.
A soy cured egg yolk oozed sumptuously over a thicket of kale and sesame roasted shiitakes; John supplied a toasty, almost malty sake to wash that down.
And next a luscious Cabernet Franc with strawberry and rhubarb notes to accompany a juicy duck breast funked up with black garlic quinoa and a sauce involving buckwheat and rice wine vinegar.
The palate cleanser was surely the most involved course of that kind I’ve ever had. John produced a little stunner of a cocktail, vibrantly green and garnished with an electric pink slice of dragonfruit. It had nearly the consistency of a smoothie and ingredients ranging from dandelion juice to aloe vera. “It tastes like candy and smells like L’Oreal for Kids,” observed my tablemate, accurately. Friedman’s dish was equally botanical, involving ginger, lemongrass and fermented black bean to accompany curlicues of melon arranged on the plate.
Dessert was a malted sunchoke and buckwheat “sundae”, undoubtedly the most extreme example ever of turning unsexy ingredients into a dreamy final product.
I’m not sure how much the guests were inclined to reflect on and discuss where the ingredients of their meal that evening had come from, but the food itself certainly generated plenty of conversation. It was not a meal you ate mindlessly, or wordlessly. It was food (and drink) that commanded your attention, and, indeed, sparked conversation. Before every Theory Kitchen dinner, Friedman pauses for what you might call a blessing of sorts, wherein he urges the guests “to take a moment to acknowledge where this food came from.” Not in a metaphysical or religious sense, but literally – how it arrived on the table. There were no geeked-out discussions of specific farms or fisheries after that, but perhaps Friedman isn’t interested in proselytizing. He certainly is interested in using unusual and boundary-pushing ingredients to make his guests rethink pizza and sundaes. And, for that matter, mint chocolate chip ice cream.
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