By Shay Spence

 

When you hear terms like “modernist cuisine” or “molecular gastronomy,” it brings to mind visions of mad scientist-like chefs using fancy machines to create concoctions that you’re not sure if you’re supposed to eat or see on display at the Museum of Modern Art. But for Chef John Bignelli of the East Village hot spot Alder, modernist cooking is anything but. Instead, he crafts playful takes on classic, comfortable flavor, creating dishes that are brilliant and fascinating, but still familiar.

 

This October, I was lucky enough to attend a recreational cooking class with Chef Bignelli at ICE, which featured his signature dishes. Pasta that tastes like a pastrami on rye? New England clam chowder with “oyster” crackers made from a puree of actual oysters? Yes, please.

Fresh pasta made with caraway seeds and served on house made pastrami to emulate the flavors of a classic deli sandwich.

Fresh pasta made with caraway seeds and served on house made pastrami to emulate the flavors of a classic deli sandwich.

Chef Bignelli’s culinary career began in New York City fine dining establishment Aquavit, the Michelin-starred Nordic restaurant—whose kitchen, at the time, was headed up by Marcus Samuelsson—where he worked his way up to sous chef in just a few short years.

 

In 2007, Bignelli switched gears by accepting a position at wd-50 under Wylie Dufresne, perhaps the most famous American chef in the realm of molecular gastronomy. It was here that his experience in classical technique merged with his eagerness to learn new methods, and working together with Wylie allowed him to execute some of the most innovative dishes New York had ever seen.

Chef Bignelli showing rec students how to pass a traditional hot dog bun through a pasta machine to make his take on “pigs in a blanket.”

Chef Bignelli showing rec students how to pass a traditional hot dog bun through a pasta machine to make his take on “pigs in a blanket.”

With their new venture at Alder, Wylie and John were looking for a more simple and subtle approach, without losing their modernist edge. Bignelli describes the concept behind Alder as an “American version of a pub” – something he feels is new to the New York dining scene.

“Caesar Nigiri” made from salt-cured mackerel, egg yolk puree, Worcestershire glaze, honey garlic, and parmesan. All the flavors of a caesar salad in one small bite.

“Caesar Nigiri” made from salt-cured mackerel, egg yolk puree, Worcestershire glaze, honey garlic, and parmesan. All the flavors of a caesar salad in one small bite.

Over the course of four hours, students experienced a glimpse into the world of a truly innovative culinary mind, where techniques are not restricted to conventional ideas, but flavors still ring of nostalgia. The signature dishes of Alder merge the excitement of the new with the comfort of the old, and that is one recipe that keeps guests coming back.

For dessert: cheesecake-stuffed figs with graham cracker topping.

For dessert: cheesecake-stuffed figs with graham cracker topping.

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