Me and Grant Achatz, chef of Alinea in Chicago- rated #7 in the world and #1 in North America by Restaurant Magazine.
Here I am with my new hero and secret crush. Oh, I know even he can’t deny there was crazy chemistry between us. Ok, maybe not actually between us, but all around us… the kitchen, the dining room, in the pots and pans, and most spectacularly on the plates.
Grant Achatz, chef of the restaurant Alinea, is one of the most recognized and brilliant chefs of the uber-modern cuisine-- molecular gastronomy. Molecular gastronomy is a scientific discipline that studies the physical and chemical processes which occur while cooking. It seeks to investigate and explain the chemical reasons behind the transformation of ingredients, as well as the social, artistic and technical components of a culinary experience. Over the past decade this science, which is really just playing with food, has migrated from the laboratory to the kitchen, creating a sort of surrealist movement in the culinary arts.
You may be familiar with molecular gastronomy in its most popularized form: foam. Foam is a sauce that has been transformed into a light airy bubble bath-like froth by using a whipped cream canister and, in some cases, lecithin as a stabilizer. Whisks and spatulas have been replaced by centrifuges, desiccators, liquid nitrogen, lasers and eye droppers.
Uhhh… so… how does that translate into something I want to eat? Magically. With such an academic name and intimidating vocabulary, it is surprising how incredibly over-the-top FUN my introduction to this mystifying edible art form was. The dishes Achatz created were all built from familiar flavors-- shrimp stock, spring peas, Tabasco, potato and leek, which are reduced, to release their maximum impact. Essentially, food is manipulated in various ways to be the best it can be at that moment-- leaving the greatest impression possible on your senses. The effect is mind blowing, seriously mind blowing.
Upon making our reservation at Alinea, we were given the choice of a twelve course meal or a twenty-two course meal. With a bit of hesitation and wonder, “Can the human palate comprehend that many different flavors?” we ponyed-up and went for the full twenty-two course roller coaster ride. Wow!! Was that the right choice!
The restaurant is formal and modern, however, we were immediately put at ease by an infectious sense of anticipation—something amazing was about to take place and as diners we were going to not only experience it, but be a part of it. We had just fallen down Alice’s rabbit hole.
The first course was three different edible cocktails placed in a line on little white pedestals. The cocktails were in the form of beautiful jelly gum drops dressed up for a party. Pick it up and slurp it down . The intense, perfectly balanced flavor of a Romeo and Juliet as it was meant to taste, exploded in my mouth.
I pretty much stopped taking pics after the first course. I was waaaaay to into eating and discovering to be bothered. You will just have to go and see what levitating food looks like for yourself.
Over five hours passed, as we were amused and flabbergasted by a succession of one to five bite courses. The meal was not just about what we were tasting; Achatz explores how all of the senses play their own roles in our appreciation of food. He stimulates all of the senses to embellish and complete the experience. Our duck course was served on a pillow made of light linen and filled with lavender scented air. The weight of the plate caused the pillow to slowly deflate, releasing subtle floral wafts of air which became an accompanying ingredient to the dish.
The presentation, plating and service created a performance art happening at our table. The evening felt more like a night at the theater, rather than going out for a meal. After our first course, three small flags made of two sheets of transparent rice paper with herbs and edible flowers pressed between them, were placed at our table. The delicate flags hung from their poles displayed as a lovely centerpiece, creating mystery, anticipation and much conversation. A few courses in, our server brought us a plate that resembled a puzzle and instructed us how to put it together. Another server artfully placed seven tiny piles of powders, jellies, and shaved bits onto individual plates in front of each of us. She transferred the flags from their poles onto the stands we had assembled and spooned pork belly braised in a coconut broth onto the thin sheets and left the rest up to us. My cooking has never tasted so good!
For such precise endeavors, the dishes were whimsical, funny, philosophical, playful and all totally genius. Nothing was done for shock value. I was partly expecting ingredient combinations like peanut butter and sardines, freeze dried bacon served in the shape of an old shoe, or my food to vanish as I tried to bite into it-- dishes assembled just to be weird and in your face. But nothing about Achatz’s food was for novelty sake; it was all just awe-inspiring, mind bending food, flavors and phenomenon. It also made us giggle. A lot.
The ingredients that I brought to the table were Susan and Wylie, my lifelong friends. A meal at Alinea is an intimate experience; having all of your senses tickled and aroused in public, should not be done with strangers, this I assure you would be very awkward. We spent over five hours with Chef Atchtz’s brilliant brain, getting glimpses of his humor and trippy interpretations of food, gleefully being spun around and around by the multi-sensory experience he was enrapturing us in, dizzy with pleasure, in awe of his intellect. How could I not leave with a crush?