Luc Besson gives us a story about Nature’s true survival instinct in his movie Lucy. Billed as an action SciFi thriller, promoters sell a provocative idea: the full use of the brain can be unlocked by a drug. It’s the overdose of the toxic potion which turned a frappy girlfriend, named Lucy, into a Neo-like heroine.
Beneath the veneer of vigilante bravado, lies a curious premise: all living things are designed to pass along information from one generation to the next. It’s a redux of the Darwinian concept of natural selection.
However it flips context. No longer do we see biology as center stage. Instead, information itself is of essential importance.
Every generation is meant to inform the next. To grow the body of knowledge. It’s the prime directive.
Daniel Espinoza’s prime directive is to cook for the world. He loves his home city of Chicago. He loves his family more. You get a chance to taste both in his food.
Danny grew up in a true tamale family. Each uncle has their own recipe. They argue about the best corn for masa. And debate the ideal filling. These are tamale virtuosos.
Ironically all branch from a mother recipe. Or should we say grandmother?
This is the seed which grows inside of Chef Daniel. A personal interpretation of the family music.
His art reflects heritage. The dishes he invents at the Dinner Lab hang as family portraits. Picture by picture, we glimpse at Danny’s narrative. A culinary storyboard.
As with most Dinner Lab events, there are several courses, some of which paired with cocktails, wine or beer.
Evening begins with Enfrijoladas. Basically stewed pinto beans jazzed up with marinated cucumbers, radish slices and queso fresco. For those texture seekers of soft and creamy, this is heaven. For Crunchers, this is a cruel way to eat dip.
The second course, named Conchinita Rillette, showcases spiced shredded pork. Earthy flavors and ruddy brown. Diners scoop this meat hummus onto bright crostini. They are invited to dimension flavor with mango habanero puree. Or add red onion relish for bitterness.
With the third dish, seared rainbow trout gets full attention. Salsa veracruzana echos the salty punk of an Italian sauce puttanesca. Tomato flavors amped up with green olives and capers. Razor sharp on the tounge and a welcome acidic foil to the fish. Plantain comes in two forms: a mash and nest of chips. The dullness of both round out the mouth feel in the way that mashed potatoes provide repose after wrestling bites of steak.
Immediately behind the fish course comes Carne Asada. Lean and chewy, topped with a black sauce who’s very composition invites intrigue. Steak is steak. The quality and cooking time factor into enjoyment.
However seasoning is where chef’s differentiate. And in this moment, Chef Espinoza proves his intellect. A mole of the highest order, this “salsa negra” vibrates with bass tones of cumin and dried chiles. On top ride notes of lime and a harmony of spices who’s names are just out of reach. Clove maybe?
The chef offers us bread pudding for the sweet course. While Daniel downplays his interest in dessert, this turns out to be the most complex, well-balanced and memorable dish of the evening. An allpsice bomb. Flavors of coconut and lime dance upon the tongue like picolo and flute dance in the ear. Bass drum toffee leaded with coffee. Syrupy and dense. Rich like Texas crude.
Slicing through pillow cream into cake then into the inkwell is the only way to fully know symphony.
And yet each stratosphere is available for sample on its own. A fun way to decompose the music chord by chord. Austere on their own, they converge together like three gravitating bodies.
Chef Daniel and Lucy share a common purpose. To create an enduring knowledge from one generation to another. Lucy aims at the universe of human understanding. Daniel aims at family heritage.
And in the process imparts a personal expression. He adds to the conversation.
Dinner lab exposes the curious to the innovators. Sign up if your soul aches for novelty.
And if you want to meet Daniel’s family, taste his cooking. They are amazing people.