At the start of September, photos circulated around the Hanoi online ether of two men dressed up in nuclear reactor-style protective clothing. Surrounded by smoke and with a large canister of liquid nitrogen in the background, the men were compared by some to characters in the TV series, Breaking Bad.
But these were no former high-school chemistry teachers, no Walter Whites. Instead, the man in the glasses is the chef de cuisine of the JW Marriott, Raphael Szurek, and the guy with the Fidel Castro-like beard is Richard McDonough, a modernist cocktail maker or, as he likes to call himself, a mood therapist. Together they were teaming up to create probably the most unusual dinner ever seen in Vietnam — Molecular Night
The Mood Therapist
McDonough’s interest in scientifically created cocktails started when he did a stint as a “trailing spouse” living in Ghana. His wife was working on an aid project, which left him with a lot of time on his hands. “I was growing my own vegetables, raising chickens and using the eggs,” he explains. “And I was cooking and putting on dinner parties.”
With the cooking came the idea of playing with the flavours and the cuisine. That led to listening to a podcast called Cooking Issues, and then onto reading a book called Modernist Cuisine at Home. Eventually, the food idea became unwieldy and he switched to drinks. “When I came back to Hanoi, everyone was, like, ‘you should open a bar’.”
His first attempt was at this year’s ASEAN Pride Festival at The American Club, where a friend hired him to do the VIP bar. “It was four different cocktails, but I pumped out 200 drinks in the evening,” he says. “One of the directors from Christian Dior was there and he got in touch with me at the end of July. I invited him round to see my lab and its weird collection of machinery. He came over on the Friday afternoon and the following Tuesday he flew me down to Ho Chi Minh City to do the first event for them.” From there he met the brand director of Moët Hennessy — he’s now working on a project with them. After that, Raphael got in touch and suggested the idea of working together at the JW Marriott. The dinner they created ran for three Saturdays in September.
On a Thursday afternoon in mid-September I was invited to JW Marriott’s signature restaurant, French Grill, to see Richard and Rafael at work. They were pairing the drinks and the food in preparation for the first dinner two days later.
One of the pairings I was to witness was the cocktail Tea Time with a Foie Gras Lollipop.
“Tea Time uses an old technique called milk washing,” explains Richard. “You take your vodka and throw in some tea. There are two processes. You make the vodka mix, which is vodka, tea, milk and citric acid. You use a centrifuge to get rid of the curds.
It’s still got the whey protein in it — that’s what makes it foam. The second process is making the cocktail. To do this you add honey and lemon.”
Raphael’s journey to make his foie gras chocolate lollipop coated in wasabi sesame seeds was an equally drawn-out process.
“I look at a lot of photos on Instagram and Facebook,” he explains. “Professional chef stuff. Sometimes I see an idea here or an idea there, and then I try and combine the flavours together. First I imagine it in my head then I try and make it.”
The idea for adding sesame seeds to the chocolate coating, however, came from a recent trip to France — Raphael saw the seeds in a shop there and thought the idea “was very cool”. From there, it took three tries to settle on Marou as the chocolate which worked best for the coating.
He adds: “When I made this pairing for the cocktail, in my mind there was the sweetness of the foie gras compared with the milk-washed vodka. The chocolate brings some crunch and some sweetness, but then you have a spicy kick with the wasabi seeds. We want to surprise the guests. When they see this, people are going to think it’s sweet, but actually it’s savoury. They don’t realise it’s foie gras. We have a menu with the names of what we’ve created, but it’s not obvious what’s inside.”
The Chemistry Lab
“At home I have a carbonation rig, sous- vide and a centrifuge,” says Richard when describing his home-built lab. As soon as he got the centrifuge he tried to use it for everything — some ingredients worked, some didn’t.
“The lychee season was in when I got the centrifuge,” he recalls. “Fresh Vietnamese lychees go from being milky white into this pale, pink, clear liquid, which is really fragrant and delicious.”
Other concoctions, like his one-for-the- road pho shot didn’t work. “It was a bit too spicy. I haven’t followed it up.”
When he eventually came up with an oyster-like cocktail called the Seoul drifter, it was a major departure from the original idea, which was based on seaweed-infused sake and cucumber juice. The cocktail is a gel bubble filled with clarified white grape juice, white plum juice, shochu and hibiscus. When you put it in your mouth, it pops and out comes the contents. For the pairing, Raphael added Fines de Claires oysters with cucumber salad and pickled ginger, with the gel bubble served up on an empty oyster shell with a touch of shochu, sherry vinegar and hazelnut oil.
I’m lucky enough to try it. I put it in my mouth, I taste the savoury, acidic flavours of the shochu and the vinegar. Then suddenly it pops and out pours the sweetness of the juices. Wow!
“All the work is at the back end, but it comes down to one thing,” says Richard. “It has to be delicious.”