In previous episodes of Top Shelf, we've introduced you to the sleekest, most spectacular, and most futuristic technology. Electronic gadgets, gizmos, and vehicles that beg to be seen, from high-class cruise ships to electric skateboards. This episode is a little different. It's about a technology that is best appreciated if you never need to consider it exists: food tech.
Expensive machines that resemble tools from a chemistry lab have become increasingly important parts of professional kitchens. Many of these gastronomical oddities make flashy appearances on reality television, helping would-be chefs create goat cheese foams and salmon egg popsicles. But the tech serves the food, not the other way around. When you visit their eatery, they want you noticing the subtle notes of a dish instead of the loud, towering gizmo hidden in the back room.
Technology that is better if you never need to consider it exists
Over the past week, I've had the chance to visit those back rooms, to see the technology that is often meant to be unseen, to play second dill to the cocktails or entrees it produces. Because I understand food about as well as I understand nuclear fission, I partnered with the amazingly talented Kat Odell from our sister-site Eater.
At the glitzy midtown restaurant Betony, chef Bryce Shuman and GM/Cocktail Director Eamon Rockey demonstrated the Sonicprep Ultrasonic Homogenizer by PolyScience. This machine, in the company's words, emits ultrasonic sound waves to extract, infuse, homogenize, emulsify, suspend, de-gas, or even rapidly create barrel-aged flavor. Shuman and Rockey made saffron salt by bombarding a super-saturated saffron broth with sound, then filtering and dehydrating the solution. It's a grand process that culminates with a small salt flake. It has a delicate, but delicious taste.
Dave Arnold, the owner of Booker and Dax in the East Village, showed us one of his many cooking inventions: the Searzall, a blowtorch attachment that spreads the flame, removing the propane taste associated with blowtorches, and allowing for a more controlled heat. The nozzle, which when used looks like a burning hockey puck, is perfect for nailing the finishing touches on slow-cooked meat, or making one of the best egg and cheese sandwiches I've ever tasted.
Tech serves the food, not the other way around
Of course, a breakfast sandwich is nothing without a complimentary cup of joe. The most impressive bit of tech we saw was the Bkon, a craft brewing device presented by the company's co-founder Lou Vastardis at Counter Culture in Soho. Both Kat and I left the demonstration a bit awestruck by the hardware.
The coffee that the device can make is full of delicate flavors with a natural sweetness. Compared to other machine-brewed coffee, it's unbelievably complex. The hardware's RAIN technology — an acronym for "Reverse Atmospheric Infusion" — uses negative pressure vacuums at various strengths and fluctuations to suck the air from an organic material, then flood it with liquid. It can make a tea or infused liquor in 90 seconds that would take anywhere from 15-20 minutes using other methods. Or it could extract the flavors of other botanicals into other liquids, like, say, marijuana into molasses — you know, if you're into that sort of thing and live in an area where it's legal.
A drink's taste depends on what ingredients are used for the infusion, and also the parameters of the vacuum. The company already has an online cloud service in place that shares these digital directions, and plans to allow chefs and mixologists to encrypt their custom vacuum parameters, so that a customer could buy an ingredient packet, download encrypted settings, and enjoy the exact same drink at home as they do at their favorite bar or café. Think iTunes, but for drinks.
Sometimes the best way to enjoy technology is with a hands-off approach
I want a Bkon in my home. So does Kat. The video guys would like one, too. It's that rare device that, days after the demonstration, is still pacing back and forth in my mental hallway. We've imagined dozens of imaginary concoctions that we'd like to create, from an orange-zest-infused whiskey to a black tea and coffee hybrid. Oh, we could make some truly awful-tasting mistakes. But the Bkon, and its ability to play culinary mix and match, just seems fun.
The Searzall is available today on Amazon for a practical price of $75. But it will be a couple years before a consumer version of the Bkon is available. And the Sonicprep Ultrasonic Homogenizer, available for $4,699, is meant for professionals and the most dedicated home cooks. It will be a while before the latest food technology fits as comfortable on a wedding registry as a nice set of knives and a blender. That's okay. Sometimes the best way to enjoy technology is with a hands-off approach. I may never use an Ultrasonic Homogenizer, but I'm okay with a future in which everything's lightly crusted in saffron salt.