When Grant Achatz’s French Laundry pals come to visit him in the serene, light-filled kitchen of his Chicago restaurant, Alinea, the scene strikes them as familiar. Why shouldn’t it? They all used to work together. For the dozen years since it opened, the French Laundry, in California’s Napa Valley, has come in first in most surveys of the country’s best restaurants. As an ambitious young chef from a family of unambitious cooks in Michigan, Achatz talked Thomas Keller, the chef-owner of the French Laundry, into giving him a job practically sight unseen, and he ended up as sous-chef–second in command–for two of his four years there. He wanted to be as close as he could to the best. And now, at all of 32, Achatz has just seen Gourmet magazine name Alinea the best restaurant in America.
That verdict marks the passing of the torch from the most modern, Americanized version of French haute cuisine to something altogether new. The highest and most expensive forms of cooking have always involved the latest kitchen technology. But seldom has technology worked to bring food as far from what was considered normal as it does today. Cooks are straying into the preserves of the laboratory, appropriating equipment, processes, and ingredients that were formerly of interest only to biology researchers and industrial food manufacturers. Among American chefs, it’s Achatz who has most successfully walked the balance beam between weird and appealing–probably because of his rigorous apprenticeship with Keller.
While Achatz was rising at the French Laundry, his head was turned by the newest techniques being practiced in Spain. Keller had arranged for his young cook a four-day visit to the kitchen at El Bulli, considered the international ground zero of culinary innovation, but he and its chef, Ferran Adrià, had very different philosophies. Keller had received classic French training and applied to it his own Germanic, meticulous discipline. His worldview was formed by the nouvelle cuisine revolution of the 1970s and ’80s, which opened French cooking to Asian, Indian, and other international influences and replaced flour-thickened sauces with intensely focused butter sauces, often flavored with powerful, cooked-down essences. It’s not that he was deaf to the noise coming from Spain: every ambitious chef stays tuned to food news, and Keller certainly ate in Spain. But he had evolved his own style, and it had brought him his own international recognition. Nouvelle cuisine still relied heavily on the battery of equipment handed down from the chefs of the great flowering of haute cuisine, at the turn of the 20th century, and that’s what Keller liked. Achatz would convince him to buy the latest gadgets, only to see them sit in a cabinet unused.
So Achatz took a walk on the wild side as the chef of Trio, a restaurant in Evanston, IL, that became both famous and notorious for its novel techniques. After just three years, high-rolling young backers excited by his innovation staked him to Alinea, in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, home to comfortable members of Chicago’s intelligentsia. He installed a high-ceilinged kitchen with windows, rare in a city restaurant. The windows may not look out onto an always sunny California garden, like the ones at the French Laundry, but they’re nice all the same.
His old friends feel right at home–at first. The terrible quiet, broken only when cooks loudly repeat orders like marine cadets as the woman who receives the slips from the dining room calls them out; the intense concentration; the straight-backed, close-cropped young men huddled around salad plates as if consulting on complicated surgery: all this they know, and when in whites they look and act exactly the same way. But the cool, the literal cool, of the room–it’s strange. Four long, mercilessly scrubbed stainless-steel tables are centers of constant activity, with the cooks solemnly shuttling between them and pieces of high-tech equipment on counters along the walls. What’s missing is the centerpiece of the French Laundry kitchen–the piece of equipment all its activity revolves around.
After a minute, a visiting cook will ask Achatz, “Where are the stoves?”