Clever turns to cloying real quick these days.
Last night for an opening showcase at the Pebble Beach Food & Wine Festival, two highly decorated chefs used the same device in an attempt to tickle both the tongues and the nostalgic pleasure centers of anyone older than 30: Graham Elliot, the Chicago restauranteur and Yigit Pura, the winner of Top Chef Just Desserts, both used Pop Rocks in their dishes.
Pop Rocks are, of course, the much obsessed-over candy which come in a little packet, fizz and pop on your tongue, and, most infamously, would supposedly make your stomach literally explode if you ate them and drank Coke at the same time. This never actually happened to anyone, but everyone thought it did, so Pop Rocks achieved urban legend status and for years were very difficult to find. But they are back, in a certified non-stomach-exploding version, and Elliot and Pura were trying to dazzle palates with them last night in a ballroom at this resort next to the fizzing and popping Pacific Ocean.
Neither chef was aiming for Adria-tic or Achatz-ic heights of mindblowingness with this little swipe at molecular cuisine. Each simply wanted to be playful. Elliot served a foie gras lollipop dusted with Pop Rocks. The smooth fat of the liver coated the tongue just as the Pop Rocks started drumming against the palate, creating a mouth massage.
Pura used the candy to dust the top of a panna cotta with Campari gelee, the rocks starting as a contrasting crunch to the smooth dessert in a clear square cup and then extending the mouth life of the dish as the crunch gave way to popping for a second act.
So I’m not saying I didn’t like the concoctions themselves. The problem is that a joke only works once a night—and maybe once a decade.
I ate Elliot’s first and was tickled. Then a few minutes later, on the other side of a banquet room at the Inn at Spanish Harbor, Yigit expressed some frustration at my lack of reaction when he explained his dish.
“You’re not laughing? No smile?” he asked. His assistant also looked expectantly at me.
“Look Yigit,” I said. “It’s like this. One time I was at a standup comedy club in LA and a guy came out and told a joke about going to a store to buy condoms. The salesman gave the guy a board with a lot of different sized holes punched in it and said the customer should go to the dressing room to figure out what size condom he needed. After a while, the customer comes out of the dressing room and says, ‘Forget the condoms. How much for this board?’
“Okay, it’s a good joke. But then, twenty minutes later, another comedian comes out and tells the same joke. He can’t believe that no one is laughing. This is his best joke. Finally, someone from the audience—actually, me—yells out that we’d heard the joke three comedians earlier.
“So you see Yigit, it’s not that that the Pop Rocks aren’t delightful. They’re a fine joke. It’s just that the comedian/chef across the room from you just told it to me three minutes ago.
“But, hey, seriously, congratulations on your Top Chef victory!” (Speaking of which, Dannielle Kyrillos, Food Republic columnist and judge on the show, is also at the Pebble Beach festival and told me they are about to start taping season 2 of Top Chef Just Desserts.)
What I didn’t say to him or to Elliot is that Pop Rocks is actually a joke I’ve been hearing for years in every format possible: friends serve them at parties, hoping to start conversations about funny things from childhood (like Wacky Packages, the Cabbage Patch craze, and Space Invaders); officemates gift them in Secret Santa exchanges; and, yes, chefs have been playing the trick for maybe a few too many years.
One of my tasting mates last night was Amy Kalinowski, a sous chef at Michael’s Genuine Food and Drink in Miami. She was a culinary student at Johnson and Wales cooking school three long years ago.
“Someone came to class from a local bakery and she did a fudge cake with cocoa nibs and Pop Rocks,” Amy said. “That was 2008. It’s not original anymore.”
Doubtless, it’s hard to be original all the time. That’s a high standard. Still, perhaps there are ways creative people can recast tired things and make them work anew.
So, ah… how much for this board?