Midway through our six-course meal, one of the members of our dining party paused mid-bite. Fork poised over her strip loin of beef (medium rare, served with parsnip puree) and roast piquillo pepper (stuffed with goat cheese and shredded, braised short ribs), she exclaimed with a note of wonder, "This is so good I want to cry."
Days earlier, four of us had made a reservation at Z Kitchen, the private dining club launched this fall by hypermodern chef, and Duke junior, Bryan Zupon. We were intrigued by the premise: a private dining club that operates only a couple of nights a week (at most) and serves food based on the latest trend in cooking.
Hypermodernists like Zupon are part mad scientist and part culinary trailblazer, using additives like agar, to create gel-like textures, and nitrous oxide, to whip up mushroom or beet foams, and tweaking standard pairings in unexpected ways (a bubble of mozzarella infused with tomato "air" or a Caesar salad of parmesan-crusted romaine and brioche "twinkie" croutons). Another hypermodern hallmark is pairing foods that usually never meet on a plate. For example, Thomas Keller, the only American-born chef to have two three-star restaurants since the Michelin Guide's inception in 1900, created his signature "Oysters and Pearls" dish by combining tapioca custard, oysters, and caviar. At his WD-50 restaurant in New York, Wylie Dufresne offers an appetizer of Sake-pine nut gazpacho with oysters, cherries, and coffee oil.
Intrigued but skittish, at the appointed hour of seven o'clock, four of us climbed the concrete and metal staircase to Apartment H, located on the second floor of an aging, 1970s-era brick building a short walk from West Campus. Recycling bins in front of neighboring apartments brimmed with empty beer bottles and flattened cereal boxes. We knocked on the worn metal door, which was answered by Zupon, attired in a black Polo shirt and brown shorts, a crisp white apron tied neatly around his waist.
"Welcome to Z Kitchen," he said, waving us in. Two things struck us immediately. One, given that Zupon operates Z Kitchen out of the bachelor-pad apartment he shares with two roommates, it was remarkably tidy. Two, no smells wafted out of the kitchen. As we would soon discover, most of the actual cooking had already taken place.
Like Dufresne and the other avant-garde chefs he admires, Zupon is experimenting with ways to push the boundaries of new cuisine. One technique quickly gaining favor is sous vide, which translates from the French as "under vacuum." At first blush it seems to be little more than a variation on the old boil-in-the-bag approach to easy, one-pot cooking. In practice, it requires chefs to understand how ingredients that have been vacuum sealed in plastic pouches react chemically to low temperatures (below the boiling point) and slow cooking times (hours and hours) while both maintaining and enhancing the integrity of the food. With sous vide, purer, deeper flavors emerge because nothing is lost in the cooking process. Devised by French chef Georges Pralus in the mid-1970s, sous vide has been embraced by the culinary avant-garde.
While it can be disconcerting to show up for dinner and not smell heady aromas of things simmering, Zupon explained to us that sous vide is a boon to chefs not only because it creates wonderful marriages of flavors, but also because it means that the bulk of the cooking is done ahead of time. Any last-minute sautéeing or prepping required can be done precisely at the moment when diners are ready for their next dish.
Before we settled down to our meal, Zupon complied with our requests to see the Z Kitchen pantry and prep area. Two water baths—similar to what you might find in a pharmaceutical laboratory—took up counter space along with a vacuum sealer he uses to create the sous vide pouches. There's also an induction cook top, a device resembling a modernized hot plate that can heat pots or pans in a fraction of the time that it takes an electric or gas burner (and cool off just as fast). Because the cook top itself doesn't get hot but rather transfers the heat directly to the pan, the induction method is energy efficient and results in fewer burned fingers or hands.
As music by Miles Davis played softly in the background, we took our places around the dining-room table, which had been minimally adorned with black placemats, silverware, and two flickering, white pillar candles. A computer printout of the evening's revised menu rested at each place setting. Throughout the evening, Zupon used a nearby prep table to plate each course as it came out of the kitchen.
First up was a trio of salads: two plump, balsamic-infused strawberries with an almost imperceptible smattering of black pepper, small cubes of roasted red and gold beets, each topped with a smidgen of Fourme d' Ambert, a traditional French blue cheese, and a single butter-poached asparagus spear with a light dusting of black truffle salt. Zupon urged us to eat from left to right to emphasize the progression of flavors and textures. The gimmick worked. Each morsel provided a pleasing ripple effect of subtle sensations on our palates. The ripe, bittersweet bite of the vinegar-kissed strawberry was replaced by the earthy, pungent tang of beet and blue cheese (with a hint of orange-blossom honey providing a sweet undertone), followed closely by the spicy crunch of the asparagus.
We were hooked. Not only was each portion a winning combination of texture, seasoning, and aroma, but the salad—and each course that followed—reflected the attention to aesthetics that is a hallmark of this type of cooking. One sauce was presented as a broad brushstroke across the surface of a plate. Another dish resembled geometric artwork—smooth red and green crescents of heirloom tomato juxtaposed with a sharp triangle of toasted panino. The "minerally Riesling" he had suggested we bring was a lovely pairing with the dish. (Z Kitchen is a BYOB affair, but Zupon makes wine recommendations in advance.)
Plates cleared, Zupon presented the next course, a modest portion of flaky cod served in a shallow bowl with braised fennel and raisins in a Nueske bacon broth. The sous vide technique had rendered the fish so tender it yielded immediately to the slightest pressure from a fork. The anise-like aroma of the fennel counterbalanced the smoky heft of the bacon broth, while the raisins somehow managed to be both understated and zingy.
Zupon's clientele consists of Duke students on double dates and an occasional food writer who's heard about what he's doing. Advance reservations are a must, and can be made by e-mailing Zupon. He does no advertising or promotion; instead, his fanbase grows through word of mouth. "When people first hear about hypermod-ern food, they think it's a joke, and a bad joke at that," Zupon said as he re-filled water and wine glasses between courses. "For me, it's about introducing people to the most elemental aspects of food, taking food that is familiar but focusing on simple, clean flavors that are delicious. And I think that once people try it, they understand what I'm trying to do."
Zupon said that in his own restaurant travels, he pursues an array of flavors rather than a single, hefty entrée. "No matter how good the food is, your palate gets tired after several bites of the same thing. I prefer small portions. I want people to have a clear memory of everything they ate, rather than the dull sensation of having just eaten a half-pound of meat."
Zupon is no food snob. The night before our meal he'd hunkered down at Chapel Hill's Allen and Sons, acclaimed for its authentic hickory-smoked, slow-cooked barbecue. (Okay, so he was reviewing it for The Chronicle, but still, it was his idea, and he liked everything he ate.) Yet the young boy who talked his parents into getting cable television solely in order to watch the Food Network has grown into a young man who spent hundreds of dollars to fly to Chicago with his girlfriend for one night in order to dine at chef Grant Achatz's acclaimed Alinea restaurant. (Debuting this fall in the top spot of Gourmet magazine's "Top 50" American restaurants issue—it's only been open since May 2005—Alinea offers diners twenty-four-course "tours" for $175, or a twelve-course tasting menu for $125. An early fall menu included rabbit prepared with cider, roast garlic, and "smell of burning leaves.")
Zupon's refined-yet-fearless palate can be traced back to his childhood. Eschewing Happy Meals for haute cuisine, his parents always encouraged culinary exploration. His mother, Shizuko Kitagawa, frequently prepared Zupon's school lunches in the traditional Japanese obento style, an enticing, elegant way of preparing and presenting food. Instead of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Zupon's elementary-school fare was more likely to include delicate, star-shaped omelets and whimsically carved vegetable pieces. A few years ago, Zupon's parents remodeled the kitchen in their Basking Ridge, New Jersey, home to accom-modate his culinary exploits. Some kids beg their parents for Xboxes and automobiles.
Zupon's requited wish? A six-burner Viking gas range.
Jacqueline Marcus, who started dating Zupon when they were sophomores in high school, recalls the excitement among her Pingry School classmates when the Asian Culture Club cooked dumplings and eggrolls. "It was the happiest day at school, and Bryan's [offerings] were always the best." Marcus, a fledgling sous chef who calls herself "the woman behind the man behind the knife," says her own appreciation for food has been influenced by Zupon's culinary curiosity.
"We used to find recipes on epicurious.com and follow them exactly," says Marcus, a junior at Brown University. "Then we went through a period of time where we cooked a lot of duck and tried different glazes, like blueberry or orange-ginger. It's only been in the past year that Bryan has really gotten into molecular gastronomy, and, as his obsession with the science of food grows, his food just keeps getting better."
Back in Z Kitchen, Zupon disappeared behind the teal curtain that separated the dining room from the kitchen to put the finishing touches on our next dish. We began comparing memories of the best and worst food experiences we'd had growing up. The lows—overcooked, mushy vegetables, casseroles bound together by cream of mushroom soup—were remarkable for their gloppy consistency and bland uniformity. The highs—fresh, perfectly ripe peaches eaten outside on a summer day, for example—were sublime, multi-sensory encounters that juxtaposed simplicity (a single fruit) with complexity (juice and flesh, sweet and tart, a lush bouquet reverberating throughout the nose, mouth, tongue, and throat). In other words, the most sensual and satisfying foods provided nourishment for our souls as well as our bellies. How sad, tragic really, to waste one's life eating mediocre food for caloric intake alone, we ventured. To address this dangerous temptation in our own busy lives, we agreed that frequent return trips to Z Kitchen were in order.
Next, Zupon brought out the third course, the beef-loin strips that had been cooked sous vide for about six hours, then pan seared on the induction cook top to give the beef a thin, dark, savory crust to offset the pink blush of the meat. We ate slowly, silently, savoring each tender morsel. Next up was a sophisticated twist on the tomato-soup-and-grilled-cheese-sandwich combo that has sustained many a budget-conscious household. Orbs of skinned heirloom tomatoes with sherry-vinegar syrup were paired with grilled panini thinly layered with ham and Sottocenere, a hard, cow's-milk cheese laced with slivers of black truffle. Although Emily Post might have scolded, we happily sopped up every last drop of the tomato essence with our crunchy panino crusts.
Pleasantly sated, we watched as Zupon turned his attention to the "champagne and chocolate" course. Using a CO2 charger, he infused red and green grapes with carbon dioxide, creating cold, crunchy globes of effervescent fruit. "I tried this technique once with cherries in red-wine syrup, and it sprayed all over the place," he said with a sheepish grin. The grapes were served in small ramekins set on a plate adorned with a streak of miso-chocolate sauce he'd painted on with a brush.
We could easily have called it a night—none of us had indulged in a five-course meal for a long time—but Zupon had one more dish to present: a blueberry crisp served with vanilla ice cream and a drizzle of an almost syrup-like corn broth. "Blueberries and corn are very trendy right now," he informed us. The result was a curiously elegant matching of flavors evocative of Fourth of July picnics.
Once Zupon had cleared all the plates and silverware, and refilled our glasses, we invited him to pull up a chair and join us in conversation. For the next half hour, we asked an array of food-related questions. Where does he buy most of his ingredients? Whole Foods and mail order. Where does he get his ideas? Online discussion groups such as egullet.com and restaurants run by chefs he admires. Which restaurants does he like? Locally, he frequents Federal, Nana's, Starlu, Piedmont, and Bin 54, "because they take the familiar but aren't afraid to have a little bit of fun and add some creativity in their food."
On the international landscape, Zupon says he's determined to secure a reservation at El Bulli, the culinary equivalent of mecca for hard-core foodies. (Only open six months a year, the tiny restaurant on Spain's Catalonia coast is run by chef Ferrán Adrià, who has been called "the Salvador Dali of the Kitchen" for his mind-blowing hypermodern menu.)
We asked him whether he planned to attend cooking school after graduating from Duke or go straight into an apprenticeship at an in-vogue eatery. His answer brought us up short. "I don't want to be a chef and own my own restaurant," he said. "I'll either apply to law school or business school. I decided to major in history and economics, and earn a certificate in Markets and Management, so I could keep my options open."
We implored him to reconsider: You have a gift, we insisted. Anyone can be a lawyer; not everyone can cook like this. Rethink your career plans!
Zupon smiled, flattered at our persistence. "I'm not shy about the fact that I want to make money, and owning a restaurant is a lot of work. I want to be able to maintain and enjoy a good lifestyle, and I don't mind working eighty hours in a law firm if that's what it takes.
"Cooking can wait."
During the week, cooking does wait. Z Kitchen is open only on the weekends by advance reservation. The rest of Zupon's time is spent juggling an economics class in financial investments, a sociology course on the global economy, an international comparative studies class on the Caribbean in the eighteenth century, and intermediate Latin. In addition to generating food columns for The Chronicle, he serves as a liaison between students and dining services as co-chair of the Duke Student Dining Advisory Committee. ("Because of his passion as a ‘foodie,' Bryan is more inclined to invest time in that role and to help the rest of us think about how to bring new food trends to campus," says James Wulforst, director of dining services.)
And yet within minutes, Zupon became animated talking about what he had in mind for Z Kitchen's fall and winter menus. As nights grow longer and temperatures drop, he'll introduce a green, heirloom-tomato gazpacho with spicy tomato air, cumin, and cayenne pepper. Seasonal vegetables such as carrots and squash will be cooked sous vide to bring out their inherent sweetness without having to resort to the predictable fall flavorings of spice and sugar. Meats will be braised and slow-cooked.
As we bid Zupon goodbye and headed out into the crisp night air, we had our own ideas for Z Kitchen dishes. Perhaps a ravioli dish that combines pumpkin, sage, and persimmon. Maybe a sous vide beef tenderloin with some kind of rosemary, caper, and huckleberry complement.
Well, maybe not.
But once you've been introduced to Zupon's hypermodern wonderland, there's no turning back. The bland landscape of chain restaurants and tame flavors recedes, replaced by new food horizons that beckon with multi-sensory pleasures.
As this issue went to press, Z Kitchen went on indefinite hiatus because of its questionable status as a food-service provider under Durham County Health Department regulations. Zupon says he plans to continue his personal culinary experimentation by cooking informally for friends.