The word “nerd” was first used by Dr. Seuss in his 1950 book, If I Ran the Zoo. He used the term to describe a small, angry, yet comical character. The word really didn’t start to assume the meaning that we attribute to it until 1970, when it was listed in Current Slang as “Nurd [sic], someone with objectionable habits or traits.” Regardless of its origin, it’s meaning was made clear in 1984 when Revenge of the Nerds made it cool to be a nerd. Robert Carradine, Anthony Edwards, and the gang wheezed and bumbled their way to victory over the dreaded Alpha Beta jock fraternity, and every nerd on the planet felt redeemed. Almost 30 years later, the connotation of the word hasn’t changed, but the world has. Being a nerd in the computer age no longer has the negative stigma that it once did. Nerds like Bill Gates (Microsoft), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), and Richard Blais (Chef) have made nerdiness not only cool, but extremely lucrative.
The goal of this monthly article, Paint the Town Plaid, is to tell you about people who are bringing some culture to being a nerd. We all know that most nerds don’t really live in their parent’s basement, or wear plaid all of the time. We lead hard-working, fast-paced lives and when we get done working we want to enjoy some of the finer things in life. That’s where we come in. We’re going to do all the hard work for you. We’re going to do the research, the tasting, the drinking, and whatever else it takes to find you some great hidden treasures around the country that you nerds might enjoy. Let’s get started!
Food is a basic necessity of life. We need to eat regularly to live, but sometimes eating healthy can feel like a chore and taste uninspiring. Sometimes, you can get great taste and entertainment on the same plate. Molecular gastronomy is food made by nerds for nerds. The term “molecular gastronomy” was coined in 1992 by late Oxford physicist Nicholas Kurti and the French INRA chemist Hervé This. Also referred to as culinary physics, or experimental cuisine, this type of cooking is defined as “a sub-discipline of food science that seeks to investigate, explain and make practical use of the physical and chemical transformations of ingredients that occur while cooking, as well as the social, artistic and technical components of culinary and gastronomic phenomena in general.” In layman’s terms, it’s the use of chemical reactions and processes to get results similar or even better that traditional cooking methods. For example a chef could engineer a reverse Baked Alaska, hot inside and cold outside, by using a microwave oven, or ice cream for a dessert could be made by using dry ice (frozen carbon dioxide). These techniques can not only yield great tasting results, but can often be faster and more efficient than traditional methods.
My introduction to the world of molecular gastronomy was through television cooking shows. Season 4 of Top Chef included an interesting character named Richard Blais. He had these crazy ideas about how to prepare his meals and he almost won the competition. He wasn’t satisfied with second place so, he returned for Season 8 Top Chef All Stars, and flaunted his unorthodox skills all the way to the title. There are many great examples of chefs using these techniques to make a new and different experience for themselves and their patrons.
Alinea, in Chicago is aptly named. In historical terms an “alinea” means the start of a new idea or philosophy. In terms of the restaurant, Alinea refers to the cooking style. Alinea claims to be unlike any other restaurant in America. The patron experiences a post-post-modern, museum atmosphere intended to focus attention on the food and nothing else. The 16-20 course dinner is the show. Chef Achatz constantly invents new preparations and combinations such as “king crab,” passion fruit, heart of palm and allspice, called “otoro,” or Thai banana, sea salt and kaffir lime. It is creativity to the extreme. Nothing is simple in this restaurant, except the decor. The dessert simply named “chocolate” is served in a plastic-coated cloth unrolled on your table, pouring the ingredients of his chocolate dessert over the cloth, he then gathers and kneads coconut, menthol and hyssop with the hot cocoa. An online ticketing system transacts restaurant reservations, and the menu price ranges from $210 to $265, which does not include the cost of wine and other beverages. It’s a pricey experience but still one you will enjoy. If you consider the price of a cultured night out of dinner and a show, the price doesn’t seem so high, especially when you don’t even have to get up from the table for the show.
At The SPENCE, Chef Richard Blais has tried to create a place where the experience of the meal is the star of the show. Every meal is an interactive event between the chef, the server, and the diner. They deliver passion on every plate. The atmosphere is warm and welcoming, designed with lacquered white brick, navy repurposed wood, cream tartans and zinc and pine tabletops to create a contemporary environment for your adventure. The food, though, is the real attraction. Boasting an all-star culinary team which includes Adrian Villarreal, of Atlanta’s JOËL and TAP restaurants, Pastry Chef Andrea Litvin, of New York City’s ABC Kitchen and Atlanta’s The Livingston, and Blais himself. The menu proudly states, “Our menu changes daily with respect to what we are into at the moment. below you’ll find a list that inspires & defines us, for today at least.” Advanced Sommelier Justin Amick manages wine list which includes selections from around the world to match perfectly to whatever you choose from the menu. Atmosphere, food, wine all at affordable prices with entrees ranging from $11 to $33.
wd-50 opened, in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, on April 9th, 2003. The 65 seat restaurant serves dinner seven days a week, from 6pm to 10pm. Formerly helmed by famed chef, Wylie Dufresne, wd-50 recently named Chef Sam Henderson as the new Chef de Cuisine. Don’t expect any change to the quality since Henderson was promoted from within the restaurant. Their eclectic menu offers a wide variety of choices to fit any budget. They offer a bar menu for $25 dollars by selecting any two items from either of their tasting menus, with additional courses added at $15 per course. The two tasting menus include a twelve course option for $155, and a five course selection for $90 composed of the restaurants classic dishes from past menus. The restaurant has garnered praise, awards, and six straight Best Chef New York nominations for its culinary techniques, innovative ingredients, and skilled preparations.
Like me, you may not live in one of America’s bustling metropolises. I live in Michigan, but innovation can be found everywhere. For example Gastronomy, in nearby Southfield, doesn’t have the awards or the famous TV chefs. What they do have is a loyal following, rave reviews, and the creativity to have a future in the restaurant business. Do a quick internet search for ‘molecular gastronomy” in your area and I bet you will find a place that you never heard of, that will give you an experience that you will remember. So, get out there, get some nerd culture in your life, and “Paint the Town Plaid“!