katsuya-with-saltIt takes a practiced hand to find that perfect balance between too much salt and just enough in a run-of-the-mill recipe.  When the recipe is something as unique as a margarita with a citrus-salt “air” or “wrinkled” potatoes with a dried salt crust, however, your best bet is to leave it to the pros.

Last Thursday, Elizabeth and I did just that as we attended a demonstration by Chef Katusya Fukushima of the ThinkFoodGroup held at Bethesda’s L’Academie de Cuisine.  The class was Elizabeth’s Christmas gift to me – knowing what fans we were of Katsuya’s work at Minibar, she jumped at the chance to take me to see him in action.

overheadWe arrived a few minutes late (curse you, rush hour traffic!) for the 7 PM class, and found seats toward the back of the demonstration classroom.  Bummer, right?  Wrong!  This amphitheatre-test kitchen hybrid offers seating for roughly 30 people, and it’s set up so that everyone can see the action taking place on the counters and burners that face outward.  Even if your seat offers an obstructed view, you need only look up to find what is taking place reflected in the angled mirrors above.

A description of the class and some gorgeous photos of what Katsuya served up after the jump.

katsuya-with-blender1The evening began with a cocktail.  Although Katsuya is no stranger to showing off for customers at Minibar, he admitted to being a bit uncomfortable in speaking engagements, so he likes to start off with a drink to take the edge off.

In this case, he whipped up the most Minibar-reminiscent dish of the evening in the form of margarita.  By adding soy lecithin, a natural emulsifier, to a mixture of salt and citrus juices, he was able to create a whipped “air” that was reminiscent of seaspray in both texture and taste.  It was all I could do to stop myself from dragging Elizabeth to Whole Foods after the class to find some lecithin of our own.

shrimp-salt-vanillaFrom there, Katsuya turned us on to a great way to enjoy shrimp: he cooked them whole (head and tail attached) with split vanilla pods for flavor and a deep bed of salt below them to prevent the dish from burning.  It was a very healthy presentation, and we enjoyed sucking the flavor from the heads.  With the outer shell still intact as they were cooking, the shrimp were able to retain a lot of their natural sweetness without being overwhelmed by salt.  And the vanilla, warmed over the salt as well, provided a surprising and subtle note.

snapper-with-potato-and-verdeDespite his protestations of shyness, Katsuya worked the crowd easily.  He joked with the audience throughout the evening, regaling us with anecdotes.  He even seemed at ease when several pieces of temperamental equipment threw the timing of his dishes off, resulting in a plate of (intentionally) wrinkled potatoes being served before the salt-crusted red snapper that was meant to accompany them was even close to being done.

Those potatoes were an impressive bit of culinary theater.  Cooked in heavily salted boiling water, they begin to display a whitish crust of salt as the liquid cooks off and the potatoes’ exteriors are robbed of their moisture, leaving just the salt behind.  They take on a wrinkled appearance that gives them their name, and their texture is creamy and soft inside with just a moment’s resistance when you first bite into them.

The red snapper was packed into a large shell of kosher salt that had been blended with chopped herbs.  We’ve seen the presentation before at Dino, where their salt-packed branzino left an indelible impression on Elizabeth a few years ago.  After the fish was trimmed of its fins and covered with the salt, it went into the oven.  Under normal circumstances, Katsuya estimated that the fish should take 20-25 minutes in the oven.  In this case, however, the oven seemed to be heating slowly so it took a bit longer than 30 minutes.  Even so, Katsuya kept his energy level up throughout and probably made some new fans in the process.

too-slowDessert was such a complicated offering that the recipe which accompanied the class could just as easily be titled “Yeah, right…You’re going to make this?”  It featured poached pears, chocolate, hazelnuts and several other equally tasty ingredients.  Unfortunately, I dug in ravenously and was unable to refrain from scraping the bottom of the bowl before I realized that I had forgotten to take a picture.

Not to worry, though!  Katsuya even helped to make that better – by giving the class a second dessert.  He had one of his assistants slice a baguette, top it with some shredded chocolate, and then serve it with a pinch of love (Look out L’Academie grad and current Top Chef Carla Hall!) in the form of some Maldon salt.  I’ve heard a lot about Maldon lately and I’m really interested to try it for myself.  Anyone have some they’d be willing to share?

baguette-with-melted-chocolate-and-maldonThe evening practically flew by as we watched Katsuya work his magic – this class wasn’t just  a demonstration, it was a chance to show exactly what goes through Katsuya’s mind when he’s greeted with a fridge full of strange items.  Before we knew it, three hours had passed and it was time to call it a night.

The evening made a GREAT Christmas present for me, and I would highly recommend a gift certificate to L’Academie (or a purchase of a ticket to a specific class, if you’d prefer) as a Valentine’s Day gift for that hard-to-please foodie in your life.  You can find L’Academie online at http://www.lacademie.com/, and you can check out their entire spring lineup before you commit to taking a class.  If your significant other is like me and is especially eager to see Katsuya, you can sign them up for one (or more) of his three remaining classes – February 26, March 19th and April 16th.  Each one will focus on a different theme element.