Many gadgets have wound up in the crawl space behind the kitchen. Even the vacuum-packing machine that is now a staple of ambitious restaurants across the land is kept in a low, closed cabinet, though on any night a few meats will have been cooked in vacuum-packed bags, which give meat and fish a satiny texture and focused flavor. The infamous soda siphon also comes out seldom. Achatz thinks foams have gotten a bad rap, defending them as a “legitimate saucing technique” that allows chefs to aerate ingredients without having to dilute the flavor of, say, chocolate with the beaten egg whites and whipped cream that go into a mousse: “Come on, it has its uses.” But foams are usually just supporting players, not the stars, in his kitchen. He’ll make a tomato-water foam, for instance, but hide it. Curtis Duffy, his longtime chef de cuisine, will form to order small balls of fresh mozzarella, kneading a wad of curd he keeps warm and pliable all night over a freestanding electric burner with an LED temperature readout. Just before he seals the ball, he sprays in some of the tomato foam, as a filling. The cold foam unexpectedly comes out of the mozzarella, like thermal-reversed chicken Kiev.
Atomizers aren’t the only Alinea gadgets to have gone away altogether. A lab-scale centrifuge went on eBay after Achatz and his chefs had too much trouble realizing his dream of a “self-encapsulating” liquid that would freeze as a hollow sphere, into which he would inject liquid–a sort of popsicle with a juicy center. A stick homogenizer, usually found in cosmetics factories, well and truly emulsified vinaigrette–but not so memorably that Achatz was convinced to replace the professional-strength juicer he and other chefs rely on to make purees. A paint sprayer he intended to use to “shellac” liquid chocolate with curry-infused cocoa butter was a hassle, and noisy. He liked carbonating grapes, putting the fruit right into a carbonation canister; but his rival Homaro Cantu was already carbonating fruits, and he didn’t want to look like a copycat.
But technology remains Achatz’s signature interest. Besides visiting trade shows and continually surfing the Web, he has formed collaborations with machine designers, as he did with Kastner–and, as with Kastner, the collaborations have resulted in products that go on sale. One example is a bread-box-size machine with a flat square surface that flash freezes anything on it. Other chefs use liquid nitrogen for flash freezing, but that struck Achatz as “too science-y, too sterile.” He proposed to PolyScience, a nearby equipment maker that produces the “immersion circulators” he uses to cook vacuum-packed food, that they make him a surface for flash freezing. He calls it the antigriddle.
Achatz and his Chicago contemporaries have not just placed themselves at the front ranks of the avant garde; they are the future of American cooking, in a self-conscious but valid way. Just as he has built on what he learned, proclaiming his roots in Keller’s teachings, Achatz knows that the 22-year-olds in his kitchen will one day have kitchens of their own and come up with the next cuisine. Many of them came to him through his frequent postings on eGullet.com, a website for chefs and foodies, where during the run-up to the opening of Alinea he kept a blog. His kitchen is already a self-selecting school, and his students will go on to grow without and perhaps beyond him.
On my last visit to the kitchen, I met a wide-eyed and extremely ambitious cook, all of 19 years old, named Chad Kubanoff, who had read some of Achatz’s eGullet postings and started pelting him with e‑mailed requests for a job. He had snagged an entry-level job at Daniel, a temple of nouvelle-classic cuisine in New York, when Daniel Boulud himself, a chef as revered as Keller and as gold-plated a meal ticket for aspiring chefs, came to teach a class at the Culinary Institute of America and was impressed by the beginning student who assisted him. But the very young man ditched it to move to Chicago for the chance just to “stage” (the French term for apprenticing) in the Alinea kitchen. Why did he take the risk? To try out new gadgets like the antigriddle, where he was freezing little chestnut lozenges the night I spoke with him. “I wanted to do something new, stuff that hasn’t been done before,” he told me. Had he seen anything like what surrounded us in the Alinea kitchen when he was studying at the Culinary Institute of America, the country’s preëminent training institution for chefs? He laughed scornfully. “Nothing.”
Corby Kummer is a senior editor at the Atlantic Monthly, for which he writes a regular column on food.