The Bitter Flow of Ideas
For years the creative process at the restaurant bar stayed respectfully separate from that of the kitchen. Chefs did their thing. Bartenders did their thing. And never the two shall meet. Then everything changed.
Sometime around the beginning of this century, bartenders woke up, walked into the kitchen, looked behind the line, and thought, “Wait a minute. Why do they get to play with all the fresh produce? Why do they get to create their own sauces? Why am I stuck using bottled crap?”
And on that day, He said unto thee, “Ye shall no longer toil under thy old
moniker. I heretofore pronounce thee Mixologist.”
We all know what happened next. Mixologists started turning cocktails into
fleeting, seasonal slurps of Summer. Warm, wonderful whiskey wisps of Autumn. And sprouting, sour, sips of Spring. The idea of starting with fresh ingredients, transforming them with culinary skill, and serving them to guests had spilled out of the kitchen and into the bar. Well, the pot is about to be stirred, again.
In Taste What You’re Missing, I devote an entire chapter to the Basic Taste
bitter. It’s the most maligned of the five. It’s wildly underappreciated thanks to Mother Nature, who endowed us with a deep, unshakable suspicion of bitter tastes. This is, of course, protective, as most poisons taste bitter. What we don’t realize though, is that when we taste bitter, we’re tasting the essence of health. That’s because the compounds in a food that make it bitter are also the ones that make it healthy: isoflavones, phenolic acids, and carotenoids, for example. But beyond adding healthfulness, a tiny dose of bitter also adds a complexifying some’n-some’n to cocktails. And food.
I like to use unsweetened cocoa when I want to increase the bitter structure of a food. Any time you can add an appropriate Basic Taste counterpoint, the result is generally a stronger base from which to build flavor. But I hadn’t considered using bitters—in their most literal form—in the kitchen. I’m talking about bitters, as in Angostura. Yes, Angostura, that white paper-wrapped bottle that you’ll find in the well of any bar. Angostura has been around so long that its website’s contact page features a non-cordless phone. In other words, one with a rubber-wrapped, Slinky-like thing that required you to stay in one spot while talking.
Angostura may have been the bitters of choice in the 1990s, but today’s
mixologist has a pantry of artisan choices: Scrappy’s, The Bitter Truth, Brooklyn Bitters. It’s easy to foresee a future where chefs reach for Scrappy’s Bitter Celery to add a signature taste (bitter) and aroma (celery) to their soups, stews, and sauces.
It seems the flow of creativity in the restaurant has come full circle. What’s next?
Maraschino cherry salad?