And, however first-rate the ingredients, three approaches designed to draw attention to the bravura and originality of the chef. This is where the new approach diverges from Slow Food, where the author is Nature. Achatz’s own divergence from the American nouvelle cuisine of his mentor marks an interesting irony: his aggressive use of technology is often in the service, as is Keller’s use of classical technique, of great emotion–the odd techniques and sheer novelty are only its most obvious manifestations. The cool bloodlessness of his kitchen–and, it must be said, of the chef himself: tall, lean, and pensive, with red hair, finely etched features, and freckles that underscore his youth–produces food meant to celebrate and open up the realm of the senses.
Executive chefs usually take a hand in actual preparations only when they see a cook put something awry. That approach would be understandable in a restaurant with 16 cooks and dinners that regularly feature two dozen courses. But on the nights when I visited the Alinea kitchen, Achatz took an active role, preparing each plate of “shellfish sponge”–a dish with what looked like a soft white meringue cloud in the center, garnished with thin, horizontally sliced mussels and clams. Watching Achatz choose each delicate shellfish slice and spoon out celery granité and two kinds of sauce was like watching a surgeon–an effect heightened by his somber mien, the immaculate white cutting boards, and the C-fold white paper towels set before the plates like surgical napkins.
When I ate the sponge at table, I had no idea what to expect. Atop the cloud was the granité, and around it were Creamsicle-orange gooseberry sauce and horseradish cream the consistency of crème fraîche. I was startled by the brisk, cleansing seafood flavor and the soft, foamy texture of the sponge against the fine tingle of the granité and the luxuriant, delicately hot cream. The dish was a triumph of finesse.
Achatz told me that this dish neatly and specifically illustrated the difference between him and Keller. Steaming the shellfish in a broth based on vermouth and aromatic vegetables including fennel, he said, was “straight out of the French Laundry playbook,” as are eight out of ten of the ways he “extracts flavor.” But rather than use the broth for a billi-bi, a creamy French mussel soup, or a tomato-based, saffron-seasoned Provençal stew, he strains the broth and adds Ultra-Tex 3 (a modified tapioca starch that thickens without being heated), whips it into a mousse that looks exactly like mounted egg whites, and then chills it to set like a Bavarian cream. The flavoring accompaniments (with the exception of the fairly extraneous gooseberry) are relatively standard, but the textures are not.
Achatz dates his great leap forward to 2003, when he was cooking at Trio. He decided to check out the convention of the Institute of Food Technology, a group that serves companies like Kraft (the food industry has always loomed large in Chicago: Kraft, Sara Lee, and McDonald’s are all nearby). He and a fellow Trio cook watched, rapt, as someone poured a liquid over a steel tray, sprayed some kind of mist on it, and then encapsulated spoonfuls of it like so many freestanding egg yolks. (At Minibar, in Washington, José Andrés encapsulates the dressing for a deconstructed Caesar salad; the result looks like an egg yolk but spurts dressing when pierced.) The liquid, they learned, had contained sodium alginate, and the mist was of calcium chloride. Achatz took away a one-pound sample of the sodium alginate.