Features/Profiles, Food

Breakfast of the Future

Michael Nagrant / 08.04.08

In Chicago you can score foie gras milkshakes and edible seaweed-flavored paper for dinner. Breakfast, though, has remained a relatively familiar selection of eggs, pancakes and bacon. Innovation usually comes in the form of sickeningly sweet towers of chocolate and fruit-infused pancakes or savory breakfast burritos as big as Jay Leno’s head. Breakfast is really one of the last frontiers for culinary innovation. There’s really no master of the flat-top, no diner designer kicking out orange-juice bubbles and French-toast snow to the morning masses. To find out why, I checked in with John Bubala, former chef/owner of Timo, who now teaches classic-breakfast cooking at Kendall College culinary school, as well as Chicago’s top dinner dramatists, Grant Achatz of Alinea, Homaro Cantu of Moto and Graham Elliot Bowles of Graham Elliot restaurant to see why innovation has been slow and what their visions of breakfast look like.

John Bubala

Why has innovation at breakfast been so slow?

It used to be you cut on incidentals and food costs, but now places are cutting on labor costs, and compensating with pre-made foods, so there aren’t as many good grill cooks. You really have to teach the new generation how to fry an egg right. Just learning the simple things are the most important. My focus is on getting students to make a silky hollandaise and a perfect omelet. When’s the last time you’ve even had one of those? That would be revolutionary.

What would your vision of breakfast look like?

You know I’ve run a dinner business and gone through the high highs and the low lows. Now that I’ve gotten a taste of regular hours, I’m really headed toward a breakfast/lunch type of place. I’d do house-cured salmon, red flannel hash and homemade English muffins. We’d cure a lot of meats, and offer up lots of Black Forest ham and sausages.

Grant Achatz

Why has innovation at breakfast been so slow?

[Breakfast] is most often looked upon as the fuel for the day, consumed in bathrobes and boxer shorts, and with the exception of Saturday/Sunday brunch, in the home. People’s lives are not conducive to entertaining a “breakfast party” or going on a date at 9am. We have kids and work that interfere with that. You can’t spring out of bed and start drinking wine pairings with your French toast and smoked salmon, and who really wants to face the world without waking up and having two-to-seven cups of coffee?

What would your vision of breakfast look like?

We already are inspired by breakfast foods for desserts. You’ve seen French toast and various scrambled-egg desserts on some famous restaurants menus. There is no reason you couldn’t course out a tasting menu of breakfast foods. I can see the Alinea breakfast… French toast with a shell of maple-syrup sugar skewered on cinnamon stick on the squid [Alinea custom-service piece]. Pick one of our already existing steelhead or caviar dishes… [We could do] a tricked-out version of “steak and eggs,” wagyu and fried/puffed/sous vide eggs with a pillow of coffee-scented air, and a hydrocolloid-thickened version of cereal “parfait.”

Homaro Cantu

Why has innovation at breakfast been so slow?

The demographic that eats breakfast has kids and is used to paying six or seven bucks a person. Breakfast is such a comfort proposition. People probably don’t want to substitute eggs for edible paper. When you have to change diapers and all you’re doing is dreaming of coffee, you don’t want to think about transmogrified food.

What would your vision of breakfast look like?

I’d like to incorporate a lot of dinner items. This morning I had some leftover fixings for po-boys, and I made my kid a sandwich omelet, with lettuce, shrimp and egg on some good bread. It would be interesting to have a “taco bar,” where you have an omelet folded in half like a taco shell, and give people their choice of fixings to add. There’s this place by my house that does a great giardiniera scramble. I’d like to do savory foods like that.

Graham Elliot Bowles

Why has innovation at breakfast been so slow?

Price point seems to be the biggest issue. The dining public tends to go to a lot of places like IHOP and Denny’s. They’ve become so accustomed to cheap prices, they’re not down with paying more than seven dollars a plate. The biggest problem with serving a meal one part of a day is you’re cutting yourself off from making money the other eighteen hours. Most places that succeed do it around hotels or in bigger spaces like Bouchon in Vegas.

What would your vision of breakfast look like?

We’d definitely make our own bacon or sausage and pastry in-house. When I worked at the Mansion on Turtle Creek we’d do maple beurre blanc and smoked salmon. I’d like to do lobster quesadillas, savory bread puddings and warm, smoked sturgeon with truffle butter. Maybe the ultimate Eggs Benedict, or foie gras with chocolate and orange essence. You could definitely do a coursed-out menu with sections like “cold,” “hot” and “from the sea.” I’d love to do a terrine of smoked salmon with bagel croutons.

This article appeared in Newcity in a slightly different form

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