Creation Trends: Bridging a great divide

Sept. 15, 2003
Sweet and savory are reconciling in exciting ways as chefs abandon old culinary rules

May I tempt you with some white chocolate topped with a smidgen of caviar?

Assuming you haven't dropped this magazine and fled the room, I should report that this question was actually put to me recently, that I accepted the offer (albeit reluctantly at first) and that the result was positively exquisite. The salt of the caviar married brilliantly with , and actually enhanced , the vanilla and sugar in the chocolate. It was more than a confection; it was an experience.

The creative mind responsible for this unlikely hybrid was Heston Blumenthal, chef and owner of The Fat Duck in Bray, England. Blumenthal excels at devising immensely satisfying dishes that layer exotic combinations of sweet and savory flavors in exciting, memorable new ways. On his menu are such bold concoctions as poached-grilled red mullet with Borlotti beans, rosemary and vanilla, as well as Crab Risotto with red pepper cassonade, crab ice cream and passion fruit jelly.

While many of his creations are jarring on first blush, it turns out that Blumenthal isn't in the business of shocking people, nor is he being willfully outrageous, throwing ingredients together in an effort to be quirky, esoteric or downright weird. Rather, he seems to operate on the premise that it's OK for flavor combinations to be counterintuitive, as long as they're complementary in practice. It's an altogether different ethos than the ill-fated bizarre-for-bizarre's-sake experiments that characterized the worst of 1970s nouvelle cuisine.

Blumenthal isn't the only one who dares to take liberties by challenging old culinary orthodoxies. At San Francisco's Citizen Cake, managing partner and executive pastry chef Elizabeth Falkner has found success with corn-based desserts, including corn ice cream with sea salt and a corn flan. She numbers a popular bacon, green onion and fruit scone among her own favorites.

But Falkner is quick to point out that the best sweet and savory combinations shouldn't be gimmicky:  "You do have some chefs who work on a truth-or-dare level," she says.  "I've seen anchovies and bittersweet chocolate before. Some people are definitely more extreme than others."

Falkner says that her inspirations, by contrast, are decidedly mainstream. "Look at a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup; it's salty and pretty sweet, and a lot of people have been brought up on them. Or look at apple pie with cheddar cheese. Dessert-wise, I've been drawn to bringing in saltier components for a long time.  If you work with sugar all day, you tend to crave steak and french fries after work."

Though he hasn't yet come up with a chocolate incorporating beef or fried potatoes, Michael Recchiuti of Recchiuti's Confections in San Francisco has also taken nontraditional desserts to fantastic creative heights. A personal favorite of mine features jasmine blossoms and green tea leaves infused in an extra-bitter chocolate ganache. The filling is then covered in milk chocolate and drizzled with 65 percent bittersweet chocolate. Another Recchiuti highlight is his star anise and crushed pink peppercorn creation, which is infused in a semi-sweet chocolate ganache, wrapped in milk chocolate and capped with Venezuelan white chocolate. 

"Some people just try wacky flavors that don't align properly and, frankly, don't taste good together," Recchiuti says.  "You don't want too many flavors bombarding the palate It doesn't play out.  We try to choose a few good ingredients that don't overpower the taste of the chocolate itself."

While Falkner and Recchiuti are firmly rooted in the present, Hubert Keller, a native of Alsace, France, has looked to the old country for some of his best ideas. At his Fleur de Lys restaurant in San Francisco, Keller features lamb loin in a sauce of spiced honey and caramelized cumin seed and mint oil. "This is something they were doing in the Alsace region 400 years ago," Keller says.  "In that part of the world, game was always combined with berries and apples. Some of these combinations sound new, but they're not."

For those who can't quite fathom the appeal of some of the more novel innovations and experiments mentioned here, remember that it isn't necessary to go to extremes to gain an appreciation of the pleasures of mixing sweet and savory tastes. You might want to dip a toe in the water and enjoy the simpler pleasures: a handful of chocolate-covered peanuts, say, or a plate of fruit and cheese. Order up some Pad Thai noodles, or pour a little raspberry vinaigrette on your next salad.

Just don't try dunking your Hershey bar in fine beluga right off the bat.

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