Author Archives: torontofoodlab

About torontofoodlab

Chef of Toronto Food Lab, a GPI division.

El Celler de can Roca

What better way to start the year in dining than to eat at SP’s #1 restaurant of the year. Yes, El Celler de can Roca. It was also very interesting to see how they have evolved from my first time eating there 4 years ago. At that time, they were #5.

Before you even enter the restaurant, you will fund yourself in awe of their front courtyard. Adding to the ambience is a suspended fire place, filling the air with the scent of campfire. All of this with the backdrop of an old Spanish home. On another side of the courtyard is their glass-walled cigar lounge. I think it’s a great way to sit around while waiting for the other people in your table to arrive. There’s always someone who’s late.


The courtyard really starts to set the mood for the evening.


Onwards to the food. As per my usual post, won’t put up every photo I took.

The bonsai olive tree. I remember this from 4 years ago as well. Just as delicious and I think a really clever way to serve an amuse. The hanging ornaments are olives, stuffed with anchovy and coated with a crisp sugary film.


After the olive tree, a progression of several snack courses follow.


“Around the world” – 5 snacks, each inspired from a different country – China, Mexico, Morocco, Korea and Peru.


My favourite of the snack courses. Truffled brioche. Only lightly baked as seen from the lack of carmelization. Inside was a creamy filling of truffles. This this was sublime.


First of the courses. A medley of lightly cooked vegetables on a thickened vegetable stock. The stock was gelatinous. I suspect a use of some hydrocolloid, or perhaps just reducing the broth and allowing the natural starches and pectins of the vegetables to thicken the stock.


White asparagus ice cream and truffles. The combination is a tried and true pairing, but this was a very novel preparation that just made me cock my head back and try to pick up my brains after having it blown to pieces. Plating was a whimsical play on cheese and truffles me thinks. Looks like a creamy bleu cheese.


Whole prawn. Pieces of the head cooked to a crisp, with the “head juices” reduced and is placed beneath the tail meat.


The dish was called Mandala. Main bits were a beautifully crisped lamb belly, and lamb sweetbreads. The white blossom at the top is an artichoke flower.


And here we have Jordi Roca’s candy apple.

It’s quite nice to see how they have moved forward. Though admittedly, the first time I was there is a vague memory – I was severely jet-lagged and drank a ton of wine. This time, I paced on the wine, and had plenty of rest on the plane. I wish I had taken a picture of the dining room because it was really beautiful, one that exceeds Michelin standards. The room was very modern with all the glass and contrasted with wooden planks on the ceiling. They’ve also got this really cool atrium filled with trees in the middle of the dining room.

And to continue the awesome start of the year, I’ll be dining at my favourite restaurant tomorrow – Alinea…for the 4th time!

More photos of El Celler de can Roca, during the daytime too! Courtesy of Renée Suen.

Cocktail shaker experiment postponed

Already have the design of the experiment, and need to get the materials needed. Just need to postpone it till the end of November. Got a pop-up bar to do in Germany in 2 weeks and need to focus on production and balancing some of the cocktails. 

Best cocktail shaker experiment – copper vs stainless vs others. Need opinions.

So the question is – What do bartenders consider to be the best material for cocktail shakers. I’ve heard many opinions but one that interests me the most is copper. The apparent reason behind copper being considered the best is because it gets cold faster and therefore there is less dilution. But to me, this is completely contradicting and that is why I want to make an experiment to test things out, and simply find out for myself. If this experiment has already been done, please someone point me to it. Or if this argument is as old as the dead horse you were beating a year ago then tell me. 

I’ve heard several times from various people that they like copper because it gets cold faster and dilutes the drink less. Seems to make sense, right? But does it really? Consider these questions – When all the contents are inside the shaker (ice and liquor etc), what is cooling the shaker? Isn’t it the ice, which is the main source? Then it would follow that the shaker is absorbing the coldness of the cocktail which in turn is absorbing the coldness of the ice. How about if the shaker did not get cold at all? Meaning that it was insulated. Wouldn’t that mean that the only thing absorbing the coldness of ice is the cocktail, and nothing more? Remember, dilution is a side effect of the ice getting less cold (temperature exchange). It’s part of thermodynamics. The coldness of the ice is absorbed by the liquor, which is further absorbed by the shaker. And considering that your hands (heat source) are holding the shaker, it would conduct the heat much faster, therefore adding more heat to the cocktail, which melts the ice even more. I know, there’s enough run-on sentences there to make my grade 12 english teacher piss on my marks. 

To me, it’s the same reason why cooks like copper pots/pans more because of better temperature conduction. The main difference between the two scenarios is that there is a constant/continuous heat source for the pots (the fire) vs a fixed and limited source for the shaker (ice). Though, if you add your hands holding the shaker to the scenario, then you’ve just added a constant (though poor) heat source to the cocktail mixing. 

So chime in! Give me your 2 cents. Tell me what you’ve read/know about cocktail shakers. I’m still designing the experiment. 

When the Dish isn’t perfect, or doesn’t even make sense

Story of a cook’s life! This dish started out to be a great idea, but when executed, it just DIDN’T MAKE SENSE! Well, the salsa verde and radishes were alright, same with the sous vide leeks. But the carrots, to me, just didn’t fit the dish. Great for aesthetics because of the colour, but to me, the flavour didn’t belong there. It was like the furry kitten hiding in a pile of stuffed animals. Sure it looked nice, but it just didn’t belong.

So as all cooks do, continue to evolve and improve. To constantly pursue the perfect dish knowing fully that it is ever elusive, ever evasive.


Raw beef tataki – sweet soy, instant coffee, mustard, nuts

Because sometimes you put off experiments and just cook.

I was at Cumbrae’s shop and decided to buy a hanger steak. I felt like eating it raw after having some damn good tartare the other day. But instead of making a tartare, I wanted to find ways to really bring out that raw flavour. I find that sometimes, tartare starts to become more about the dressing rather than the beef.

I remember Shane Harper mentioning that you can always tell when someone is searing a Cumbrea’s steak because it smells like roasted hazelnuts. I was going to add exactly that, but I currently have this infatuation with toasted pecans so I went for that instead. Then I also came across hazelnut instant coffee from Nescafe. Why the hell not. The toasted pecans and instant coffee became a crumble. Some lightly pickled yellow and baby zucchinis for acidity, pomegranate for sweetness and colour. The shallots, Kozlik’s triple crunch mustard and quail egg yolk are there to reference tartare. Yolk was cooked confit at 63C for 10 minutes. The beef was salt cured for 30 minutes before slicing. Then brushed with the sweet soy.

At this point I was starting to feel like I lost track of the original goal of highlighting that raw beef flavour. Though thankfully when I tried the dish, the pairings weren’t too convoluted. Here it is.


Meat tenderizing with a carrageenan brine

I’ve seen this topic discussed here and there, but nothing really in depth. We do it quite often here in the lab and it is great for “tenderizing” the meat. Why the quotations? Well, because it doesn’t tenderize the meat per se. Rather, by increasing the brine retained by the meat and in effect it’s juiciness, the perception of tenderness is increased. The method used to incorporate the brine is by injection. Just buy one of those turkey injectors from Walmart or something. If you have access to a vacuum tumbler that could work too, but that tends to give meats a bit of a rubbery “i got the crap beat out of me” texture.

Another reason to inject a hydrocolloid brine into the meat is for economics. You want good roast beef, but not everyone can afford a $30 / lb prime rib roast. You still want that tenderness and juiciness. Well, you can get a top sirloin cut, which is about roughly a quarter to a third of the price. Inject it, brine it, treat it with respect and it will be pretty damn close.

Tool of choice – Handheld meat injector. Notice the holes on the sides of the needle.


You can definitely increase juiciness with just a salt water brine, or an aromatic brine. Unfortunately, when you bite into the meat, there is little viscosity to the injected brine that the juice just runs off when you bite in. Also, simply submerging the meat in brine can take quite a while for the flavours to really penetrate. With carrageenan or other gums in the brine, the viscosity is increased and the perception is that the juice is gelatinous or fatty. With hydrocolloid brines though, I must emphasize that you really need to inject it or vacuum tumble to really get the brine in there. There’s also some techniques or rules of thumb to keep in mind when using a carrageenan brine.


Rules of thumb:

1. Delay the gum’s hydration or swelling. There are various ways to do this depending on the type of gum. With carrageenan, you will usually add the salt first to the brine. Another way to delay or slow down hydration is by getting the water as cold as possible. You want to do this in order to help the hydrocolloid disperse in the meat better.

2. Rest period after injection. This is more of a personal preference. Again, just to help the brine distribute itself evenly. At least 4 hours I’d say. 

3. Increased cooking time. Remember, you’re adding liquid into the meat, and as a result, adding more weight. More weight means longer cooking times. 


Commonly used hydrocolloids for brine injection

1. Carrageenan blend of kappa and iota. Kappa for bite, iota for fattiness. Usually I use a 80/20 blend of kappa to iota. The amount of carrageenan is about 1% – 2% of the entire brine.

2. Sodium alginate. Not personally familiar with it, but our meat guy says its quite tricky to activate the sodium alginate with the calcium.

So when preparing a hydrocolloid brine, this is what you would do.

First, add salt to the water. Then add ice. By having salt dissolved in the water, this will lower the melting point of the ice, allowing the mixture to be liquid at even lower temperatures. Go for a 70/30 or 80/20 ratio of water to ice. Then, add the carrageenan. Once thats done, inject as much as you want into the meat. Obviously you don’t want to add too much to the meat. You don’t want a meat thats way too watery.

Salt and ice already being mixed with the water. Giving it some time to dissolve the salt and melt the ice.



Once ice is melted, slowly add your hydrocolloid of choice.


Food for thought – Imagine some of the possibilities with using aromatic/flavoured brines. Injecting mushroom stock into a roast. Perhaps some curry spiced brine into pork or chicken. Chefs have been using aromatic brines for ages. This technique is just another way to incorporate the brine into the meat.

Here’s the meat being injected.



Here it is after injection ready for the resting period. Looks like the victim of a Martin Scorsese hit job. Don’t worry, the holes disappear during the cooking process.



Day after. Some of the brine does leave the meat, but much of it is still contained inside.



Aaaaannnnddddd… where’s the cooked meat? Sliced it up and ate it, oops. Completely forgot to take a photo. There’s really no difference in appearance to a regularly roasted top sirloin though.

So go forth, and inject your meat…

The French Laundry – an epic pilgrimage for anyone who loves food.


The French Laundry…I’m no food writer nor do I really consider myself a blogger. So I’ll just go straight to the point. Freaking go there. Eat there and marvel at the fact that by being there, you get to experience part of history. You are in the restaurant that molded and graduated some of the finest chefs in North America. Take for example Grant Achatz and Cory Lee, I’ve been fortunate enough to eat at both their restaurants, and both left me slack-jawed with eyes wide open. Their food punches you in the face with so much deliciousness and wonderfully progressive food it leaves you questioning what the hell you’ve been doing with your life. The French Laundry however, does not punch you, but rather gently lays a hand on your shoulder, looks you in the eye and advises you on why you should still question what the hell you’ve been doing with your life. “Dear cook, this is how hard we’ve been working to be perfect. You should do the same”.

And I go back to my sticky note filled French Laundry cookbook, reading the words Thomas Keller wrote on the front page 5 years ago when he signed it… It’s all about Finesse.


Some of the dishes I had that night.

The icons.

Smoked Salmon and creme fraiche cornets


Oysters and Pearls




French Laundry garden radishes, and green pea custard




Butter Poached Maine Lobster




Pekin Duck (The best duck I have ever had)





High Heat Gels

What if you could make a gel that remained solid at higher heat. By high heat I mean between the range of 50 – 70 degrees Celsius. About the temperatures you would serve hot soup.

We used to have a gum blend that was meant to replace gelatin. We coded it as blend 6455. I then found this type of kappa that was strangely elastic. I mixed that kappa with 6455 and the result was the FlexiGel blend. The great thing about this gel is that it seems fairly multi-purpose and forms quite strong gels.

Here are the coconut gels (Those white, tofu-like cubes) from yesterday in a lobster bisque As you can see from the thermometer, the temperature of the bisque is at 58 Celsius but the gels remain solid and show no signs of melting. Though, there is a negative effect of high heat gels, and that is lower flavour release.


Yes, I did some amateur editing to brighten the image of the thermometer.

Rules of thumb with Gels: The stronger the gel, the lower the flavour release. This is because the gel system holds on to the flavour compounds more. Loose liquid (ie soups and juices) will always have stronger, more instant flavour release. Also, the higher the heat stability of the gel, again the lower the flavour release. This is because the gel system does not melt on your palate. One reason why I still like using gelatin is because its melting point is very low and dissolves on the palate.

Food for thought: One way gelling is being used by chefs is by changing the flavour release from powerful and instant, to subtle but lingering. By holding the flavour as a gel, you are able to maintain that flavour throughout the entire bite. For example if you have an amuse on a spoon that had a liquod component, a piece of protein like prawn, and garnishes, what you would experience is first the intense flavour of the liquod component, and then gradually the prawn flavour comes out as you chew on it. Flavours of the garnish burst out as you bite on it. Usually, the flavour from the liquid component will only be perceived at the beginning of the bite. But by turning it into a gel or thickening it, you can allow that flavour to linger a little bit longer.


Centrifuged peas – w/ raw seafood

A quick nod to The Grove for the inspiration for this dish. I’ve been staging there on Saturdays recently. One day I brought some centrifuged pea juice to the restaurant and chef Ben Heaton said it would go really well with raw shrimps. So I decided to do exactly that.

There really is just something special about centrifuged juices. The intensity of flavours and cleanliness of textures are unmatched. Even if the initial ingredient was not at it’s peak, the juices that come out are still incredibly sweet (But of course, you should not use that as an excuse).

There are 2 variations. One with the pea “butter” which I first heard of from the book Modernist cuisine. It is essentially the very tiny amount of fat from peas. The 2nd variation is with the pea juice. I personally prefer the juice variation because of how clean and refreshing the juice is. It’s just a better fit with the raw seafood.

Raw shrimp, scallop, sea urchin – ginger, salmon roe, coconut gel, fennel

Variation 1. The green dollops are the pea butters.



Variation 2. Instead of pea butter I just used the blanched peas for texture. Also, notice how vibrant the colour of the pea juice is.



Profound epiphanies in the simplest of dishes.

This topic may be one that is overdrawn and beat to death and back, but it is a theme that has been central to my thoughts for the past week. The first few paragraphs seem a bit off topic, but read through it and it will all make sense in the end.

It was a regular Monday. Like all Mondays it took a bit of time to get back into the swing of things. Nothing unusual. However, as that day progressed I found myself pre-occupied with a single question: what the hell was I thinking choosing this career path? I could have continued with a graduate degree in psychology and charge $200 for advice their friends could give for free. I could have been a guidance councilor and quietly laugh at so-called problems teenagers have. I could have done something else.

I tried to shake off these thoughts. Picked up my go-to book for food inspirations, the Alinea cook book. Didn’t do anything. The usual excitement and enthusiasm the book provoke were non-existent. Instead, each image, each recipe, were met with nothing more than numbing apathy. Looked at other books, nothing to see there either.

I put down the book and thought maybe this really isn’t the right path. It’s not too late to go back to psychology.

Then I felt a little hungry. I haven’t had lunch. So finding the most convenient way to consume some calories, I  placed an egg in an already running water bath at 63c. Waited about 40 minutes for it then cracked it open into a bowl. Drizzled some sweet soy sauce I had made earlier. Cut into it with a spoon and the yolk oozed out. “Looks about right” I thought to myself. Then, with that first bite my heart stopped. My eyes were wide open and for a moment, I even forgot to breathe. Holy sh*t!

Yes, this is definitely what I want to do. Cooking is definitely what excites me. This is what I love.

People always tell you to follow your desires and passions. Not a lot of people will say that while on that path, you will doubt yourself, question why you’re even there, and at times, quit. It’s OK…it’s normal. Just. Keep. Going.

Let me leave you with this video about following your desires.