Achatz is something new on the national culinary landscape: a chef as ambitious and disciplined as Thomas Keller who wants to make his mark not with perfection but with constant innovation. Where Keller marries ironclad French technique with American ingredients, Achatz plays with every new way to change the viscosity, texture, form, moistness, and even color of food, applying food-industry methods to haute cuisine.
He is not the first cook to aim for Ferran Adrià’s nonstop creativity and willingness to try any piece of equipment, industrial thickening agent, or wild idea that might bring about a new sensory nirvana. In France, Marc Veyrat broke ranks with his Michelin-starred colleagues to use many of these techniques at his Maison de Marc Veyrat, near Annecy. In England, Heston Blumenthal made his name, and won three Michelin stars, doing the same thing at the Fat Duck, in the village of Bray, outside London. In Washington, DC, José Andrés, a Spanish-born chef who literally came of age in Adrià’s kitchen, runs the purest offshoot of El Bulli at his Minibar. In New York, Wylie Dufresne, at his wd~50, was the first young American chef to spread the Spanish gospel. But the critical mass of cooks is in Chicago, which has become the American Barcelona.
I shouldn’t like any of this. I wrote a book on Slow Food, the international movement dedicated to saving farm-raised food and preserving the environment. As the Atlantic Monthly’s food writer, I spend most of my professional time talking to cooks who visit farmers, and to farmers who struggle to make a living by raising good food in old, environmentally respectful, deeply uneconomical ways. My own preference is for the simplest food imaginable–the kind intended to pay tribute to the best and most highly flavored ingredients. I regard food innovation with suspicion; I like the names of my ingredients to have one or two syllables, and those names should sound like something from an old map, not from a can of Cheez Whiz.
Even to someone far less retrograde than I, the new high-tech food seems freakish. There are plants, herbs, and body parts you’ve never heard of and in through-the-looking-glass shapes; you get sugar with the meat, and salt where you don’t expect it; and the foams–the notorious foams–come in lurid colors that seem not meant for human consumption. Dishes sound like stunts of publicity-hungry young bloods.
Here’s the surprise: get close enough to sit down and allow yourself to be teased, challenged, and coddled by Achatz’s version of this kind of cooking, and you can have one of the most enjoyable culinary adventures of your life. Such was my experience when I dined for nearly four hours at Alinea.