Interview by Marilyn Kitzes
As it turns out, a computer can teach a seasoned chef a lot about cooking. Just ask James Briscione, director of culinary development at the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE), one of the world’s largest cooking schools. Back in 2012, Briscione was approached by IBM to collaborate on a creative cooking project with Watson, their famed supercomputer. The project was simple: Watson would come up with ingredient combinations that it predicted would taste good—but were rarely paired—and ICE chefs would create dishes based on those combinations. After coming up with interesting dishes (ones Briscione admitted he could never have come up with on his own), the ever-curious chef set himself down a deeper path of food pairing exploration. His experimentations led him to writing his fourth book, The Flavor Matrix (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), a cookbook that explores how the aromatic compounds in uncommon ingredients can be paired to create fantastic flavor.
We asked Briscione—a two-time champion of Food Network’s Chopped who just also opened a brand-new restaurant in Pensacola, FL—about his perspectives on food and science.
Sous-Vide: How did an interest in science dovetail with your passion for cooking?
James Briscione: Cooking is science. So much of cooking is being able to anticipate what’s going to happen next. So the more you understand about what is happening when you cook a meal, the better you will be at cooking. This typically only happens after years and years of cooking. But learning the principles behind how food is constructed and what happens when it cooks can help anyone. I have always been interested in that part of cooking. I have a fairly analytical mind, so I am always looking to understand the how and why.
SV: Tell us about your (and your wife Brooke’s) new Italian restaurant, Angelena’s. Any unusual pairings on the menu? Any incorporations of sous vide?
JB: We’re so excited about the opening of Angelena’s, and the community in Pensacola has really rallied around this restaurant. As far as innovations go, I have to be careful in the kitchen, because Italian is steeped in tradition, and if you mess with it too much, you’re going to make some people mad. That said, we find our spots for creative touches and unexpected hits of flavor on the menu. Our Chianti-Braised Short Ribs are served with fresh and bright Italian salsa verde with capers and red wine vinegar, and our Tuscan Kale Caesar is finished with freshly grated Parmesan and a generous dusting of tomato powder that gives it a beautiful pink hue. Our Pork Belly Bruschetta is based on porchetta—the rolled pork bellies are cooked sous vide (154.4˚F/68˚C for 18 hours), then thinly shaved and piled on top of a peach agrodolce. Soon, we’ll be adding a tasting menu where we will really flex our creative muscles and incorporate a good bit more sous vide.
SV: Speaking of sous vide, you’re going to be speaking this July at the Sous Vide Summit in Philadelphia. What can attendees expect to hear from you, and what are you looking forward to at the event?
JB: There’s a lot of excitement around this event, and I can’t wait to see the crowd that shows up. I will be giving a keynote talk about innovation in the kitchen—how the journey of creating The Flavor Matrix and developing the Modern Cuisine Program at ICE brought me to where I am today, what I learned along the way, and hopefully some entertaining bits that will help everyone there be more creative in the kitchen. I’ll also be doing a demo that will show how you can bring some modern innovation with sous vide to classic Italian dishes. I’m planning to make a sous vide lamb shoulder ragu with dill cavatelli.
SV: Why do you enjoy using sous vide?
JB: I feel like sous vide really allows me to achieve results in the kitchen that would never be possible otherwise. When I am teaching sous vide, the first thing I ever make for a class is a chicken breast. It is amazing to see students’ eyes light up in revelation. They all say the same thing: “OMG, I have never tasted chicken like this before!” It’s the way chicken is meant to be. Beyond that, sous vide allows me to be far more creative in the kitchen: I know that I can confidently put something in a water bath to cook while I focus on other parts of the dish or use specific temperatures to achieve textures and flavors in food that wouldn’t be possible with traditional methods.
SV: You’re a busy guy—with the restaurant, your position at ICE, and the Food Network show. What’s next?
JB: Sleep, I hope! Our baby, Angelena’s, is so new but we love it and know that is a really strong concept, so I hope to see a good bit of expansion with the restaurant. But before any of that happens, we’re just putting the finishing touches on our follow-up book, entitled Flavor for All, a new collection of recipes for everyday meals and entertaining inspired by the innovative pairings from The Flavor Matrix.