Cooking up a stew of molecules
After working with several Israeli chefs, Daniel Pekkar found his calling in Spain, producing food 'designed for one's head, not to fill one's stomach'.
When Daniel Pekkar talks about the "unpleasant parts of the tomato," or "very green watermelon rind," one might think for a moment that this is a discussion with a greengrocer on a routine walk through the wholesale market on his way to his store. Nothing in this chef's look or style divulges that he is actually 2007's Spanish champion of molecular cooking, or the fact that chef Ferran Adria of the El Bulli restaurant, which wins the top spot in world restaurant rankings every year, invited Pekkar, 29, to join his venture.
A meeting with Pekkar during his recent visit to Israel reveals a young man who bites into a thick feta cheese and lettuce sandwich with an appetite reserved for Israelis who live abroad; who does not understand how, all of a sudden, people stopped smoking in cafes; who speaks in a steady stream; and who seems unaffected by the fastidious sophistication of molecular biology laboratories.
That, of course, is a mistake. Pekkar is an expert at using cooking devices not usually found in restaurant kitchens: cooking thermometers accurate to within one degree; natural nitrogen gas jets, food particle accelerators, fine-needle syringes and a whole host of equipment that turns food into tiny sculptures. In February 2008, Pekkar will visit Israel to cook three molecular meals: at Arcadia in Jerusalem; at Catit, Meir Adoni's restaurant in Tel Aviv; and one benefit meal for the needy at the home of cookbook author Elinoar Rabin in Jaffa.
"I have come to change the image of molecular cooking in Israel," says Pekkar. "These are not just laboratory experiments by bored chefs. The idea is to open people's minds, to investigate food, as well as to obtain it from new sources we never knew existed, and to use only completely natural ingredients. Who knows, perhaps this will do some good for the future of the world."
Pekkar began his career in the kitchen, as befits his upbringing, with a deep love for chunks of beef, straight from the cow. He was born in Argentina and "at age 9 I went into the kitchen and my family discovered that I have a knack for seasoning food and decided that I should prepare our meals. I began to really love it. At 17, I came to Israel with my family, and immediately applied for a job with Ezra Kedem at Arcadia. Fortunately for me, he agreed. He was my first teacher, who taught me how to cut goose liver, to prepare lamb sweetbread risotto. While working with him I fell in love with restaurant kitchens."
After two years at Arcadia, Pekkar was conscripted into the Israel Defense Forces and served in the combat engineering corps. After his discharge he studied at the Dan Gourmet cooking school, run by the Dan hotel chain in Haifa, worked as a sous-chef at the Gong restaurant, operated by chef Udi Meiri in Jerusalem and then decided to go abroad, "because I had already heard about the Spanish molecular kitchen and wanted to be a part of it. I also wanted to start in Spain because I knew the language and because [molecular cuisine] seemed very different to me from the heavier, more conservative French cuisine. I felt that there I would learn cooking that would stand out in the world." Five years ago Pekkar moved to San Sebastian.
"I thought I would be there for a few months, but I am still living there," he says. "In many ways, this is Spain's culinary capital and it is certainly one of the most interesting cities in Europe - this picturesque city with six streets and 262 restaurants that operate beautifully, including several that rank very high on the Michelin list. There are simple tapas bars and some very complex places that interpret the small Spanish dishes and augment them."
Pekkar was hired by Mugaritz, a restaurant with two Michelin stars. The chef, Andoni Aduriz, is one of the three chefs who graduated from El Bulli. "Aduriz loved how I 'paint on the plate,'" says Pekkar. "He is a perfectionist chef who does not 'arrange' a plate but rather says that however the food 'lands' on it is how it should stay. I, apparently, had a good hand, and he employed me.
"In general, the chefs at Mugaritz spend a lot of time in the field, not only in the kitchen. They go out to look for new vegetables in season, flowers that can be combined with the food. Every day they experiment. Aduriz loved my familiarity with Israeli seasonings. I suggested, for example, that date sauce be combined with goose liver, because I knew the good combination of silan [date honey] and meat; my brother used to harvest dates on Kibbutz Almog. Or putting fenugreek in a sauce for fish. He really liked that. I also met Ferran Adria."
Adria foresaw what the Israeli chef could do and invited him for a tasting meal, "of 27 dishes, whose combined total weight was less than 500 grams," recalls Pekkar. "That was a meal designed for one's head, not to fill one's stomach."
In the meantime Aduriz sent Pekkar to work in Valencia, at a tapas restaurant. There he changed the menu to a taster's menu, "and I won the Spanish championship for young chefs in the seafood category."
After working at that restaurant, Pekkar joined up with another chef, Ruben Trincado, who had earned three Michelin stars at his Mirador de Ulia restaurant, one of the most renowned in San Sebastian. Together they competed for the Spanish cooking championship, "and you'll never guess what dish made us win," says Pekkar. "We made an omelet."
Well, not exactly, of course. Pekkar and Trincado won the Spanish cooking championship for a dish they called "The Golden Egg."
"We took an organic egg yolk and cooked it for 41 minutes at 62 degrees Celsius [in a special device that maintains water at a fixed temperature; they did not touch the object being cooked, which is encased in a vacuum bag]," explains Pekkar. "We coated the yolk with a substance that looks like gold, but which is made of powdered seaweed, and we injected the yolk with corn carbohydrate to make it crispy. We served it with beef bouillon and truffles. The whole thing melts in your mouth and the texture adds to the specialness of this dish. An egg that is a surprise."
Following this competition Pekkar, who still works at Mugaritz, began to develop his own personal style, which he calls "camouflage."
"I love making dishes from unusual ingredients. I made wine, not from grapes, but from the vine itself. In order to do this, I brought a special mushroom from Japan that ferments other foods. I soaked them on the vine leaves, and this really made wine. We developed a bread at the restaurant, made from sprouted asparagus seeds. We sprouted the seeds, ground them and compressed them at 40 degrees Celsius. After two days they began producing gas, and after four days they developed a texture resembling dough. This was an example of bread from a new source."
While Pekkar was having fun doing experiments at his restaurant, he received an interesting phone call. "Last summer Ferran Adria phoned me and invited me to cook in a project called La Cuchara," Pekkar recalls. "This is a seminar held every summer at chef Alex Montiel's tapas bar in San Sebastian. Montiel worked at El Bulli for five years. The tapas bar is a small place - measuring a mere 60 square meters. The kitchen measures seven square meters and the chefs are called in to cook in an informal style. Most of them work in shorts and sandals and look a bit wild. There is no chef's etiquette and they focus on the content. All the dishes are molecular. They are served on teaspoons and each costs 3 euros. After four hours of work the chefs prepare enough for 1,000 teaspoons, and when the ingredients run out, the place closes for the evening. That's it. I worked there for a summer, and there I learned how to cook molecular dishes, on the set, very quickly."
Pekkar apprenticed there for one summer and now develops recipes for the Arzak restaurant, also in San Sebastian, and which also has three Michelin stars. At the same time, Pekkar opened a company in Israel called Tapeo Tours, which specializes in gastronomy tours, including tours of wineries and restaurants that specialize in molecular cuisine in San Sebastian (of course). The company's Web site, www.tapeotours.co.il, is currently under construction.
Pekkar misses Israel, "a land with amazing raw materials that are conquering the world," but at the moment he has no plans to return. He is focusing on dishes that expand the range of ingredients: preparing skewers made of milk solids and cucumber puree soaked overnight in sugar water, to create a frozen dessert ("because the cucumber is from the watermelon family, and that's interesting"); making ice-cream combinations such as avocado-vanilla and blood orange with broccoli and lemon; chewing gum made from olive oil and lollipops from pink peppers.
Another dish, called "the extra piece of the tomato," breaks the tomato down into its components, producing candy from the skin, a frozen concoction from the seeds and jelly from the flesh. A whole plate of a single tomato is served as a surprising tapas dish.
"When you get into this field, there is no limit to the imagination," says Pekkar. "All that remains is to explain this to the diners."