When most people crack open a cookbook, the most they end up with is a tasty meal.
But when digital animator Allen Hemberger decided to cook his way through the iconic Alinea restaurant's cookbook, he ended up falling in love, meeting one of the world's top chefs and changing his outlook on his long-held belief that creativity is something you’re either born with or you’re not.
"I assumed that creativity meant that amazing ideas occur to someone while they're sleeping or in a flash of inspiration, and then they bang out something amazing and it's great,” Hemberger told The Huffington Post via email. "But as I went on, I started wondering if creativity is just another word for tenacity -- the willingness to keep working on something until it works or until it’s good."
Chicago-based Alinea regularly ranks among the top restaurants in the U.S., if not the world, and the chef, Grant Achatz, has been hailed as a "genius of molecular cuisine." Known for its elaborate, hours-long tasting menus, Alinea is about experience and emotion (and yes, amazing food), but the meals are about as far away from home cooking as you can get.
It was partly for this reason that Hemberger’s quest to complete every recipe caught the eye of LA-based, Chicagoland-born filmmaker Daniel Addelson, who last week released "Allen & Alinea: One Man’s Odyssey Through an Iconic Cookbook” via the Foodie Network, an online TV network.
“I'm always trying to find interesting stories,” Addelson told HuffPost. “Perseverance and character are really interesting focuses for me.”
Addelson admitted when he stumbled upon Hemberger’s website and Kickstarter page to fund The Alinea Project -- a volume about his experience of cooking all 107 dishes in the Alinea cookbook -- earlier this year, he thought, “This guy is crazy.”
"But also, [I thought he was] completely fascinating,” Addelson said. "He was really honest and emotional and a great storyteller.”
In June, Addelson went out to San Francisco where Hemberger and his then-fiancée, Sarah, lived. He shot the film over a weekend. Addelson said he relied on much of Sarah’s “amazing” archival photography and video to help give a sense of the passage of time in the film.
"The actual cooking part of it was not the most interesting thing to me,” Addelson said. “It was [Hemberger’s] obsession. The first time we spoke, he said something to me about how he didn’t think he was creative at the beginning of this. He had a lot of self-doubt about being a good chef."
"It was this story that I wanted to share," he added.
Hemberger's reconstructed chocolate avocado from the Alinea cookbook.
Hemberger's road to short-film stardom, a book and a meeting with one of the top chefs in the world began about five years ago.
He was living in New Zealand and met Sarah, who was living in the States. In 2008, a year into their long-distance romance, they went to Alinea on a date while visiting Chicago. The two were both blown away by the experience. Hemberger’s interest in molecular gastronomy took root, and Sarah gave Allen the newly released Alinea cookbook for Christmas.
It wasn't long before Hemberger decided to tackle the recipes.
"I saw something I was really inspired by, and wanted to see if, with enough work and patience, I could train myself to be good at it, too,” Hemberger said. "Is it possible to learn to be creative, to be excellent? What does it take? What does 'doing a good job' at this mean?”
Chef Achatz, who inarguably falls into the camp of creatives who are born with the spark, agrees with Hemberger’s conclusion that creativity can be achieved by anyone willing to work at it.
“Creativity may be a bit of wiring, it may acclimate you a little differently to one thing or another,” he said. “But the thing I hand’t noticed until I watched the film was that ‘twinkle’ [that Hemberger had]. It’s not that lightbulb moment where I bolt out of bed at 4 a.m. and say 'I have this idea' -- it’s hard work.”
Alinea co-owner Nick Kokonas couldn't agree more.
“Of course it’s creative -- that's the part he learned,” he told HuffPost. “[Hemberger] tried to reproduce things faithfully, but learned that in the end being creative is about grinding it out, finding new ways of doing things, and listening to your own voice."
The gel roll --the dish that gave Hemberger so much grief during the project.
Achatz, who ultimately invited Hemberger to Alinea to workshop a failed recipe, said he didn’t expect anyone to cook entirely through the book as Hemberger did.
“[The Alinea cookbook] is probably going to be on your coffee table and library shelf, not in your kitchen,” Achatz said. “But if you do cook from it should inspire you to cook however you want, because that’s how we cook.”
Hemberger is done with the project, but is still applying the lessons he learned from the process.
When he wrote to HuffPost from New Zealand, where he and Sarah are currently on their honeymoon, he mentioned trying to cook chicken and dumplings for a sick friend the couple is visiting.
"I have no recipe; I'm just gonna try to make it taste good. I can't help but use a lot of stuff I’ve learned from this project to do this,” Hemberger wrote.
"I do the same at home every night,” he added. "Sarah has a long commute, so I do most of the cooking, and I love finding ways to delight her or surprise her with dinner. Sometimes I wreck it, sometimes I make something really good. I'm constantly learning and trying to get better at it, mostly because I find it a useful tool to make my friends and family happy and show them I care about them."
The Alinea Project was successfully funded in the spring and is currently shipping to backers.