The Art of Pasta Extruding with Mitch Orr and James Lowe
I joined James Lowe, head chef at Michelin-starred London restaurant Lyle’s and Sydney’s “prince of pasta” Mitch Orr to make spaghetti, macaroni, and casarecce using an extruder, a rare pasta-making machine.
Mitch Orr, head chef and owner of acclaimed Sydney restaurant ACME, is known in the industry as the "prince of pasta." Before opening his own place in 2014, he did stints in restaurants across Europe, including world number two Osteria Francescana in Italy. He also has strong views when it comes to the correct method for making certain pasta dishes.
The reason James Lowe, head chef at the Michelin-starred Lyle's in London, invited Orr to his restaurant to cook an Italian-inspired guest dinner?
"I was running out of names," jokes Lowe.
The real story behind Orr's upcoming two-night stint in the Lyle's kitchen began five years ago, when he and Lowe met through friends and ended up on a foraging expedition together in Whitstable. Now, the Australian chef is back in London to cook with Lowe as part of Lyle's' on-going Guest Series set of dinner events.
So, on a sunny Sunday afternoon, I join Orr and Lowe to prep the spaghetti, macaroni, and casarecce that will feature on their joint menu. We meet not in the Lyle's kitchen, but at a Jamie's Italian in North London.
It turns out that of all the restaurants in the capital, the Angel outlet of celeb chef Oliver's high street restaurant chain is the only one with a pasta extruder, a nifty piece of kit that mixes pasta dough and pushes it out into various shapes, thanks to a complex attachment on its nozzle known as a "die."
"I was like, 'Who is going to have an extruder?' and then we heard that Jamie was going to come to one of the dinners," explains Orr. "I thought, 'If he's coming, he can be useful and let us use his shit.'"
Although it's unconfirmed whether Oliver will be putting in an appearance at Orr and Lowe's dinner this week, he has let the pair use his extruder. And because this is a Jamie's Italian, the kit isn't in the kitchen, but stands in the middle of the restaurant for screaming kids and awkward couples to gawp at.
Undeterred, Orr starts by explaining how the extruder works to an intent-looking Lowe, before moving on to discuss pasta dough texture.
"It's pretty dry because if it was too wet, it wouldn't hold its shape and when cooked, it'd just fall apart." explains Orr. "I think most people make rolled pasta way too wet anyway. It's easier to handle but it's not good for the pasta. We don't add any flour at all when we do rolled pastas."
Orr admits that not much technique is required when using the extruder, but it still taps into his obsession with pasta accuracy.
"It's much more efficient and precise. The machine does most of the work for you, but it's more about getting the consistency and the ratio of water to semolina right as well as using high quality semolina," he explains. "I make pasta basically everyday of my life. I have a good balance in what I do, but I'm pretty OCD so when the other guys make it and they don't pack up properly, then I'd rather do it myself."
Watching Orr tease out the spaghetti from the extruder nozzle, carefully measuring out the length before cutting the strands loose, I'm reminded of a hairdresser combing through hair and snipping decisively across the ends.
I tell him this but I don't think he's impressed with my analogy. At least I get a laugh out of Lowe.
With the machine now churning out narrow tubes of casarecce, he throws questions at Orr about semolina ratio and dough consistency. It seems these guest dinners are as much about holding a great dinner as they are a way for Lowe to learn something new.
"Running a restaurant, you've got to set yourself some rules to be creative within but if I'm being honest, I don't get out that much," he says. "This is an opportunity to see what else is going on in the world. I desperately wanted to go to Australia but I couldn't take the time out for the trip, so I thought, 'Fuck it, bring Australia here.' Every person that's come in has left something different on the menu."
Judging by Lowe's captivation with the extruder, fresh pasta could be making an appearance on the Lyle's menu sooner, rather than later.
"I love new toys! I just need how to justify British pasta," he says, referring to his restaurants iconic British cooking style. "I'm sure if I study enough, I can find something in the 14th century that had a likeness."
I'm just glad I'm not the only one mesmerised pasta tubes being squeezed out of the magical extruder.
"I kind of forget how cool it is when you do so much every day," says Orr. "People come into the restaurant and they're hypnotised by it but I forget how fun it is."
Pasta prepped, the chefs jump into Lowe's car (dubbed the "pastamobile" for the day) with boxes of fresh spaghetti, macaroni, and casarecce, and head back to Lyle's.
The dried pasta I pick up from Waitrose on the way home has never tasted so inferior.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in June 2016.