The eyes experience a dish first. Also, the nose, sometimes the hands, and only at the very end, does food make it to the mouth. While the taste buds are essential to the perception of flavor, in reality, the process results from a complex network of multisensory interactions that are still not completely understood by the most adept scientists. For an avant-garde chef like Jordan Dalaly, these knowledge gaps provide the perfect basis for his specialty: sensory disruption.
Dalaly is a molecular gastronomist and a rare breed in metro Detroit. Molecular gastronomy — a term coined in the late 1980s by European scientists Nicholas Kurti and Hervé This — is a branch of food science that explores the physical and chemical transformations that can occur to ingredients through cooking. It draws upon uncommon techniques like spherification, gelification, or powdering, which convert the shape and texture of food substances to concoct dishes that are at times whimsical, other times emotionally evocative, and oftentimes, gravity defying. One of the most famed dishes of the molecular gastronomy canon suggests that the Spanish omelet — traditionally made from thin slices of potato, onion, and eggs — deconstructs into potato foam, onion puree, and egg-white sabayon.
It’s a form of cooking that demands unfaltering technical skill and exacting precision and became synonymous with haute cuisine in the kitchen of elBulli, the Spanish chef Ferran Adria’s restaurant, which, for many years, held the title of the “Best in the World.” It’s also the originator of the unexpected take of the Spanish omelet. The form has since passed, in various iterations, through the hands of several members of the contemporary culinary pantheon, including Grant Achatz, Curtis Duffy, Daniel Homm— all of whom Dalaly credits as his inspiration.
But like any artist, Dalaly’s brand of gastronomy is very much his own. Partly inspired by his Midwestern roots, and partly by his own lighthearted nature, Dalaly says he enjoys creating dishes that are “playful and also relatable.” He has a particular penchant for subverting American junk-food favorites, alluding to an ‘Oreo cookie’ that he makes. When you tap the compact formation with a spoon, it crumbles and reveals itself to be a “completely savory compressed black bread butter crumb,” that’s concealing an entrée of short ribs. He also serves a Snickers bar that’s translucent. “I do have more exotic ingredients in some courses,” he qualifies. “I just don’t want to make people uncomfortable.”
Dalaly, 34, actually began his culinary career the traditional way. He started working in the restaurant industry straight out of high school, and by 23, was running his own deli in Beverly Hills. Though the recession forced him to close his space in late 2010, Dalaly enrolled in the Culinary Arts program at Schoolcraft College in Livonia. “I had been cooking all my life, but [Schoolcraft] turned me into a fine-tuned, militant-style machine.” The two-year program moved at light-speed, training him to handle almost any curveball that might be thrown at him in a conventional restaurant kitchen.
Still, Dalaly’s inner maverick was unappeased. “I think it’s something that comes from my childhood. When I would go to see David Copperfield’s magic shows at the Fox Theatre, I remember being fascinated by all his tricks and it created this sense of wonderment inside of me.” An “anything-is-possible” sensibility took Dalaly to many of the country’s Michelin-starred restaurants. On his summer off in culinary school, he traveled from New York to Chicago to San Francisco studying the work of like-minded chefs who believed that eating should be a concert of the senses. After each of his trips, Dalaly says he would return home to practice their methods, conduct research, and run his own experiments — leading him to the world of gastronomy.
The tools and toys of his current gig are radical, and as Dalaly invests in more of them, his basement is inching closer toward a makeshift lab. One of his favorite gadgets is the rotary evaporator — an apparatus developed for the pharmaceutical industry. “It allows you to take aroma and flavor out of any food that you put in it, and gives you a crystal-clear liquid distillation of it.” It’s the kind of machine that would allow him to make something that smelled like strawberry cheesecake, but actually tasted like steak. “Can you imagine what that would do to the senses?” he asks, meanwhile assuring future diners, however, that he has no intentions for such a dish. “Definitely does not sound enjoyable,” he laughs.
And that’s Dalaly’s bottom line: the deception, the artistry, the spectacle of dinner, should always be a careful balancing act. “Anytime I went to a restaurant that was just pure gastronomy I would leave kind of hungry and maybe go grab a burger after. What I’m trying to find is a balance between the two.”
On the Menu
Torched walu, mango espuma, and lavender snow served in a glass terrarium
Mango, carrot, cucumber, avocado, Japanese yellowtail wrapped in an edible soy dollar, and finished with spicy mayo
Soy-glazed forest mushroom and 24 karat gold-encrusted potato gnocchi topped with crispy shallot, truffle foam, and truffle shavings
S’more cigar, peanut butter mousse, and freeze-dried ice cream served in a glass ash tray
Chef Jordan Dalaly regularly hosts “Chef’s Tables” at restaurants across metro Detroit. For more information, visit exploretock.com/archaichospitality.