Table Conversation: Form and Substance

By franco on 17 July, 2008

Quiche topped with Sea Urchin Roe from CCA

A Quiche topped with Sea Urchin Roe

As contributors to a food blog, we rarely accept invitations.

But when we received this:

Hello! I was wondering if you would like to take a seat (or three) at my students’ (CCA Manila) final exam? It’s a French class, so what they did was make a tasting menu of French classics like French Onion Soup Gratinee, and transform them with a little bit of science and creativity. The cost? Nothing at all…

Chef Joey Herrera

Reinvented French classics, eager-to-please student chefs, a free meal and in exchange, all Chef Herrera requires is our ‘humble’ opinions on his students’ food? How could we possibly resist? Of course, we accepted.

A Deconstructed Salade Nicoise

Our dinner was a ten-course meal of extraordinary vision. It was obvious that these student chefs were out to impress and provide us with a unique dining experience.

Instead of the traditional soup course, we are taken for a spin with a Bouillabaisse Terrine. A reinvention of the classic Provincial seafood stew, this dish easily was the most interactive of all the courses. For taste and texture, the bouillabaisse was transformed into a solid gelatinous terrine, sliced and presented bare on circular plate. For the aroma, an underplate was covered with dried Provencal herbs. Just before serving, the herbs were soaked in warm water, encouraging the essences of lavender, thyme, basil and rosemary to be released. Lastly, the traditional accompanying rouille, an aioli of garlic and chili peppers, normally served on rounds of toast is instead offered in an unusual manner, inside medicine droppers.

From the most intricate to the most straightforward, the Foie Gras with Three Salts was in my opinion, the most successfully satisfying dish. This course was a study in minimalist restraint. Served on a large, rectangular plate, there are only two elements to this dish: a delicately seared piece of foie gras and three lines of multi-colored salts. Each line of salt was infused with a different flavor: one was imbibed with a rosemary and thyme, the other was infused with coffee and another with the distinctive flavor of green tea. It was a joy playing with this dish, I lightly coated my slices of foie with each salt, experimenting with each flavor, trying to find the one I liked best. My personal favorite? The green tea salt.

Although the Red Wine Sorbet topped with a Mango Paper was only meant to be a palate cleanser, it is the course that left me wanting more. My love for all frozen desserts is well documented. I know from experience that working with anything with alcohol to create a frozen dessert can be tricky. Red wine even when reduced (burning most of its alcoholic content) is a difficult ingredient to tame. On its own, the red wine sorbet was elegant. But with the addition of the contrasting flavor and texture of a paper-like brittle of mango puree, this dish became an exceptional surprise.

Steak Au Poivre from CCA

A Steak Au Poivre

Like many things in life, creating food is about finding balance–for example, the right amount of sweetness versus the quantity of sour or balancing spicy heat against bitter aftertastes.

During this dinner, the question of balance was about form and substance. Undeniably, the dishes were beautifully plated. It was obvious that much time and effort was placed into their creation. And yet, some dishes lacked those flavorful crescendos that their lovely presentation teased at.

Admittedly, this is the challenge of any multiple-course, tasting menu. Not only must a chef present dishes that are attractive on the plate but also engaging to all the senses, mostly especially taste. At the same time, a chef must avoid the pitfall of any degustation: tasting fatigue–a condition where one course begins to meld into the next and the next until a diner is left with only faint memory of a dinner that had held so much promise.

They say you first eat with your eyes. But a guest still needs those ebbs and flows of tastes and flavors to call a meal a complete success.

Bouillabaisse Terrine from CCA

A Bouillabaise Terrine

As we were leaving, a fellow diner turned to me and asked if I would pay for this dinner. After considering for a moment, my answer was a whole-hearted yes.

I am and always will be a huge fan of culinary creativity and innovation. I always applaud chefs who push the boundaries of the gastronomical experience. With this batch of chefs, I feel like the culinary future of the Philippines will be bright, exciting and highly inventive. In a few years, who knows what these kitchen artisans will have up their sleeves (and toques)?

I can hardly wait.




Post a comment
  • JULY 17, 2008 9:14 AM

    ChichaJo said...

    Nice to know we've got a batch of fresh young and daring culinary minds ready to thrill us! :)

  • JULY 17, 2008 11:36 PM

    mtan said...

    The dishes look lovely, high marks for plating! I agree with your comment that tasting fatigue is the killer for any form of degustation, especially when faced with 10 different dishes. Creativity, playfulness, and integrity. Hard to do, but I'm sure the students gave their all. Thanks for sharing your experience Franco!

  • JULY 18, 2008 4:28 AM

    Sakai said...

    lucky franco...:)

  • JULY 21, 2008 3:24 PM

    Sherra said...

    Such is an opportunity not to be missed. It's always a delight to sample and be enticed with new culinary gems. Your food tasting just reminds me of work. Sensory evaluation is truly exciting but in one time or another, satiation becomes boredom.

  • JULY 23, 2008 1:31 PM

    JOEY said...

    Oh wow... You wouldn't believe how many texts i got when this blog came out. My students are extremely happy that you liked the food and we are grateful that you guys gave us your time. I know it was a gamble for you to come. I really appreciate it. Thank you from me and my 21 apprentices. Looking forward to feeding you again sometime!


  • JULY 27, 2008 3:39 AM

    Phoebe said...

    I can totally picture and well, almost taste the Foie Gras with Three Salts. Must be to die for!

  • JULY 27, 2008 5:01 AM

    Franco said...

    Hi Joey. I'm really excited to see what dining out in Manila will be like few years down the road. :)

    Hi Mila. You're welcome, Mila.

    Hi Sakai. Actually I think that we were lucky to be invited.

    Hi Sherra. I agree. Sometimes too much of a good thing is just too much. :P

    Hi Chef Joey. Thank you for the invite.

    Hi Phoebe. Yes. It most definitely was. :)