Alinea: Reinventing Food for Yourself

Grant Achatz: Alinea Restaurant

THE ELEMENTS OF TASTE: GRANT ACHATZ AT ALINEA IN CHICAGO

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Corby Kummer wrote a fascinating article in Technology Review on the passing of the torch from the most modern, Americanized version of French haute cuisine to something altogether new. It is an innovative culinary field that has chefs venturing into what previously had been 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 Grant Achatz at Alinea in Chicago who has most successfully mastered the latest revolution in nouvelle cuisine. Kummer provides this wonderfully detailed article about his experience of dining at Alinea:

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.

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.

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 reader will find more of this review at Technology Review.

By Corby Kummer
The Alchemist
Technology Review
Monday, January 08, 2007

Alinea in Chicago
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Queen Elizabeth by Annie Leibovitz

Queen Elizabeth: Photography by Annie Leibovitz

This is the atmospheric picture of Queen Elizabeth taken by Annie Leibovitz in the opulent White Drawing Room at Buckingham Palace.  The Queen’s pale gold brocade dress, white fur stole and magnificent collection of jewelery emphasize her status, the diamond tiara was a wedding present for her grandmother, Queen Mary, while her pearl drop earrings were given to Queen Victoria when she was 19.

The way in which she gazes wistfully out of the window across the palace gardens, however, hints at a gentler, more fallible side. That essence of humanity is emphasized by the atmospheric lighting and storm clouds gathering outside. Of her photograph, which was commissioned to mark the Queen’s upcoming six-day trip to the United States, Leibovitz stated, “I feel like it’s a documentation and I wanted to take a very simple portrait.”

London Times describes the portrait today:

“An almost ethereal figure, the Queen sits musing amid the sombre splendour of rooms. The mirrors and chandeliers, the patterned carpets and gleaming gilt cut a strong contrast to the natural parkland over which she gazes.

The simple rural pleasures and stately responsibilities of this woman are both represented in this image. A thundery sky casts a lowering light, which picks out a look of quiet determination and plays on the sparkle of jewels. But all around darker shadows seep. Leibovitz uses a Romantic cliché with dramatic effect to evoke the tempestuous times that the Queen has weathered.

But what is she thinking? It is the impenetrability of the sitter’s face that most strikes the viewer. This is a portrait which keeps the viewer at a formal distance.

The soul of this picture is the soul of tradition.”

Annie Leibovitz Taking the Portrait of Queen Elizabeth

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Bush and the Veto

Democratic Leaders Signed the Supplemental Conference Report Today

Bush Vetoed the Bill Shortly Thereafter

Democrats sent the Iraq war-spending bill to the White House this afternoon after a ceremony at the Capitol. Aides to President Bush said that he will have vetoed it before nightfall. Throughout the day, Mr. Bush and Democrats painted sharply contrasting pictures of the Iraq war. The president tries to portray it as an historic campaign to make the world safer, while the Democrats see it as a tragic, ill-conceived and very badly executed mis-adventure.

Democrats spent hours trying to take advantage of the fourth anniversary of President Bush’s “mission accomplished” speech, a strategy that the White House dismissed as a distortion of what the president really had said in 2003.

The White House said that Mr. Bush would wield his veto pen shortly after 6 p.m. Eastern time, after he returned from Tampa, Florida, where he took part in a conference of the Central Command, which oversees United States military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In a statement made when Bush did exercise his veto powers this evening to turn down the Iraq-war spending bill, he called it a blueprint for failure and defeat. His action, however, is seen by most political observers as inevitably intensifying a heated showdown with the Democratic-controlled Congress. Democrats on the hill reacted with strong disappointment about Bush’s action. Democratic Senator Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, said, “The president may be content with keeping our troops mired in the middle of an open-ended civil war, but we are not, and neither are most Americans.”

Mr. Bush’s Statement 

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Full coverage of Mr. Bush’s statement is provided by The New York Times.

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Life: But You were Supposed to Sing

But You Were Supposed to Sing

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Matt Stone and Trey Parker made this flash animation about “Music and Life,” which is based upon the thoughts of Alan Watts. The recognition of our mortality is the most important part of life, and one that we are driven to overlook or deny. However, the greater the extent to which we are able to entertain the sense of our mortality, the more plentiful are our resources for deciding how to live.

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My Articles for Monday, April 30, 2007

“Taxi to the Dark Side” is opening at the Tribeca Film Festival. It is a film that examines the brutal interrogation techniques used against prisoners captured by the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan. The film uses interviews with soldiers, prisonguards,former government officials and families of captured prisoners. A video is included.

[tags: Taxi to the Dark Side, Abu Ghraib, Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, torture, YouTube]

Quoted: Tucked away deep within the postcard-perfect French Alps, The Grande Chartreuse is considered to be one of the world’s most ascetic monasteries. In 1984, German filmmaker Philip Gröning wrote to the Carthusian order for permission to make a documentary about them. They said they would get back to him. Sixteen years later, they were ready. Gröning,

[tags: blogs]

On this day in 1812, Louisiana became the 18th state of the United States of America. This posting celebrates the state of Louisiana with historical photographs and videos.

[tags: Louisiana, New Orleans, French Quarter, Hurricane Katrina, Katrina, photographs, video]

Return with now to a more innocent time, namely last month, when the heroes and villains that we heard about in the news were of the political variety. Newsreel March 2007 Video.

[tags: Libby, Rove, President Bush, Cheney, Al Gore, global warming, Newsreel March 07, politics, political scandals]

The London Times reports today that next month, Andy Warhol’s 1963 Green Car Crash painting is forecast to break auction records and sell for $35 million (£17.5 million) at Christie’s in New York. Article and photograph of Warhol’s Green Car Crash.

[tags: Andy Warhol, art, artist, Green Car Crash, auction]

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