Magic in the numbers

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Interview by Gheanna Emelia
Photography by Sigurd Widenfalk

To call Chef Daniel Burns a soft-spoken man would be slightly misguided. Though he readily admits he’s not an “asshole chef,” the calm and focused way he runs his kitchen at Luksus in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, still commands attention. Plus: get the guy started on the right topic, and he could go on forever. The right topic turns out to be ice cream. When Brutal Magazine first approached Chef Daniel Burns, we asked if he could provide beer pairings for a hot dog story we wanted to run.
“I’m not really interested in beer pairings with dishes.”
“But: I AM interested in ice cream.”
Coming from the man who perfected the smoked bacon and egg ice cream under James Petrie at the Fat Duck in London — and who later ran the pastry department at the world famous Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark — we’d be crazy not to let Burns do what he does best, and what he truly loves. As he quenelles Luksus’ signature licorice and beetroot ice cream with an easy flick of his wrist, he delves into the science of ice cream, the lack of a boundary between the savory and pastry roles in his kitchen, and the current state of fine dining.

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Gheanna Emelia: Tell me all about ice cream.
Daniel Burns: Well, when I was in England I basically trained as a savory chef. Later on, I had an opportunity to work at The Fat Duck, but it was a pastry position. I think a good amount of other chefs would have been like, “Fuck that, I don’t do that.” But I thought, “I’m gonna have my own restaurant one day and I want to know both sides of the kitchen at least a little bit.” The pastry chef [at The Fat Duck] actually sort of he preferred that people have a savory palate in order to go in the pastry kitchen. Heston [Blumenthal] is also crazy about ice cream, so we had fourteen ice creams to churn for lunch and for dinner. It was like a whole section. It blew my mind that that could exist.

What is it about ice cream that really fascinates you? What sucked you in about it?
The smallest change in ingredients in the recipe can vastly change everything: how the texture is, how it melts. There’s so many factors. It’s not like soup where it’s already going to be warm or super hot. Those don’t affect it too much, but small changes in the temperature of the freezer really affect how the ice cream behaves. There are just so many factors affecting what make a really great ice cream.

What do you think people get wrong about ice cream?
First of all, I don’t think people really know the difference between really great ice cream and just “okay” ice cream. And then they also just think, “Oh look, it’s a frozen…something.” So that’s ice cream: where they have no clue about like ice crystallization or mouth feel and all those other things that’s great about ice cream. It’s very hard to get right.

Tell me more about ice crystallization and mouth feel.
Basically, Grandma’s recipe is like one liter of milk, one liter of cream, loads of egg yolks, and sugar. Then you cook it up until it sits, or until it can coat the back of a spoon — that’s the “perfect test.”
There’s a lot of things that are great about that. It’s very rich, but there’s so much fat in it that it coats your mouth when it melts. The flavor will disappear and be released, but then the cream will take over and that cream stays in your mouth.
Heston was like, “Well how do we fix that? Because I only want the flavor. I don’t want people to have cream in their mouth after it melts.” So he basically eliminated the amount of fat in the ice creams that he would make. But that means it’s basically just all water. There’s milk, but it’s 97 percent water. But if it’s just water, it’s going to harden up very quickly. After four hours, it’s almost as hard as a rock. This approach of less cream means, the ice cream goes in your mouth, the flavor gets released, and then there’s no fat to stick around. So now it’s like, “Wow, that’s crazy, there’s no cream in these ice creams but they have this beautiful, velvety, perfect texture. But when you put less cream in it, and less fat, then you have to manipulate it different ways. Like milk powder, just different things you add in. You need matter — you need “stuff” if there’s no cream. Stuff. Because if there’s just water and just milk, it’s ice crystals because it’s just like freezing water.

So what “matter” or “stuff” can you use to make it more than just water, or ice crystals?
There’s trimoline, which is an invert sugar that’s very interesting to use. It helps with scoopability of the ice cream, with how it’s shaped, so that was one thing I’ve never used before. I use trimoline both in ice cream and in sorbets. If you use trimoline in sorbet, it can have this ice cream feeling to it, even though it’s only juice and gelatin. It’s really a matter of: how do you stabilize the ice cream base? I use sorbet stabilizer for both sorbet and ice cream and then gelatin. In any combination. Another thing to use is called corn maltodextrin, which helps act against the ice crystallization. So we have trimoline, corn maltodextrin, stabilizer, and then the flavorings. The flavorings is trial and error. But what I would say is, with ice cream, you hit this magic in the numbers sort of thing.

Can you elaborate more on this “magic in the numbers”?
You take a blank piece of paper, you write down the ingredients you want, and then the gram weight. I fill it all in one by one. On the scale, you just pour in the ingredient until you think it’s good, and then you test that out in the end. The best example of that is probably the walnut ice cream at Noma. I think that’s still on the menu — maybe seven, eight years later. And that is pretty special — from the blast freezer, minus 30, 35 degrees, you can get a soft serve ice cream texture, which is pretty crazy to think about. That one I got basically got right the first time I tried it. Something special happened, whereby it was just right the first time. So that’s kind of cool. There is this sort of harmony within the recipe. It just works. You know, a lot of people use ratios — if there’s this much liquid, then they use this much stabilizer. A lot of other people say, “Oh, I have a sorbet syrup that I use for all my sorbets.” I don’t do any of that. Every ice cream or sorbet is completely unique. I take it as a unique challenge. That means each one will have a little bit different mouth feel and texture, and will melt differently. Each one is its own entity.

I’d like to go back to you having both a savory and pastry experience — it’s pretty rare to have both, no?
Well, my approach is just that it’s all the same. It’s kitchen. In terms of how I work, I do a pastry job and then a savory job, all throughout the day. I try to instill on my cooks that, “Hey man, you might have to juice a thousand carrots, chop a thousand onions and then make some ice cream.” They’re not going to be like, “Oh shit, I have to make the ice cream.” It’s just another job in the day. It’s all integrated. Once it’s not this scary, weird, ultra-precise thing, it’s just another part of your daily work. I think that’s how people should think about it, or that’s how I think about it. It definitely is rare to have both savory and pastry experience, but I feel equally confident in both.

You’re also one of the few that does savory desserts, right?
I would say almost like an under-sweet, you know? The desserts are pretty savory but there are frozen elements that are refreshing. It just makes sense to me to not have crazy sweet stuff. The American palate is definitely much more sweet than most other parts of the world. It might be a bit more shocking for some people to do it here.

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I believe you said at one point that having a savory dessert makes the menu more cohesive.
It’s a progression of the menu. I think I’ve said it a thousand times: the classic experience is to have the filet mignon, and then have the crème brûlée. There’s no connection there at all. It’s like two different worlds. And I feel that, in the classic French set-up, they ARE two different worlds. You don’t walk from the savory kitchen to the pastry. You get shot or something. It’s not okay to do that. They don’t even talk or know each other even exists. How can a filet mignon and crème brûlée follow from each other? They just never have. Savory and pastry are totally uninterested in what the hell the other one is doing, or even to learn the chefs’ names. So then how the hell are the entrée and dessert going to follow one after the other? It’s never going to be that way.

I guess the real question is —
What is fine dining?

Yeah. What is fine dining to you now?
The best example might be one of my best friends in the cooking world, Matt Orlando. He opened Amass [in Copenhagen, Denmark] the same day, or the day after we did. What’s he trying to do? He’s trying to do really amazing food at a lower price point and focus on spending money on the products — not a $1,000 wine decanter. Who cares about that? My direct peers and I are finally opening our own spots. We’re all actually pretty similar whereby we’re all low, lower budget shops and we’re just trying to make do. Of course, you can make it a little bit nice, as much as you can, but it’s all about the guest experience and little else. The food and the guest experience matter the most. When you have this approach where you say, “We’re not gonna buy the best linen,” then I think it opens up room for, “Well shit, why don’t I think about how the kitchen is set up too?” If you think of the front of the house and the restaurant differently, it makes you think, “Well, why don’t I think up something unique in the kitchen setup?”

What’s an example of that?
Well, one of the female chefs at Amass is in charge of growing all the plants and everything. That’s a pretty cool job. Noma has the product sous chef, where he’s in charge of finding new, cool stuff and working with new, interesting farmers. These jobs didn’t exist ten years ago. Since there’s such a finite amount of money to spend on a restaurant, what are you going to spend it on? New wine glasses, or a product sous chef?

Do you see yourself making your way back to England or Copenhagen anytime soon?
I’m doing the guest chef thing, yeah. I’d like to go to London this year, going over to Copenhagen. Paris would be cool. I’d love to do a dinner with Inaki [Aizpitarte] of Le Chateaubriand. It’s a dual thing for me: I get to leave New York for a minute, and then I get to cook with chef friends and hang out. I get to learn more, get inspired and promote Luksus in a more real way, just by cooking. In terms of new projects: definitely would want to have an ice cream shop in the future!

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