Part I: The Alchemist
A chef in Chicago wants to blow your mind
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?”
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.
You know you’re in for something different when you go through the door of Alinea. It leads to a short hallway that looks long because of trompe l’oeil panels that get shorter and narrower, constricting the corridor so that by the time you reach its end, you can’t get a good look at the weirdly pulsating wire sculpture you find there without hunching. Just before the hunch point, gunmetal-gray double doors snap open at your side and you enter the gray-and-white dining room–a place of quiet tension and careful repose. The nicely enthusiastic hostess or host (this may be the cutting edge, but it’s still the Midwest) seats you at a dark-wood table. The dark wood is part of the strategy; it’s meant to signal the food’s primacy over any other sensory element. In the multimillion-dollar design process that led to the opening of Alinea, in the spring of 2005, the surroundings were kept spare, so that diners could be at one with their senses.
Fragrance is nearly all in both food and wine, of course, and playing with it, and with textures and temperatures, is an Achatz hallmark. The chef looked for ways to bring the sensuality of smells directly into the dining room. He didn’t want to settle for some normal serving dish like, say, the tightly covered cast-iron casseroles that waiters at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s New York City restaurant Jean Georges open under diners’ noses. Instead, he bought a bonglike contraption that lets him force scented air into a plastic bag. He gently heats lavender or orange peel or sassafras, captures the aromatized air in the bag, pricks tiny holes in it, and tucks the bag into a specially made linen pillowcase. The waiter sets the pillow under the diner’s plate; it slowly deflates as the plate rests on it, scenting the entire place setting.
Odd holders for silverware and crockery, bearing odd ingredients, arrive at odd moments. One night there could be slices of a gnarly “hand” of fresh ginger impaled on spiny stainless-steel needles that look vaguely like a bed of nails; at an unpredictable point a waiter will use a specially designed grater for the ginger, sprinkling the juicy pulp over a soup. Or a chunk of dripping honeycomb will arrive, to be squeezed eventually over a savory course, again using a custom-designed implement. Or you’ll be served a square of jelled sweet potato and another of jelled bourbon, both stuck onto a cinnamon-stick skewer that was lightly torched before it left the kitchen, so that it arrives powerfully fragrant.
On the night I dined, as soon as I was seated, a waiter set down a bristling frond of fresh rosemary stuck into a polished stainless-steel holder that looked something like a smart pen stand. It was the only thing by way of a floral arrangement, and it stood sentinel for better than half the 12 courses I tried (this was a beginner’s meal: the Alinea menu is divided into a tasting of 12 courses and one of 24). Then a very hot rock arrived–a long terra-cotta brick set on a perilously fragile-looking wire holder. In one end was a deep hole the width of a pencil. The waiter stuck the small branch of rosemary into the hole, and the fragrance engulfed not just me but all the tables around me. In fact, there was barely any rosemary in the three small squares of tender lamb set on the hot brick, each topped with a different condiment: mastic-infused cream (mastic, a Greek resin with a light, bittersweet licorice flavor, is used to thicken ice creams and sweets); mustard-apricot relish with plump, lush dried apricots; and a late-summer marmalade of eggplant and tomato. The meat was tender and succulent, the condiments cannily chosen to set it off without dominating. But it was the rosemary scent mixing with sizzling lamb fat–an almost primeval emotional trigger, the kind Achatz says he wants to pull–that made this the climax of the meal.
I spent several dinner services backstage, observing the kitchen activity behind the sort of dinner I ate. The only fire I saw there–no flaming grills, scant stove activity–was literal: small blazes in a short cylindrical stainless-steel container lined with aluminum foil and stuffed with fallen oak leaves so beautiful it was a shame to burn them. When an order for rabbit (a dish I didn’t try) came in, one cook set the leaves afire with a blowtorch, making the kitchen smell like a suburban lawn in the fall. A second cook smothered the fire with the bottom of another steel container covered with foil. A third cook quickly put upside-down old-fashioned glasses over the leaf container, to fill them with smoke. These would serve as cloches for waiting plates of rabbit loin covered with brioche crumbs browned with butter and thyme and set over roasted-garlic butter, accompanied by cider gel thickened with a kind of modified starch used in industrial food processing. Once the glasses were turned right side up, at the table, the waiter would fill them with rabbit consommé. These kitchen and tabletop theatrics gave diners not just the taste of fall but its smoky smell, too.
Semiridiculous as these tricks sound, they exploit the evocative power of scent, memories of which lodge in a primitive storage area in the brain. Scent works: that lamb is the dish I still think about months after I had it. But the meal did not lack for other high points, in which artful visual and olfactory shocks were essential.
Achatz has the eye of a designer. The wire holders are the product of a collaboration with Martin Kastner, a native of the Czech Republic, who crafts metalware and ceramics. One of the pair’s most arresting inventions is the “trapeze,” which actually looks more like a high wire. It holds swinging slices from a side of bacon that has been frozen so it can be cut paper thin. The slices are dehydrated slowly, so they can be pressed flat and unusually wide; spirals of piped butterscotch and linguine-thin ribbons of dehydrated apple puree wind round their lower halves. The stop-everything presentation, the unusual texture of the bacon (not quite crisp, not quite soft), the way the sweet complements the salty–all are characteristic of Achatz’s cooking.
Part II of the story will be published on January 12.
Corby Kummer is a senior editor at the Atlantic Monthly, for which he writes a regular column on food.