Thursday, October 02, 2008

Alinea, the book, the author

The unexpected gift. The compliment, the pat on the back. The invitation that you never thought would be for you. Aren’t these magnificent?

It came in the form of a phone call several weeks back. Hi. We’re from Wired (the magazine). We’d like to send you an invitation to a champagne reception celebrating the publication of Chef Grant Achatz’s book, Alinea.

Yes! I’ll be there! (Oh, btw, when and where?)

I ate at Alinea two years ago (and wrote about it here). It was the most extraordinary (and most expensive) meal of my life. It could be that my blog post was spotted (they noted the camera). This was a party for loyalists and for the underground press. Apart from the blog, I fit into neither. Or, not they would know. I have been following the career of Grant Achatz with care and a lot of concern (about a year ago he was diagnosed with cancer of the tongue and the story of his treatment options is harrowing), continuously.

I think he is as close as we come to food genius.

Grant likes to say that he pushes the boundaries. I told him last night that I see him more as a person who releases people from a history of inhibition and restraint. We live in a world that tells us what to feel and how to feel it. We smell pine forests when we’re hiking and we taste good food at special dinners and we cry at sad movies and we laugh at funny stories. But mostly, we do one at a time and not a great deal of the other.

At Alinea, your senses take flight. You taste, smell, feel. Your eyes are entertained, your nose links smell with childhood memories, your mouth is bathed lavishly with beautifully orchestrated explosions of flavor.

You can’t do molecular gastronomy (that is what he does) badly. It only works if it is done with great precision and terrific imagination. How successfully is Achatz at pulling it off? After a meal at Alinea, the world is not the same anymore. You understand that your senses are screaming to be let loose, to bring you joy. And so you have new respect for food, for life.

And so on Wednesday afternoon, I take the bus to O’Hare, then the subway downtown. At the last minute, I find a room for the night. I don’t want the hassle of getting back to Madison in the middle of the night.

At 7 sharp, I enter the magical world of Wired. The magazine is holding a two week festival of innovation in Millenium Park. Normally it’s free and open to the public, but this evening, the pavilion is closed for this private event.

Inside, the light is blue, the people are mostly in black. Champagne and exotic drinks are mixed and handed out freely, generously.

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I take note of the exhibits. Amazing. Beyond me, mostly. I’m not geeky enough to understand design brilliance, but it all looks sleek, exquisite, futuristic.

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Grant is there, as are his assistants. There’s one small camera crew, but otherwise, it is more a party than a publicity event. I had made sure my camera and posting were okay, but it certainly is true that I was one of the few furiously trying to take it all in with my trusty Sony.

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The chef looked even younger than in photos I had seen of him. To me, food greats are celebrities. More so than those labeled as such by, say, People magazine. I watch chefs with awe. There is something beautiful about cooking talent. Having worked in a kitchen with skilled chefs, I am even more impressed with what it is that they try to accomplish for those out front.

And so you can imagine how thrilling it is to watch Grant do a cooking demonstration for us.

He walks on a small stage and says – it’s easy. There’s a misconception that it’s really difficult. It can be, but mostly it’s all small steps (what he doesn’t say is that it’s many many small steps)

He talks about the idea behind this plate: autumn. Memories for him of growing up in Michigan. It’s his favorite season. It reminds him of hunting with his dad, of being young and jumping in leaf piles, of the smell of leaves burning.

Quintessential fall, he says. And so I am playing with memory and playing with your past. It’s a search for emotional triggers.

Achatz puts together the components: apple cider gelee, granny smith apples, apple cider and pheasant breast. And herbs. He cooks it in a sealed pouch, then cubes the ingredients, cubes also a cooked shallot and then dips this in tempura.

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Finally, he takes branches of fall leaves and uses them as skewers. The leaves will be burned, the aroma will be intense.

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Grant laughs as he recalls the presentation of this dish at Alinea. Because we take risks, there are always consequences. So we’re lighting these leaves and sending them out into the dining room and there are ashes everywhere. The general manager had to deal with this as chairs were getting stained and clothes are getting dirty and you could just see all the people sending us their cleaning bills… and then the embers from the leaves! We had to tell people – don’t touch the fire! And as we burn maybe 100 of these per night the whole place smells like one big campfire. But then, you see that some people are so moved by it. They’re laughing, they’re crying with the memory of it – it goes beyond just the bite.

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After the cooking demonstration, we are invited to sample some Alinea tid bits, assembled for us around the room. Lobster cracker with tapioca and fennel mousse. Sort of like a lobster cheetoh, Grant explains. His little boys love the stuff. As opposed to, say, the lavender pillows – they tasted those and bluntly said shampoo! Then, the Alinea concord grape, and the bacon (Nueske’s! I asked.) with butterscotch, apple and thyme. Then the recently legalized in Illinois fois gras inside a crispy cinnamon meringue and an apple thing that sort of resembled a gummy bear. And finally, roasted pumpkin with whipped maple syrup, smoked salt, sage and cereal. I may have gotten the details slightly off. But you get the idea. Autumn.

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As we walk, watch, eat and drink, Grant Achatz is signing his book. We each get a gift of his beautiful tome.

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I have to say that this is art at the highest level. The book is dense, thick, beautiful. A great gift to anyone with an interest in food. Not for the recipes (although there are those), but for the ideas, for the beauty of visualizing a daring performance.

This year, Chef Achatz won the James Beard chef of the year award. No surprise there.

At dawn, I retrace my steps to the El, to the bus, to Madison, to work. The book is at my side. I look at it as a reminder of great ideas. It’s a good thing to occasionally get close to the masters. They sharpen your own edge and push you to try harder.

where am I?

Good question. A blogger should reveal that much: where, where is her mind right now?

I’ll answer briefly: I’m at the moment in a Chicago hotel. The view out the window is lovely, thanks to the kind desk clerk who put me up there where it’s grand, in spite of the not so grand reservation (made minutes before my departure).

I should not be here. I should not grasp at fanciful threads of improbable stories, I should not travel for frivolous reasons.

Still, I am here. Tomorrow, at the very tail end of the day, I’ll explain. For now – here’s a photo of my evening walk to an event at Millennium Park.

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