Amazon Best Books of the Month, October 2008
: The dishes at Grant Achatz's award-winning Chicago restaurant Alinea are entirely new, yet what diners taste often resurrects their most cherished food memories. Achatz has said that flavor is memory, and of all the ways in which Alinea appeals to the senses, it's flavor that he has harnessed and reinvented in a kitchen that never rests on its laurels. (Although, Achatz has employed everything from smoking oak leaves to cinnamon torches to impart flavor, so who's to say that laurel branches are out of the question?) For a menu as ambitious as Alinea's, its cookbook incarnation is as clear a window into a chef's creative process as you could hope for, buttressed by stunning photography and thoughtful essays from Achatz and food literati Michael Ruhlman and Jeffrey Steingarten, among others. This doesn't mean necessarily that you'll cook from Alinea
often, or perhaps ever: the 600 recipes are composed precisely to show that any motivated cook can recreate Alinea's dishes at home, but to do so may be missing the point. What makes Alinea
remarkable--and unlike any other cookbook on the shelf--is its passionate insistence that there isn't just one recipe for being a cook. --Anne Bartholomew
A Conversation with Grant Achatz Amazon.com
: Can you describe what sets Alinea
apart from other
restaurant cookbooks? Grant Achatz
: We took the approach that we will present exactly
what we do in the restaurant without concessions.
That means that while we scaled the recipes to 8 servings, we did not convert to teaspoons or cups.
This assures us that the recipes are tight and sound because we have made each of them a thousand or more times. Equally important is the fact that every single finished dish is pictured in the book.
I always find it frustrating to read a great recipe and then not see the finished product.
I understand that usually cost factors into showing only a portion of the recipes in picture form, but we decided that we had to take pictures of everything and we did.
I also think because the creative team involved in making the book is the same that has made Alinea what it is, the "feel" of the book exemplifies that of the restaurant. This is truly important when taking on a project of this scope, the hope is that the reader felt an Alinea experience without dining here. We wanted the book to capture the essence, the spirit of the restaurant, and I think we accomplished that. Many cookbooks set out to simply highlight recipes, we wanted more.
Amazon.com: When you started developing the book, did you have other cookbook models in mind? How did you want yours to be different?
Achatz: We wanted the book to mirror the restaurant and its philosophy in a consistent manner. We looked at various other books to set different bars--one for the aesthetic, one for the quality of the printing, others for their clarity in recipes--then we decided what we didn't like in other books and went about finding solutions. For example, giant ingredient lists at the top of a page are often frustrating when you begin to go through the recipe. So we eliminated the overall ingredient lists and placed the ingredients right next to the instructions on how to make that sub-recipe. We think that makes a ton of sense and simplifies making the recipes a great deal. We were encouraged by pretty much everyone to explain each and every dish in a header--something most books do--and realized that they all start sounding the same. At one point we started reading headers from ten different books and they were interchangeable. So we got rid of those and put the over-arching explanations and technique descriptions in the front.
Amazon.com: You designed a website to complement the cookbook. How do you hope cooks and chefs will use the site?
Achatz: Ideally a community forms where home cooks, professional chefs, and our staff can interact with each other as a community interested in pushing the culinary arts forward. By community, we mean an open exchange of ideas and encouragement. Now that we are done with the book and it is hitting stores and homes we are going to turn our attention back to the front of the Mosaic as well and start adding more content--videos, recipes, essays....
Amazon.com: Speaking of websites, how do you think "Alinea at Home" blogger Carol Blymire will fare? (She did make it through The French Laundry Cookbook…)
Achatz: We already have a section on the Mosaic where early buyers who gained access to preview recipes made dishes and posted their results--and they look fantastic! I think she will do quite well but will be forced to scale back in a few areas unless she makes this her full time job. And that is fine--we encourage ambitious amateurs to tackle the recipes by picking out key elements and making the dish their own.
Amazon.com: Since Alinea opened its doors three years ago, both you and your restaurant have earned the prestigious James Beard Award. Could you have envisioned this enormous success when you first started out?
Achatz: Our goal was to build the best restaurant in the country...that was our stated goal. Did I think we would get there? Is there such a thing? We push to refine and get better. We are certainly not the best restaurant to go to if you want a pizza. But within the high-end haute culinary world I think we compare well. I don't believe there is such a thing as "the best." But we strive for that ideal.
Amazon.com: Molecular gastronomy is something of a vogue classification these days--do you think the food at Alinea fits this description, or is the high-tech aspect of your kitchen just one piece of the puzzle?
Achatz: It is a small piece of the puzzle. Questioning convention is the bigger piece. We do that with almost every dish…and with the book. Technology is used where necessary to achieve a specific goal for a specific dish. As we say in the front of the book, we create first and worry about technology second. At the end of the day, I am a cook.
Amazon.com: Does a "molecular" approach to cooking necessarily mean that you're working with greater precision and efficiency than you would if you were only using traditional methods?
Achatz: I believe that Herve This did not mean "molecular" in the sense of chemistry when he coined the term...regardless, our approach is to do everything with a sense of purpose. Does that mean we are a precise and efficient kitchen? Absolutely. But I don't know if using unique ingredients and techniques pushes us in that direction. I think, rather, it is a commitment to overall excellence that does that.
Amazon.com: In today's ever-competitive culinary landscape, is it possible to be both low-tech and genuinely innovative?
Achatz: Absolutely. High-tech for its own sake is a bad idea and results in a soulless cuisine. I have had some high-tech meals that fall flat and taste lousy. You can certainly be innovative with just ingredients, a knife, and a pan over heat. But why not do both if you have the inclination, desire, and ability? Amazon.com
: What advice do you have for home cooks who want to experiment with your style of cooking? Is there a technique or ingredient that's versatile enough to be a useful entry point for the uninitiated?
Achatz: You know, none of it is really that difficult to execute. It is just very time consuming as there are usually a great many mise en place requirements. So I would advise that they start with the dishes that are small in scope and build up from there.
Amazon.com: What do you enjoy most about the process of building a new recipe?
Achatz: Discovering a combination that is both unexpected and delicious. It is remarkable to me when we hit upon something that seems incredibly novel at first only to think at the end at how obvious it was--like it was sitting there just waiting to happen.
Amazon.com: What are the challenges (and, conversely, the triumphs) for your staff in serving the Alinea menu?
Achatz: We work hard with our service team to remain approachable and to have fun with the guests. The meal should be enjoyable, but there is a great deal of information that needs to get passed to the guest to maximize their enjoyment. So we work to do that in a way that doesn't sound like a lecture or a rote script. So the staff needs to find a balance between giving descriptions and keeping the evening rolling along. Most of the time they are good at reading a table to find out what kind of experience a group wants and then tailoring their service to that table. We can do formal Michelin 3-star European service, and we can do a really smooth but toned-down relaxed style. Ultimately, we have a group of people in the front of house that love the restaurant and believe passionately in what we do--and as long as that shows through above all else,the guests will be well served.
Amazon.com: What's the most gratifying presentation you've created for a dish? Is it featured in the book?
Achatz: Again, this is like asking a parent to single out their favorite child. Impossible. I enjoy the Hot Potato–Cold Potato. I think it shows the collaboration between Martin (Kastner) and I. It exemplifies the whimsy, the function, interaction, and engagement we utilize in our dishes.
Amazon.com: Do you take in the occasional Chicago hot dog, or are your local food pleasures more quirky?
Achatz: Pot Belly's Sandwich Works is always a good call. I like pizzas, hot dogs, quintessential Chicago diners. I am not a food snob.
Amazon.com: In the book you talk about how food is as much an emotional experience as a physical one. Do you have a favorite food memory?
Achatz: I have many great food memories. The first meal at the French Laundry always lands near the top. I credit that experience with opening my eyes to the creativity of food, and establishing my relationship with my mentor Thomas Keller.
Amazon.com: Jeffrey Steingarten was frank about his initial hesitation to eat at Alinea, wondering if he would "get" your food. What's your advice to diners who may not understand what you’re trying to do at Alinea, or who may find it intimidating?
Achatz: Try it. Really, there is no other way. I often read comments on the web or in the press about our dining experience or food from people whom I know have not eaten at the restaurant. How can they know without trying? 95% of our guests come down to the kitchen at the end of the night and the look on their face tells me that they had a great experience. So I would tell anyone--young, old, from any part of the world--come try Alinea...there is a 95% chance you will "get" it.
Photography by Lara Kastner, Courtesy of Alinea & Achatz LLC.