There's not much room for comfort food in the kitchens run by Grant Achatz. The genius chef in charge of perennial best restaurant Alinea specializes more in what-the-Hell-is-it?" creations that astonish the eye and confound the expectations of the taste buds. If that means serving pheasant with smoking oak leaves to evoke the wonders of a midwestern autumn or instructing diners to eat grilled cheese sandwiches on skewers 14 inches above the table without using their hands, Achatz figures it'll be a night to remember. "We want the customer to be a little confused," he says. "Tension is good."
As documented in the new film Spinning Plates, Achatz grew up flipping eggs in his family's small town Michigan diner, attended the elite Culinary Institute of America, wrote 15 fan letters to French Laundry chef Thomas Keller before apprenticing at the northern California bistro and spent a revelatory week at Spain's temple to molecular gastronomy El Bulli before launching his own Chicago restaurant/laboratory/sensorium known as Alinea.
Spinning Plates director Joseph Levy, who also profiled restaurant owners in Iowa and Arizona, says "Grant Achatz is the closet thing to an artist with a capital A that I've ever seen."
Achatz and his staff use high-tech tools to strip food products down to their flavor essence, then re-assemble them into pieces of unrecognizable culinary spectacle. "Every restaurant exists to entertain," says Achatz, who showcases some of his work in Ten Speed Press recipe book Alinea. "We want to grab you by the hand and pull you into a great performance."
Achatz, now fully recovered from the mouth cancer that in 2007 threatened to destroy his sense of taste, talks to Co.Create about designing a restaurant experience that largely dispenses with "barbaric" eating utensils like forks, spoons, and knives while focusing on one central ingredient: surprise.
When we created Alinea, the pre-existing building didn't behold us to any architectural details. We had this big narrow box to manipulate so we asked ourselves "What is every other restaurant entrance like?" Typically you open the door and you're faced with a podium with a maître d' or a hostess waiting to greet you. We didn't want to do that. We wanted to set the tone right away so we made this false perspective hallway that allows people a little mini-journey before they even start their experience with the restaurant.
Honestly, the intent is to disorient people and kind of re-set their heads. You're in a taxi cab, it's February in Chicago, it's really cold out, you step into a puddle of slush on the side of the street—we want to wipe all that negativity away as you wander down the hallway so that when you do enter the restaurant, you're ready for our experience.
You sit down at the table and you say, "Why do I need to eat with silverware?" And the answer is, "Really, you don't." So we created 30 different service pieces that become very connected to the food where it becomes edible sculpture, an art piece in itself. So now you've broken down the monotony of traditional eating and you've elevated the aesthetics. You're not wed to your plate or your bowl.
With the modern cooking technology and tools we have now, it's almost hypocritical to create a plate of food in 2013 on barbaric old serviceware that's more than 300 years old.
If I give you spoon of liquid that looked like tap water yet it tastes like basil, there's an element of surprise there that pulls on the emotions and makes the meal more interesting. We want the diner to not really know what they're going to get until it's right in front of them. The customer has to pull the food apart, they have to taste it in order to figure out what it is. We're not going to tell you every component in a dish because we want to create this sense of discovery. It's like getting a present on your birthday. We want you to have that sensation of ripping off that paper and saying, "Hey, what's in here?"
When I think of a palate cleanser, for me that means something extremely fresh and cold that either melts or dissolves very quickly when it hits the palate. You don't want a palate cleanser to coat the mouth. You want it to do its thing and go away, right? So we made this very thin wafer about a sixteenth-inch thick, of basically Yuzu sorbet.
The problem was, if put it on a little plate or rest it on a spoon, the wafer would melt in the five minutes transporting it to the dining room from the kitchen because it's so thin. So we created a brand new service vessel that has a glass core that we keep in the refrigerator, wrapped in a plastic sleeve to protect any outside temperatures from coming in, so basically it ends up being like a mini mini refrigerator. By the time the wafer gets to the dining room, it's still frozen and the guest can pick it up.
The self-supporting skewer elevates one single bit of food over the table surface about fourteen inches. It's about triggering emotions. The guests are instructed to lean over and take the bite of food off the skewer without using their hands. In a lot of cases, that makes people feel uncomfortable. To relinquish that control and lean forward almost like you'd be bobbing for apples—you're very vulnerable, especially in a fine dining setting. By intent, it's kind of intimidating.
Frankly it doesn't matter what the food is. We've done seafood, meat, fruit. It's about the action of eating. I could put a little piece of grilled cheese sandwich on the skewer and it would change the way that you would eat a grilled cheese sandwich forever. That's kind of the point. You can literally put the most comforting, homey thing on there and all of a sudden it's not comforting and homey any more. The tension is good.
We serve anywhere from 17 to 24 courses so we realize people will go through the meal like you'd read chapters in a book. When we make our menus we're very mindful of course one, how it flows into course two. All the courses have to seamlessly weave in and out, they have to make sense both conceptually and also from a flavor standpoint.
Typically we end up with the table top dessert as the grand finale but really it all depends on the guests and how they want to interact with the meal. You can only manipulate it so much before it becomes fake. We want our guests to perceive the experience in their own way.
[Images courtesy of Alinea | Ten Speed Press | Lara Kastner]