We're going behind the scenes and getting up close and personal with some of the Valley's favorite chefs, learning what it takes to make one of their best-known dishes. Welcome to The Trail.
It’s lunchtime at Bink’s Midtown in Central Phoenix and several tables of diners enjoy leisurely meals in the restaurant’s sun-soaked dining room. We’re waiting for James Beard Award-nominated chef Kevin Binkley to come fetch us from the bar — and when he emerges it’s a bit surprising how few customers seem to notice one of the Valley’s most famous chefs passing just inches from their tables.
Perhaps it’s because Binkley, though impressively tall, doesn’t tear through the dining room sucking out all the air as he goes. He’s professional, yes. But also boyish, intelligent, and unexpectedly relaxed.
“We never grew up,” he says at one point during the afternoon. “We still have fun with food.”
We head back into the kitchen of Binkley’s third restaurant, the one he opened after his namesake fine dining restaurant Binkley’s Restaurant and the more casual Café Bink, both located in Cave Creek. This restaurant opened in 2013, followed not long after by Bink’s Scottsdale.
Today we’re making sweet corn sorbet, which Binkley promises is “going to taste a lot like ice cream, [though] it’s technically sorbet.”
The process starts with four ears of sweet corn, enough to make a single pint of sorbet. During Arizona corn season the chef says he’s happy to use locally-grown corn as long as it’s “as good or better” than what he can get elsewhere. The “as good or better” rule is what the chef always uses to decide whether or not to use local or not.
“Ultimately, we just want to use the best,” he says.
Once the kernels have been removed from the cob, Binkley puts them into a juice extractor. While pale yellow corn juice pours out one end of the machine, a thick pulp drops from the bottom.
Home chefs, Binkley says, could use a blender instead of the extractor, and strain out the corn juice. And as a waste not, want not kind of chef, Binkley also suggests several uses for the leftover pulp, which won’t get used in making sorbet. You could dehydrate the pulp and use it to batter fish, he says, or fold some of the mashed corn into a pancake batter.
At this stage the thin, watery corn juice isn’t something you’d really want to eat. It’s starchy, foamy and coats the mouth with a grainy film. It needs to be thickened and sweetened, which Binkley achieves by adding about a 1/3-cup of sugar and half of the seeds from a Tahitian vanilla bean.
Binkley cooks the corn juice and other ingredients on an induction burner until they reach about 168 degrees, just below a simmer. In just a few minutes the starchiness is all but gone, leaving a thick, golden liquid that’s sweet and still bursting with fresh corn flavor. How does it work? “Corn starch,” Binkley says in explanation. In layman’s terms, the corn’s natural starches serve to thicken the mixture.
Binkley then strains the juice again. “That’s just because I’m an addict of trying to make textures perfect,” he admits.
Now it’s time to get the liquid nitrogen.
We follow the chef out to the back of the restaurant, where a giant storage tank holds the -321 degree liquid. Binkley fills a container with the liquid nitrogen, which he uses to make the sorbet in the absence of an actual ice cream-machine. As the clouds of frozen air swirl around him, it’s easy to see how Binkley earned a reputation as a culinary mad scientist of sorts.
Heading back inside with the nitrogen in tow, Binkley pulls out a white KitchenAid stand mixer to which he adds both the thickened corn mixture and the nitrogen. Under the veil of a frozen cloud, the corn juice begins to freeze until you can hear the mixer’s paddles scraping against the sides of the metal bowl.
And just like that, it’s done.
Binkley scoops the ice cream into a bowl and pulls out a container of chocolate ganache. Of course, it’s not just any ganache, but rather a magically thick chocolate sauce made with Valrhona chocolate. It sits on top of the corn sorbet looking shiny and smooth and still.
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The combination is perfect: rich, chocolate playing with sweet, fresh corn. But it’s the sorbet’s texture that’s most impressive. Binkley’s sorbet lives up to the promises of ice cream-like richness and offers a corn flavor that’s so authentic, you could swear you’re at a Fourth of July picnic.
“We’re always trying to do things that are out of the ordinary,” Binkley says.