Archive for March 12th, 2012
On Saturday, to celebrate the publication of The Icon Thief, my wife and I had dinner at the legendary Chicago restaurant Alinea. The result was undoubtedly the most memorable meal of my life, not to mention the most expensive—the bill more than consumed my earnings for my last three writing assignments, not counting the novel—but it was emphatically worth it. Alinea is arguably the country’s leading stage for modernist cuisine, or molecular gastronomy, a form of cooking that isn’t so much about flavors themselves (although these were delicious) as about deconstructing and rethinking our approach to food, often using methods straight out of a mad scientist’s lab. By definition, it makes great demands on a chef’s creativity, ingenuity, and technical skill, as well as the perspicacity and curiosity of the unsuspecting diner, who is inevitably drawn into a dialogue with the meal itself. The result is something like a three-act play, with a large cast of servers and sommeliers serving as both narrators and crew, but with the spotlight squarely on the food, which taught me more about the creative process than any book or movie I’ve encountered this year.
Among other things, it was the first meal in my life where I felt obliged to avoid spoilers. Alinea’s nineteen-course tasting menu has been dissected online with a degree of scrutiny normally reserved for the final episodes of Lost, complete with surreptitious videos reminiscent of the bootleg trailers from Comic-Con, so after a while, I decided to forgo all this discussion and go in with an open mind. I’m very glad I did. Alinea’s menu is structured as a sequence of surprises, sometimes all in a single bite, and as with most good stories, it’s best not to know all the plot twists before going in. I’d already had a few moments spoiled for me—like the truffle explosion and hot potato/cold potato, both of which are Achatz trademarks, like the doves in a John Woo movie—but for the most part, I didn’t see any of it coming. And this is a meal that delights in its theatricality. For the final course, when the server brings a sphere of dark chocolate to the table, pours liquid nitrogen inside, and then smashes it open in front of you—”Dark chocolate as a pinata,” he explains—the moment has the explosive, full-stop quality of, say, the last scene of The Departed, except with more cotton candy and meringue.
Indeed, it’s hard to describe a meal at Alinea without using concepts from the movies or, more appropriately, the stage. When you’re seated, you see what looks like an ice sculpture shot through with bands of red liquid sitting on your table. At first, it seems like the centerpiece, but no, it’s actually the eighth course, waiting there in plain sight the entire time—sort of like one of those experimental plays where the audience member chatting in the seat next to you turns out to be a member of the ensemble. The menu repeatedly draws on the principle of Chekhov’s gun, in which an unexplained component is placed on the table—a pair of red cabbage leaves on wire trusses, a bubbling alembic full of seaweed and other mysterious ingredients—only to play a crucial role several courses down the line. In most cases, this air of showmanship has less to do with the dish itself, which could have been just as readily prepared in the kitchen, than a sense of pleasure in suspense for its own sake, a magician’s delight in allowing the audience to participate in the mechanism of the trick, even as they’re being fooled.
Grant Achatz, the chef behind Alinea, is a fascinating figure—you can read his famous New Yorker profile here—and the more I think about him and his restaurant, the more I see him as a model of what a creative figure in any art form can be. Achatz works out his ideas on paper, sketching concepts and designs late into the night, and then has to realize them in collaboration with his talented staff, which often requires inventing new techniques and approaches. The sticking place where inspiration meets execution is one that every artist can understand, and Alinea’s menu provides a particularly thrilling illustration of how that collision can be part of our engagement with any work of art. Looking at a dish like the penultimate dessert, in which green apple taffy is filled with helium and inflated into a perfect fairground balloon, complete with edible string, and you’re both impressed by the craft on display and as tickled as a child in Willy Wonka’s factory. Few works of art manage to move us on both levels at once—The Artist, for one, strives mightily to do so—but Achatz pulls it off beautifully. I had assumed that this was the meal of a lifetime, but now I can’t wait to go again.