Part II: The Alchemist
A chef in Chicago wants to blow your mind
For Part I of the story, click here.
When you get a plate, it too is designed to subtly disorient. Dinner-sized, elliptical plates at my meal had an incised white-on-white houndstooth design and an almond-shaped smooth center; Achatz patterns them with food like Matisse creating a cutout or Alexander Girard a textile. Lightly seared hamachi topped with crushed peanuts sits in what looks like a Japanese garden of braised green peanuts, which are delightfully crunchy and slippery, like edamame beans with flavor. Beads of salty buttermilk pudding dot the plate, a bit bigger than the peanuts and a similar cream color, defying gravity to hold their shape. Some sprout delicate sprigs of fresh tarragon; others are topped with three tiny deep-purple blackberries. Polka dots of perfectly behaved berry syrup anchor the design. The plate is more than pretty. Just as the bacon is better than weird–it tastes good–the hamachi is silken, and the pudding, which sounds awful when the waiter describes it, is somehow at one with the fish; the beads have the texture of thick butterscotch pudding and yield to the tongue. (To see how the dish is made, click here.)
Many things yield unexpectedly in the mouth. That’s part of Achatz’s experimentation with different thickeners, and with making things solid or liquid depending on what you’re not used to. A wide red ribbon marches across a long rectangular dessert plate, for instance, looking like melted plastic. The strangely plastic ribbon is the usually runny raspberry puree, blanketing a series of small dots, all of which have a surprise: tapioca pearls in goat’s milk; fresh raspberries stuffed with a chewy little bead of taffy made of fresh red peppers; pistachio brittle and crushed pistachios; and lavender made into a tea that holds its shape like a syrup. Lavender is also dehydrated into tiny chips and crumbled over the length of the ribbon. The whole thing is decorative (its horizontal patterning is reminiscent of a Louis Sullivan or Prairie School design), unexpected, and very good.
How far has this school come from anything recognizably rooted in classic haute cuisine? Will these restless young chefs obliterate everything Slow Food holds dear?
The experiments of the Chicago school can be traced directly to Marie-Antoine Carême (1784-1833), a founder of haute cuisine, who used principles of architectural engineering to create pièces montées–fantastic structures, often in the shape of buildings–from modeling ingredients like gum tragacanth. Three generations before Auguste Escoffier codified post-Revolutionary French cuisine, Carême startled diners with beautifully colored and modeled desserts that mysteriously held their form and concealed surprises–surprise being a longtime feature of cuisine for the jaded rich and royal. From its origins in court kitchens of the Renaissance, haute cuisine always used artifice to impress diners with the originality and extravagance of the lord who employed the cook. After the French Revolution, when former cooks to the aristocracy began opening restaurants, they competed to make just as vivid an impression with their own skills, which often had as much to do with novel presentations, equipment, and techniques as with finding the very best ingredients from farmers, fishermen, cheese makers, and other producers. Skill, discipline, and basic understanding of cooking science became necessary for any chef, and to this day apprentice chefs train in the rigorous techniques of classic French cuisine.
Carême also applied to the craft of cooking the Enlightenment idea that a craftsman could become an artist by transforming what nature had made into something original and new. More than 170 years after Carême’s death, this ethos finds its most fervent adherents in Adrià and his followers. The most thoughtful of them, like Adrià himself–whom I first took seriously when I encountered him at a number of Slow Food events in Italy–find the best artisan producers and try to intensify and transform the foods they grow and make.
To get a sharper sense of how Achatz and his innovation-bent colleagues depart from the updated classicism of multistarred chefs like Keller and Alain Ducasse, who has restaurants in three countries, I asked Achatz to imagine how several chefs today would approach an haute cuisine warhorse: sole Veronique, folded fillets poached in a vermouth-flavored fish stock and served with a cream-thickened sauce of fish and white wine, garnished with white grapes and puff-pastry crescents. Achatz knew the Keller version by heart, because he was there when Keller reconceived the dish. To sole fillets wrapped around a stuffing made from brioche crumbs, Keller added a cream sauce with white wine, raisins plumped in white wine, and a garnish of two peeled seedless white grapes.
Achatz said that Wylie Dufresne–perhaps the most technical-minded of the young American chefs following Adrià–would probably make a paste of sole mixed with transglutamase, to be extruded into spaghetti-like noodles, and serve it in a classic sauce garnished with grapes: “His manipulation would be the dish.” Homaro Cantu, of the Chicago restaurant Moto–perhaps the most direct disciple of Carême in the current group–would first give the diner a picture of sole Veronique on a piece of paper that was meant to be eaten (as are a lot of his menus; he uses an ink-jet printer to spray edible inks of his own devising onto paper made of soybeans and cornstarch). Then he would set before the diner a patented superinsulating polymer box preheated to 350 ºF. A waiter would remove the lid to reveal a top layer of carbonated grape, made by putting whole fruits into a carbonation canister; the waiter would take away that layer and reveal steamed sole that had been cooking at the table. For the last course, the waiter would pour the fish-steaming broth into a bowl. Playing with the image and deconstructing the dish would be the Cantu hallmarks.
Achatz himself would concentrate on scent and texture, poaching the fish in a tepid water bath in a vacuum-sealed plastic bag–the “sous vide” process many chefs now swear by to give meat, fish, and some vegetables a creamy consistency. He would put grape juice into the bag with the fish, to infuse the essence of its flavor into the flesh. Then he would capture the aromas of classic fish sauce–vermouth, tarragon, fish stock–either in an aromatic pillow or in a vapor sprayed around the diner when the fish was served. He might use an industrial thickener to make a kind of fruit gum of cooked-down white-grape juice, to alter the texture and intensify the flavor of the grapes. Three approaches meant to make the diner think about flavor and the whole experience of dining in a new way.
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.
Soon after, he read about a pea ravioli encapsulation in a magazine story about Adrià. It reminded him of his own “truffle explosion”–a truffle broth thickened with old-fashioned gelatin and chilled solid enough to serve as a filling for ravioli. When simmered, the filling melted; it spurted into diners’ mouths. The push to evolve the idea behind the dish (the alginate-calcium combination would be used for all manner of tricks, such as an alarming rush of hot beet juice from an innocent-seeming icy white lemon-thyme foam) was typical Achatz: the discovery and research, the time spent browsing technical websites and speaking with representatives of additive makers unused to customers who want to order in one-pound, not fifty-pound, quantities.
Truffle explosion was a Trio signature, though in his restless way Achatz soon left it behind. My visit to Alinea fell near the anniversary of its opening, a week in which Achatz brought back some of his greatest hits; I asked him to make the ravioli. The effect was interesting enough, but the salty broth and the pasta casing were lukewarm, with cold, hard grated Parmigiano-Reggiano on top. The temperatures didn’t seem intentional, showing that the execution must be flawless for many of Achatz’s effects to come off.
Achatz likes “thermal reversal,” as he calls the exploding-ravioli effect. He uses it for the raspberry ribbon, freezing a sheet of boiled-down, thickened raspberry puree and syrup raked to a perfect 16th of an inch; cooks cut the sheet into ruler-straight ribbons to lay across the flavored dots placed along rectangular plates, and then partially melt the ribbon with a blowtorch, just before it is served, to create the molten-plastic effect. Broken slabs of dark Venezuelan Ocamari chocolate wait beneath a lamp all evening, heated to 94 ºF, until they are transferred to a dessert plate with dehydrated chocolate pudding, cassia mousse, and figs braised with port; the shards just hold their shape but melt in the mouth like s’mores.
These dishes require low-tech methods to achieve the desired results, and Achatz can even find use for low-tech thickeners like plain gelatin and the lab staple agar (for those pert beads of buttermilk pudding). But my own favorite use of a gelling agent was the mixture of caramel and sodium maltodextrine, which absorbs fat rather than water, the way cornstarch and most other thickeners do. The caramel flakes look something like white-chocolate nut clusters and re-form as chewy dime-store vanilla caramel in the mouth. It’s a gee-whiz moment that’s plain fun.
Fun is something Achatz wants diners to have, along with the occasional scare (those acupuncture-reminiscent needles). But some of his ideas don’t go over. He once bought black atomizers and filled them with essence of shrimp cocktail, made by pushing shrimp shells, stock, tomatoes, horseradish, and vinegar through a countertop wine press. Waiters sprayed the atomized essence into diners’ mouths. The effect was uncanny, but it provoked an outcry. Critics said Achatz wanted to divorce diners from actual food. Among other things, he says, he was accused of wanting to change the molecular structure of food and feed the world with essences. Achatz, not an especially whimsical fellow himself, wanted to tell critics to lighten up: none of the accusations were true. But he nevertheless threw out the atomizers.
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.