In graduate school, after long days of study, my favorite way to unwind was to read cookbooks, online recipes, and magazines devoted to cooking. Cooking made me feel creative. Immersed in an intangible world of research and chapters, I found solace in the tactile act of creating something from beginning to finish.
Cookbooks themselves allowed me access to centuries of training and inspired both classic meals and innovations. Each attempt in the kitchen from Jaimie Oliver's roasted lamb chops, to Mark Bittman's lemon cake or Emeril's gnocci, was an attempt to build on the foundations of masters. And with their help, I could work my way through dishes that were modern or ageless, but endlessly different.
One evening in 2006, lost in the world of Food and Wine, I heard, for the first time, about a restaurant in Chicago called Alinea, and the chef there, Grant Achatz. Alinea had been open for just one year, and while I had been writing my thesis, a 32 year-old Achatz had quietly taken the culinary world by storm with his modern stance on cooking and dining as experience.
Butterscotch ribbons carefully wrapped around a single piece of bacon suspended by a metal device of Achatz's design. Truffle ravioli exploded as it hit each diner's tongue. Pillows of dough were inflated with the scent of lavender that would subtly flavor the food without overpowering it. Where were all these experiences coming from? Achatz and his staff masterfully wove countless components together -- the culinary traditions, the flatware, the architecture, the design and countless other details -- to make one single dish.
How many influences must come together to create a moment?
Curiously baffled and lightly embarrassed, I sent my first piece of fan mail:
Dear Chef Achatz,
I have never tasted your food, but I am a big time admirer of the way that you are transforming cuisine and perhaps even culture. I am an academic, still in the beginning stages of my career and my research. I am working on a series of essays that look at personal experiences (like eating at your restaurant) as singular expressions but global accounts. In other words understanding all of the things that have come together (globally and locally) to create one dish that you serve. It would be a dream to interview you and understand your food and how you create it as a single moment of expression and experience that emerges from countless influences. I think that you might be interested ... Any chance?
At the time I was still trying to figure out my academic career, how I planned to use the skills, training, and ways of thinking that I had learned through my own countless hours of reading, thinking, training and debate. But perhaps even more than that I was seeking the creative spirit that Achatz had captured and harnessed.
The letter landed me a warm response, an invitation to meet Achatz at his restaurant, a chance to ask him some of my questions. I immediately booked a ticket to from Ithaca to Chicago and spent the next week devouring a stack of books about becoming a chef, the history of the restaurant, the domestication of animals, and anthropological texts on meals as communitas. I immersed myself completely in a new world of thought. It was easy to get lost in the roots of culinary experiences since so much of what goes into an experience is boundless and untraceable.
The public dining space that ultimately came to be known as a restaurant originated in 18th century Paris. The first proprietor is thought to be a soup vendor who opened his business in 1765 offering restoratives, or what we might think of as consommes. After some time, he expanded the menu to include stews. Before this time the only public eating houses were taverns and inns.The die was cast. But there was still a long way to go from restaurants in this earliest stage to the culinary artistry at places like Alinea.
Achatz is known for his sophistication, originality, creativity and surprise. A meal at Alinea is said to begin the second that you walk in the door. Many articles take careful time to describe the doorway and it's effect in putting customers off-balance, a reminder that this experience will be different; not an ordinary week night dinner. Every aspect of the experience -- design, smell, texture, taste, ambiance -- is carefully designed to enhance the emotional affect one feels from the food. A meal at Alinea has been elevated from the rankings of mere food or sustenance to being hailed as art, sculpture, even a spiritual experience.
Achatz's innovations are carefully crafted and skillfully built upon a powerful resume of perfected fundamentals. His cooking career began when he was five in the kitchen of his parent's restaurant where he had to stand on a milk crate to reach the stove top. His single minded pursuit of food led him to an education at Culinary Institute of America and then on to some of the world's top restaurants including The French Laundry and Trio.
Achatz has years of experience in a commercial kitchen. But when I begin to calculate all the hours and training that go into his dishes, I cannot resist including the years of training and work not only of Achatz's alone, but also the years of his distinguished mentors like chefs Keller and Trotter. In doing so, the decades of experience he brings to the kitchen quickly turn into at least a century of work and accumulated training to perfect and innovate the trade.
How many hours of learning and execution does it take to create one evening at Alinea? This, of course, is a question that could be asked of anything from the Big Bang to a simple home-made meatloaf. But there is something special about a meal at Alinea, something that goes beyond the ordinary. Maybe it is because of the centuries of culinary evolution that come together to create "dinner" are utterly transformed by Achatz.
All meals, including Alinea, begin with the discovery and control of fire -- one of humans' earliest discoveries. The use of fire set into motion complex changes in our diet, our history, and the planet. The domestication of animals and the rise of agriculture. We shifted from merely being hungry cave people in search of nourishment into beings that realized that meals were as good a time as any to spark companionship and connection. Dinnertime noises went from grunts of appreciation to sophisticated conversation.
How can you calculate the influences and time that goes into a meal?
Achatz himself was delightful. Sitting with him in his restaurant was dreamlike. Even after the hours that he has logged at Alinea, he seemed truly excited about the food and experience that he creates for his guests. As he describes one of his dishes, a lamb dish, he uses the word, "respect." It takes him a minute to find the word, and his choice throws me a bit. He aids the description with tactile attention as he grabs a piece of metal flatware overlain with a piece of clay. He takes care to explain how the dish is served, heated to 400 degrees on the clay which is lain on the metal flatware in front of the diner. I got so lost in the moment that I forgot to take notes. But years later, I am still thinking about the ways that Achatz has changed, and continues to change, the world of food and dining.
His energy and love of culinary experimentation seem boundless. Earlier this year, we saw the opening of his second restaurant, Next. Customers started lining up at noon for inaugural drinks at Aviary a bar he co-opened with Nick Kokonas. And the publication of his book Life on the Line once again put Achatz in the limelight. His continually renewed take on something as old as dinner is more than inspirational. It is sublime.
A moment is precious not simply because we get to experience it but because so many moments must come together to create something new. So many that it seems altogether improbable, practically impossible that anything happens at all. When I first saw the picture of Achatz's bacon wrapped in a butterscotch ribbon, suspended on a wire, it reminded me that anything is possible. We build on the foundations of those that come before. We inherit their way of seeing. We borrow their tools. But what we do from there is uniquely our own.