Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Alinea

Cooking in progress

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El Bulli: Cooking in Progress

Last week, my wife and I watched the documentary El Bulli: Cooking in Progress, which follows the chef Ferran Adrià and his staff through one season at what was widely regarded, until its recent closure, as the world’s greatest restaurant. It’s a strange film: the tone is dry, almost clinical, and in contrast to a movie like Jiro Dreams of Sushi, there’s never any attempt to involve us emotionally. There’s no narration or context, just a series of cooly presented vignettes. The result may seem uninviting to viewers who aren’t already interested in modernist cuisine or Adrià himself, but for those who are, it’s consistently fascinating. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, my own approach to cooking is minimalist at best, but the work of such chefs as Grant Achatz at Alinea has given me as much to think about in terms of creativity and innovation as any other art form. Cooking, like any creative discipline, is concerned with materials, constraints, and the discovery of new solutions to interesting problems, and El Bulli, for all its surface chill, is one of the most insightful depictions of the work of a great artist that I’ve seen in a long time.

“Creativity and production are two different things,” Adrià informs a class of recent hires, and one of the first things we notice about his approach is that he leaves most of the cooking to others. At this stage in his career, Adrià comes across as less of a hands-on craftsman than a genius director on a film set, whose role, as David Mamet reminds us, is to make decisions and provide an aesthetic overview. El Bulli’s head chefs are highly resourceful, and their presence allows Adrià to explore his range of options in the most efficient possible way. I was struck by the fact that most dishes don’t begin with a concept, but an ingredient—a sweet potato, a mushroom—that Adrià wants to use, prepared in the lab in a number of ways involving such modernist tools as sous-vide and liquid nitrogen. After tasting the results, Adrià settles on a basic approach to be refined at the restaurant itself. To use an analogy from fiction, dishes are planned from the bottom up, not the top down, and the finished product isn’t so much an imposition of a clever idea as a realization of the possibilities inherent in the ingredients themselves, which emerge only after a long period of systematic trial and error.

Ferran Adrià

One these key elements have been established, Adrià turns to the problem of planning the menu. In my post on Alinea, I noted that the menu seems to have been constructed with the care of a well-made play, and Adrià takes a similar approach. He begins by taking a calendar and noting when various fresh ingredients are expected to be available, then assigns each one a star ranking, building the menu around the strongest dishes. It’s not so different from how an author might plan a novel or short story: you begin with a few key scenes—the inciting incident, the act breaks, and climax—and structure the rest of the plot around these crucial pillars. Once Adrià has the cornerstone of each menu roughed out, he approaches the rest with a novelist’s logic. The end result will be an expansive tasting menu with forty or more items, so he divides it into subordinate sequences of dishes, each of which offer a unified progression with various levels of harmony and dissonance. And like any good writer, he knows to save some surprises for the end. Speaking of a dessert that takes the form of a lake of minted ice, he says: “After four hours, when you’re almost at the end of the menu, the more bewilderment, the better.”

At the center of it all stands the figure of Adrià himself. He’s an undeniably intimidating presence, with the features of a great character actor, and although he doesn’t rant or rave like other celebrity chefs, you still feel the pain of the people around him when he quietly berates them for losing an important computer file. When he tastes a dish, he rarely allows any emotion to cross his face, and he dispenses praise and criticism with equal objectivity. Cooking is serious business. Yet for all the scientific and technological wizardry on display, his most useful tool is one of the simplest. In an interview with GQ, he says:

The pencil has a symbolic meaning for me. The type of person who carries a pencil around is the type of person who’s open to change. Someone who walks around with a pen isn’t; he’s the opposite. I always have a pencil with me, to the point where it forms a part of me. I write a lot during the day.

In the biography Ferran, we learn that he doesn’t just love pencils: he collects them from hotels when he travels, and by now, he has more than five hundred—which clearly aren’t just for show. Indeed, for most of El Bulli, we rarely see Adrià without a pencil in hand. And by the end of the movie, it’s worn down to a stub.

Written by nevalalee

July 8, 2013 at 8:54 am

In the novelist’s kitchen

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A writer's breakfast

I do a lot of cooking. Even before our daughter was born, my wife and I would make dinner at home at least four or five times a week, and now that Beatrix is here, I don’t think we’ve eaten out more than once or twice in the last few months. I’m not much of a chef, but over time, I’ve picked up a few simple tricks. I know how to use a wok and how to blanch and sauté vegetables, and I know that my best friend in the kitchen is the broiler. At this point, I can put a pretty good meal on the table in less than half an hour, which is a useful survival skill with a baby in the house. I don’t often cook from recipes, but I also don’t move far out of a fairly narrow comfort zone, and I’m at a point where I’d rather stick with what I know than try to figure out something new on a weeknight. (I’m also the kind of person who tends to eat the same breakfast and lunch every day, with the result that I’ve gotten very good at making exactly one kind of omelet.)

In short, I cook the way I write, and the more I think about it, the more I feel that writing and cooking have a lot in common. In both cases, we start out by following the rules very closely: a cook who dutifully measures out a necessary teaspoon of turmeric isn’t so different from a writer who checks his work for unnecessary adverbs and dangling participles with The Elements of Style at his side. And that’s a good, honorable approach. Later on, we start to work more by intuition, seasoning to taste, throwing things together, trusting in experience to know when to use sesame oil or oyster sauce, or when to cut a chapter or combine two characters into one. And then, much later, we begin to figure out how little we really know, and undertake a second apprenticeship that tells us why those practical tricks really work. On the cooking side, maybe we’ll subscribe to Cooks Illustrated, or read Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, or even venture into the enticing labyrinth of Modernist Cuisine. And more often than not, we’ll find that we’ve been doing everything wrong.

Hot Potato, Cold Potato at Alinea

Of course, it’s one thing to tinker in the kitchen for your own pleasure, and quite another to become a professional. Here, too, there are many possible paths. You can attend a culinary academy—or an MFA program—or you can start out as a dishwasher and work your way up. Once you’ve started to cook for a living, you can focus on turning out simple dishes perfectly prepared, or you can push the entire art form into new directions, like Grant Achatz of Alinea, the David Foster Wallace of cuisine. You read reviews, listen to customers, and revise the menu accordingly, either by changing an entree here and there or throwing out the whole thing and starting from scratch. At the same time, you remain very interested in what other professionals in your field are doing, and if you feel a stab of jealousy when a friend wins a James Beard award, you use this to figure out what you could be doing better. And in the end, it all comes down to the experience you can offer a diner who sits down to eat something you’ve prepared for the first time.

If anything, I wish novelists were as open about their technique as chefs tend to be. Every celebrity chef ends up publishing a cookbook, and even the glossiest and least practical have some useful ideas. Very few writers have done the same, and it’s a great loss: The Paris Review interviews and a handful of decent books on writing fill some of the gap, but for the most part, writers seem content to stay in the kitchen. Personally, though, I’d love to see a big, fat coffee table book by, say, Ian McEwan—a novelist who serves up some of our best and bitterest dishes—with discarded drafts, failed recipes, and accounts of how he found the ingredients that worked. Because as clean and tight as a good novel can look, when you peek through the kitchen door, you’re bound to find a cutting board loaded with peelings and rinds, a sink full of dirty dishes, and a burned sauce or two, all for the sake of that one perfect plate. And as messy as the process can be, we’re all trying to achieve something like good taste.

Written by nevalalee

April 3, 2013 at 9:01 am

Thinking with your gut

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The other night, my wife and I were having dinner at the home of a couple of friends when the subject of cooking came up. Everyone in the room knew their way around a kitchen—my wife and I cook at home every night, and while we aren’t great, we aren’t half bad, either—but we were all very conscious of the fact that we still rely largely on recipes. The ideal cook, we agreed, was someone who never looks at a recipe at all, but who can walk into a kitchen full of ingredients and throw something together without thinking about it too much. This is the approach of everyone’s grandmother, and while the result can sometimes be unpredictable (our friend described her Indian mother as being pleasantly surprised whenever a dish came out better than expected—”This is really good, isn’t it?”), it comes much closer to our idea of a good cook than someone like me, who dutifully follows whatever Cooks Illustrated says.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this applies to every kind of acquired skill. It probably applies to medicine, for example—one of our friends is an anesthesiologist—and it certainly applies to writing. A recipe is really just an algorithm, a set of steps for solving a problem, and the goal of any profession is to internalize these steps to the point where they turn into intuition. Intuition, as I’ve noted before, is really just an acceleration of rational thought—you learn to skip, combine, or speed up certain steps, so the result seems like magic, when in fact you’ve gone through the same process as always in the twinkling of an eye. (This is what Robert Graves means when he talks about proleptic thinking.) And my goal as a writer has always been to internalize craft, to look at the elements of a story and throw them together in an appetizing way without having to think through each step.

But you have to know the recipe first. I talked a bit yesterday about young writers who imitate the likes of Nabokov or Salinger without understanding the process it took to get there, which is something like trying to cook like Ferran Adrià without knowing how to make spaghetti. In the context of cooking, it sounds ridiculous, but the world is full of writers who are trying to do something very much like this in fiction. And while there isn’t anything like a culinary school or apprenticeship track for novelists—it certainly isn’t the standard MFA program—there are plenty of ways for a writer to develop craft on his own. Christopher Kimball, the founder of America’s Test Kitchen, says that the way to become a good chef is to cook your twenty favorite recipes until you’ve totally internalized them, then go from there. This is essentially what a young writer needs to do: write in the genres you care about most, looking to the rules as much as possible, and gradually work your way up to the literary equivalent of molecular gastronomy.

And it’s also important to remember that for a real artist, intuition isn’t the goal, but a means of doing hard, nonintuitive things. Recently, I’ve been browsing through a big coffee table book about the restaurant Alinea, and I was struck by Grant Achatz’s description of his own creative process:

People like to think the creative process is romantic…The truth, for me at least, is that creativity is primarily the result of hard work and study…In the still silence of the dining room, with the lights dimmed to a shadowy glow, I surround myself with my resources: a laptop, a notepad, pens, a glass of wine, a few reference books, a stack of C-fold towels with scribbled notes accumulated throughout the day, and a list of seasonal ingredients.

This is a lovely description of how any artist ultimately spends most of his or her time, complete with nice homely details—those C-fold towels!—and it’s a reminder that even after you’ve developed some degree of intuition, the process never ends. In the end, you’re still there in the kitchen, late at night, with your notes and glass of wine, working laboriously on new ideas, and only dimly seeing the point when even those recipes, transformed into intuition, will have been cast aside as well.

Written by nevalalee

April 24, 2012 at 9:52 am

Alinea and the theater of cuisine

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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.

Written by nevalalee

March 12, 2012 at 10:38 am

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