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Les Petits Chefs go molecular with Chef John Placko

See that up there ^^^ ? It’s melon caviar, yoghurt sheets, carbonated strawberries, cranberry snow and chocolate micro sponge -  made by a bunch of 10-13 year old boys.  Awesome stuff, huh?

Yes, this week Les Petits Chefs really got to see the marriage of science and cooking (perfect since we work out of the science lab!) thanks to the generosity of Chef John Placko of the Modern Culinary Academy. Yes, the man who has dined at El Bulli in Spain and Noma in Denmark graced us with his presence for a fleeting (but action packed hour) this week and I can safely say we all left the labs thinking that science is way more fun than we thought!

Chef John has worked in Canada for the past 17 years with various organizations including Cara Operations Ltd, Prime Restaurants Inc, Campbell Company of Canada and recently completed 3 years as Director of Culinary Excellence at Maple Leaf Foods’ ThinkFOOD! centre.  He has worked in Australia and Mexico in hotels, airline and contract catering as well as restaurants. He has competed in culinary competitions in Australia, Germany, Canada and France (in the prestigious Bocuse d’Or competition).  Over the past 6 years he has been invited to present, demonstrate and teach modern cuisine to various culinary groups including GFTC, Humber College, George Brown College, The Cookbook Store and Nella Cucina (To promote Nathan Myhrvold’s mega set of books Modernist Cuisine).  His articles on molecular gastronomy, restaurants and other topics can be found in Food and Hospitality Magazine and Food in Canada Magazine. He runs John Placko Culinary Consulting and recently launched Modern Culinary Academy to promote the awareness and education of  molecular gastronomy. Whew! What a resumé – we are so lucky to have welcomed him into our humble labs!

Chef John came with an ambitious list of four recipes we would tackle in small groups, changing every 12 minutes or so (he’s so precise, you can tell he’s a Chef!) so that each group would work with each recipe. Organised chaos? Maybe. Fun? SO. MUCH.

(apologies for the photos this week – it’s hard to take decent pics when there’s so much movement and excitement and I’m trying to man a station at the same time!)

I was put on the “Yoghurt Sheet” station where the boys and I worked with Iota carrageenan and Kappa carrageenan (both of which work to form an elastic gel when mixed with dairy proteins) to transform yoghurt into thin sheets that you can roll up around various fillings. Magic!

Meanwhile, over on the “Cranberry Foam” station, the boys worked with Ms Stephenson using cranberry juice, Versawhip and Xanthan gum to create a stable foam tasting just like cranberry sauce, only without the lumps! So pretty! This foam also stays stable for several hours and can even be caramelized with a blow torch! Super cool.

Chef John manned the “Chocolate Micro Sponge” station whereby the boys made chocolate cake batter, poured it into those whipped cream dispensers you see at Starbucks (charged with Nitrous Oxide – N2O), then dispensed it into paper cups with slits down the side to allow some air circulation. Then they popped them in the microwave and zapped them for 45 seconds and watched as the magic happened…

I know it’s blurry but I LOVE the joy in the “shaking the canister” photograph!

Meanwhile, on the “Melon Caviar” station, Ms Carter supervised what Chef John had demonstrated right at the start of the session.  Melon juice and sodium alginate are mixed together in a blender to form the “gummy” base for the “caviar”. The liquid is then dripped, one drop at a time into a mixture of water and calcium chloride – the setting bath – where it forms little pearls or the “caviar”.

Can you say “fun”?

And the results? Well Chef John had us plate all the ingredients (you can see above) and they came together to produce a remarkably cohesive plate.  The boys seemed to love it, for the most part (“We’re eating chemicals, you know!”) and headed out with an odd assortment of food in their tupperwares, thrilled and proud of what they had achieved over the course of a short hour.

Who said that cooking with kids can’t be sophisticated? Chef John shares my view that if you raise the bar high, kids will come up to meet it.  I am SO proud of the guys. As always you know, but some weeks more than others they totally make me want to tell everyone how great they are :)  Thank you Chef John for sharing your knowledge in a patient, organized and fun way – it’s definitely an afternoon we will all remember!

For Petits Chefs parents (and anyone else interested) reading this, you can read about where to purchase those not-so-usual ingredients over on John’s site Powder for Texture.

Enter to win a copy of The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook here, courtesy of Random House. Open to anyone, anywhere in the world! Contest closes Monday November 26th at 6pm EST.

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16 Responses to Les Petits Chefs go molecular with Chef John Placko

  1. ana cooks November 21, 2012 at 05:34 #

    melon caviar…that is so fancy :)
    molecular food amaze me so much!

  2. Jill @ MadAboutMacarons November 21, 2012 at 08:04 #

    These children are SO lucky! Looks just as much fun for the adults. Wish I could have been there… *sigh*. Amazing photos, Mardi.

  3. Paula November 21, 2012 at 14:04 #

    What an awesome opportunity for the boys! Science was never my strong suit, perhaps if we had classes that involved molecular cuisine I may have enjoyed the subject much more :)

  4. Geoff November 21, 2012 at 15:44 #

    Hey, fantastic hour at school, no? This leaves my boarding school fare so far behind that last century doesn’t describe it. Wonderfully generous of Chef John to coach a new wave of Junior Masterchefs.

  5. Marina@Picnic at Marina November 21, 2012 at 23:40 #

    That is so cool, except that part, yes, we are eating chemicals… Sigh…

    • Mardi (eat. live. travel. write.) November 22, 2012 at 06:38 #

      Why the “sigh”? That’s little boys joyfully and exuberantly showing their excitement at the session! And, well, they were chemicals of sorts…

  6. Stephanie November 22, 2012 at 21:33 #

    Wow that is so awesome! I would have loved to make that food. Definitely not home cooking but it looks like a really interesting afternoon

  7. Ann Mah November 25, 2012 at 10:38 #

    I love this post, Mardi! And I feel like it’s demystified so much about molecular gastronomy — I’ve always wondered just HOW unusual “caviars” were made. Fascinating stuff — and the micro-sponge is super cool.

  8. cat January 2, 2013 at 00:35 #

    so much fun!!! my girlfriend jill – you had lunch with her when you were last here – was telling me about her daughter is taking an after school 6th grade cooking class and how disappointed she is with it as the things they’re making are along the lines of “dirt pudding cups” and english muffin pizzas. seriously. this would totally blow their minds. :)

    • Mardi Michels January 26, 2013 at 07:49 #

      Yeah it’s one of the reasons “”kids’ cookbooks” infuriate me a lot of the time. Noone gives kids the credit that they can pull off more complicated dishes…

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