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Posted: April 15, 2009

‘Nitrogen chef’ puts cuisine in the deep freeze

Ian Kleinman of the Westin in Westminster likes to have fun with food

Mike Cote

On a recent evening in Westminster, about 75 people gathered in a small hotel meeting room to talk about spinning off space-age technology to business startups – and to dine on some “space foam.”

That means they got to watch Ian Kleinman show off how he can make an exquisite dessert with nothing but some fresh, simple ingredients – and a tank of liquid nitrogen.

The chef and general manager of O’s Steak & Seafood at the Westin hotel in Westminster likes to cook with the same substance your doctor uses to freeze warts off your fingers. And if the vapors swirling around his work table look more like a science fair experiment than a cooking demonstration, the proof is in the taste.

nitrogen_chef.jpg

Nitrogen chef Ian Kleinman

How about some strawberry sorbet sprinkled with tiny freeze-dried olive oil pellets? Or some space foam made with liquefied popcorn that has the texture of a giant Cocoa Puff blasted with air – thanks to exposure to a substance that is 320 degrees below zero.

As you might expect, the scientists in the audience at the space-technology meeting – a gathering to tout the work of the Golden-based Eighth Continent Project – were mesmerized by Kleinman’s performance, especially when he made an egg float two inches high in a demonstration of superconductivity. One said it reminded him of the days he used to work with liquid nitrogen in a lab, so why wasn’t Kleinman wearing any protective gear?

In the era of “Iron Chef,” diners expect to be entertained, and Kleinman is happy to deliver, taking the opportunity to escape the kitchen and meet with diners at the hotel restaurant when they order the special dessert. Customers get to watch him work table-side as he pours liquid nitrogen into mixing bowls like a wizard concocting a magic potion.

“Why not have something fun and unique?” said Kleinman, during a private demonstration for ColoradoBiz TV (click here to watch). “I know if I’m sitting at a table and something comes floating out to me, I’m going to be enthralled and a little bit more interested. The dish might even taste a little bit better because of the ‘wow’ presentation.”

A couple of years ago, the third-generation chef – both Kleinman’s father and grandfather are in the business - was bored with what he was doing and wanted to try something new.

“You just get to the point, probably like everybody that does in their industry if you’ve worked at it a long time, where you look for the new,” he said.

Kleinman started working with another chef who taught him more about “molecular” cooking, a movement that started in Spain with the introduction of tapas, or small plates. Since many of the recipes are written in Spanish and don’t translate well to English, Kleinman said, he plunged in.

“I just ordered what I thought I would need to produce the textures that I wanted,” he said. “It’s just like sitting in eighth grade science class where you have a test and you do a bunch of different experiments, and you get to the texture you want.”

Kleinman then applies those textures to various kinds of food: “It’s a lot of fun writing menus because now I don’t think about what I’m going to grill. I think about what I’m going to freeze or glue together to make into a noodle.”

For someone who uses his “nitrogen chef” demonstration to build a buzz at the restaurant, it might be surprising to hear that he’s not all that keen on the impact of the Food Network on the restaurant trade.

“I love the Food Network probably just like anybody else, but I really think that it’s kind of hurt our industry,” he said. “People watch the Food Network, and everybody thinks they’re an expert on judging food or how food comes out of the kitchen. It’s a really hard industry. It’s 365 days a year.”

Chances are, those Food Network fans don’t know much about how to cook with a 300-gallon tank of liquid nitrogen by your side.

“Molecular cuisine is so interesting to me because it brings the romance back into dining,” he said. “You might read something on the menu, but you have no idea what I’m going to do – it’s probably going to be hard for you to duplicate that in your kitchen.”

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Mike Cote is the former editor of ColoradoBiz. E-mail him at mcote@cobizmag.com.

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