30 The NaTioNal CuliNary review • JaNuary 2018
sPotLight on … charcoal
When Leigh Lacap, lead bartender at Campfire in San Diego, walked into a Venice Beach, California, hotspot for a little food inspiration, he was struck by the sight
of a glass of jet-black elixir gliding through the dining room on a tray. The fabled
Midnight Margarita was the first time Lacap had seen a pitch-black cocktail.
“It was so sexy and exotic, I immediately hit the bar and asked the bartender, how?”
he says. The answer? Activated charcoal.
Made by heating coconut shells, wood and other plant materials to astronomically
high temperatures, charcoal is gaining superfood status for its purification properties,
among other perks. Like most “hot” ingredients, charcoal first debuted on the health-food circuit in the form of fresh-pressed juices and smoothies, particularly of the detox
variety. More recently, it has been cropping up in culinary applications from pizza
dough to pie a la mode, mostly for its uncanny ability to turn foods as black as night.
To capitalize on its visual heat, chefs and mixologists across the country are coming
up with ways to incorporate activated charcoal into menus. You can get charcoal in
your cocktail, folded into pizza dough (which makes it a stark backdrop for mozzarella
cheese) or whipped into ice cream for a sweet-meets-tough mashup.
But, according to Lacap, altering a dish’s (or drink’s) flavor profile isn’t the goal
with activated charcoal. Instead, chefs and bartenders are turning to the darker side
of culinary experimentation for intrigue and fun. Charcoal adds personality to a dish,
an element of a surprise, and transforms even simple dishes (hamburgers, chicken and
waffles) into veritable conversation starters. So it’s no surprise that the Specialty Food
Association Trendspotter Panel predicted activated charcoal as one of the top 10 food
trends for 2018.
What it is
Activated charcoal is not the same as the standard charcoal you buy at Lowe’s or
ground-up leftover coals from a beachside barbecue—and it’s not the same as eating
the charred layer on top of overdone toast. Instead, activated charcoal comes from
burning certain kinds of wood—bamboo, birch, balsam and poplar are among the most
popular—then oxidizing it. The particles remaining are almost pure carbon, giving it
the ability to suck up moisture and chemicals.
In that way, charcoal can also be used on the farm. Chef John Mooney of Bidwell in
Washington, D.C., chars sticks and branches to purify captured rainwater in his Hawaii
orchard. “It’s a full-circle approach to sustainable farming,” he says.
But using charcoal to draw out impurities is hardly new. Charcoal showed up in biscuits
in the 1800s, and it has a storied past as a medical treatment. In fact, it has long been a
Why are chefs and mixologists across the country
heading to the dark side? // By Amy Paturel