While 100 guests, dressed in their finest cocktail attire, lined up for Around the World in 10,000 Bites Saturday evening at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, a cloud of mystery loomed overhead. The guests knew that dinner would start at around 6 p.m., at which point they would be served 100 different items from chefs from across the world. They also knew the evening would end sometime before midnight, hopefully. Everything else was unknown, and that's just how David Skinner liked it.
Skinner, who owns and operates Kemah's Eculent, a tasting-menu restaurant devoted to stimulating the senses and changing our understanding of food, lives in the space where the mystery means everything. If his guests know exactly what's coming, how can he stop them cold and wow them with, say, ball of cotton candy that tastes like barbecue beef?
The unknown held enormous power Saturday as Skinner and his fellow chefs—about 26 of them, many immigrants or second-generation American chefs, most of whom now living in either Houston or the Phoenix are—began rolling out course after course. There were 10 courses, each representing a country, and each course had nine bites. After the first 90 bites, a stunning dessert added 11 (one sweet from each country, plus chocolate from the Ivory Coast).
The night's mission was to show the connection between distinct cuisines, while also highlighting what made them special.
"The world's becoming a lot more political and politicized. If we all just took a minute to realize that everybody's all the same, and everybody's also unique, I think we may get along a little better," said Skinner. "Here's doing that with food."
The 10 nations represented included the United States, Nicaragua, Mexico, Brazil, Pakistan, the Philippines, Japan, France, Spain, and Italy.
Participating chefs included molecular gastronomist David Duarte, who brought a few of his friends from Arizona; Brazilian star chef Manu Buffara, who owns Manu, one of the world's 50 best restaurants; and notable Houston chefs like Brandon Silva (The Kirby Group), David and Michael Cordua, Kaiser Lakshari (Himalaya), and Javier Becerra (MAD), plus Cafe Boulud graduate Aaron Bludorn, who will be opening a restaurant in Houston in 2020.
Houstonians got a few familiar favorites, like Lakshari's hunter's beef and cilantro-and-tomatillo brightened chicken hara masala (Pakistan); the much-talked about exploding olive of MAD (Spain); and for those who've been to Eculent, more than a few of Skinner's greatest hits (America).
But there were many opportunities to try something completely new. There was Buffara's ingenuity (banana tartar with raw fish; black bean soup with kale and bacon; palm heart spaghetti with butter and mushroom), outstanding Japanese daily eats from chefs Daisuke Itagaki and Medwin Pang (the omelet dashimaki tamago, presented as a rich custard and topped with black truffles; squid sashimi ika somen; raw salmon roll topped with roe), and top-shelf French execution from Bludorn, plus chefs Jason Niederkorn, and Luc McCabe (French onion soup in croquette form, and a smoked salmon crepe roulade that looked like the Japanese salmon roll).
For dessert, MAD pastry chef Karla Espinosa and chocolatier Leanne Akers produced 25 gorgeous hollow, chocolate globes that were filled with treats from each of the participating countries. Skinner called the dish "Imagination," which he tied to John Lennon's "Imagine," a somewhat forced but otherwise understandable attempt, seeing as Paul McCartney's step-sister Ruth was present. But either way, an amazing dessert.
Since it was the first event of its kind, there were hiccups. During a few courses, guests encountered a bite missing altogether, though that was rare. Guests were poured two ounces of wine, spirit, or juice per course (every course had a distinct pairing), but water was at a premium at times. This was by design, as drinking water would fill up a guest, making it harder to finish every bite, but toward the end of the dinner, just having a change of pace was nice. The first few courses came out later than expected, and a long intermission suggested guests could be at the museum until past midnight. But the final few courses whizzed by, and the night ended just around midnight. For a dinner like this, a running time that lasted 30 minutes beyond the original plan isn't bad at all.
When it all ended, and we realized the massive amounts of food and drink consumed (Skinner said each guest had about four pounds of food), we left quite impressed with the execution of this ambitious dinner. We're already awaiting the next one.