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Techno-Chefs

They’re young. They’re smart. They’ve got impeccable restaurant pedigrees and imagination to match. And now three talented Chicago chefs are leading a science-based culinary revolution from their lab-like kitchens.

From left: Homaro Cantu of Moto; Grant Achatz of Alinea; Graham Elliot Bowles of Avenues. Photography by Jeff Sciortino

This is a test. In front of you on a table is a small metal contraption with constricting spidery arms. On the wall, a list headed “Tools from Other Disciplines” includes an “Oil Extraction Screw Press” and a “Disc Bowl Centrifuge.” A large carton on the floor is labeled “Heat Gun.”

You are in: a) the lab of Frankenstein; b) the dungeon of a dominatrix; c) the office of Grant Achatz, a chef.

If you picked “c,” consider yourself a foodie, and a cutting-edge one at that. Certainly you’ve heard of Achatz, the former chef at Trio and now on the verge of opening his own restaurant in Lincoln Park, the highly anticipated Alinea (pronounced “uh-LINN-ee-uh”). Perhaps you’ve already booked a table. You wouldn’t be alone. Achatz is part of the latest gourmet trend, put forth by forward-thinking chefs: Some call it “culinology”; others call it engineered food. Whatever it is, the movement’s epicenter is here in Chicago, and includes two other high-profile chefs, Graham Elliot Bowles at Avenues and Homaro Cantu at Moto. They’re all under 31, they’re all affable, chatty, and guileless—and they’re all pushing the envelope like never before. Jacques Derrida is dead, but don’t tell these deconstructionists. They manipulate food. They take apart its components. They smash it in centrifuges or throw it into dehydrators or hit it with nitrous oxide. Some people call them science geeks.

You know they’re artists.

Here is one of Achatz’s new ideas. He’s going to serve something but you won’t know what it is. It will be totally concealed in a container. Most likely the “dish” won’t even be identified on the menu. On Achatz’s computer it’s a silvery ball that pops open when you squeeze it—“Kind of like a European change purse,” he notes—and shoots the food into your mouth. You’ll recognize it instantly—or what it tastes like. If this sounds more like Jeopardy! than fine dining—well, you’re out of the loop, pal. You like your PB&J with stuff from a jar between slices of bread.

Here’s how Achatz will serve up his PB&J amuse. He’ll dunk two skinned grapes on a stem into homemade peanut butter, wrap them in micro-thin bread, and zap it with a heat gun to turn the grapes into “jelly.”

Maybe you wonder whether these guys can actually cook—or whether they’re like cubists who picked the art form because they couldn’t draw faces. Rest easy. Bowles was among Food & Wine’s best new chefs in 2004. Achatz was in F & W’s class of 2002. Cantu was named Chicago’s best new chef in the pages of this magazine last May. And they have worked in some of the top kitchens in the country, including The French Laundry (Achatz), Tru (Bowles), and Charlie Trotter’s (all three).

 

The new upheaval in the kitchen took off during the late nineties in Spain, centered on trailblazing chefs Joan Roca, Andoni Luis Aduriz, and, most famously, Ferran Adrià at his legendary restaurant on the Costa Brava in Spain, El Bulli. A few others stand on Adrià’s shoulders in the United States, notably José Ramón Andrés at Minibar in Washington, D.C., and Wylie Dufresne at WD-50 in New York. But Chicago is ground zero in terms of talent and concentration, and the reasons are Achatz, Bowles, and Cantu. All three share a derring-do and irreverence, which Bowles attributes to youth. All live to produce fare that’s not just unusual but unique.

Avenues might seem an unlikely locale for Bowles to lead a daring culinary revolution. It’s the high-end restaurant in The Peninsula Chicago—a place so swank it was crowned the top hotel in America by the Zagat Survey. You could drive a bus between the tables, and the linen is so cushy it feels like a bed. Under its former chef David Hayden, it was a luxury seafood restaurant. In August 2004, Hayden left, and Bowles, who had previously spent five years in Chicago but at the time was thrilling patrons at The Jackson House Inn in Woodstock, Vermont, applied for the job and got it.

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“The majority of the menu at Avenues is very straightforward,” Bowles quickly points out. “Frog legs risotto with shaved truffles and fried parsley and garlic emulsion. It’s all classic. Of course, on the chef’s menu,” he adds with a twinkle, “you’re putting yourself in the chef’s hands.” One dish consists of blood sausage and a sea scallop—live. “If you drop a little salt you can watch it twitch.” He pops oysters into a soda gun, which injects them with CO2 to give them “fizz.” He serves foie gras on a stick, encased in Pop Rocks, and calls it a “foie-lipop.” Eggplant soup? “We’ll start with olives and purée them, then hit them with a little nitrous, which turns them into black foam, kind of like shaving cream.” To replicate the traditional pairing of lamb with mint jelly, he pulverizes Altoids and serves them with sautéed spinach topped off with a little jus. “You think it’s really menthol in flavor because of the Altoids,” he says. He makes his corn soup with Corn Nuts—the kind you get at a gas station. “I buzz them into a powder. You can spend 30 hours trying to duplicate that great taste or buy it at a store. The idea in a classic kitchen is that everything has to be made in the kitchen. But nobody’s harvesting their own flour. Nobody’s harvesting sugar cane. So everything’s fair. It’s fair game.”

Bowles does respect the sanctity of fresh organic ingredients. He likes a good steak and broils it like anyone else. He’s no wild man at the stove. He plates food in the open kitchen at Avenues much like a surgeon in the operating theatre, bent studiously over his work, exuding calm and confidence. Like his compatriots, he’s a man working at the top of his profession. Bowles is not one to indulge in change for its own sake. “You can create a dish that explodes and think, Sure, they got rushed to the hospital, but isn’t it cool? No,” he says. “We do try and restrain ourselves.”

 

Homaro Cantu of Moto goes so far out on a limb, no one’s ever used the word “restraint” to describe him. His kitchen is unlike any other. The garde-manger—a cool, well-ventilated area where cold dishes are prepared—is dwarfed by four cylinders (two of carbon dioxide, one of helium, and one of liquid nitrogen) that look big enough to power a space probe. There are stacks of strange-looking clear boxes that might contain lab mice. But no; they’re Cantu’s self-cooking ovens, which, thanks to an ingenious layer of polymer, retain heat for up to six hours if unopened. Cantu brings a box to 350 degrees in an oven, slides in a piece of fish, and then it’s delivered to your table, where, through a couple of courses, you watch it cook.

“Would you like a piece of maki?” he asks. What he offers me is a business card–size piece of paper with pictures of maki. On the back are dozens of microdots, intense flavors of rice and tuna and seaweed wrap. I bite off half. I could be at Mirai Sushi.

“It’s on water-soluble paper. The image on the front is printed with edible ink. I took a bubble-jet printer fitted with specially designed print heads. The orange comes from carrots; the black’s from a mix of beets and purple potatoes. I can create any color or flavor. It’s vegan, [and] no calories whatsoever. It’s become one of our favorite items. Lots of people request it to go. A lady wanted 30 for a private party at home. Here—have another.”

Cantu is a friendly fellow, but he peers with an otherworldly intensity from behind squarish brown-framed glasses. He’s the guy whose answers you tried to copy in high-school chemistry. He always wanted to invent. Right now he’s got patents or patents pending on 30 inventions, including the polymer boxes and his corkscrew utensils. He’s very pleased with these spoons and forks. They enable him to thread herbs through the handles or stick on a piece of garlic zapped with a heat gun.

“Flavor is perceived 75 percent through smell; that’s your palatable experience. With these utensils you close your mouth and inhale. It’s 75 percent taste you don’t usually get.”

He works in conjunction with DeepLabs, a high-tech network of 15 scientists, several of whom are aerospace engineers and rocket scientists. According to Cantu, the Chicago-based company does 90 percent of the surveillance work for the FBI. It was thanks to DeepLabs that Cantu just received the first restaurant shipment in North America of liquid nitrogen. He is very excited about the lethal gas. It means he can make hot ice cream. Tiny pellets will be frozen on the outside but remain gooey warm inside. He can’t say enough about DeepLabs. Whatever he dreams up they oblige with a device or product to help make it happen. Right now he’s thinking of food that levitates. He is working on ways to invisibly support food, including injecting helium into foams and spherical encapsulations that would be lighter than air. “I will not sleep until it happens,” he says. Also in his dreams, guests can eat a menu. It will arrive in a plastic bag. Then the diner will crunch it up and empty it into a bowl of “alphabet soup.” Cantu is also thinking about an inflated ball of helium that will spin and release a food-friendly perfume. Aroma, you understand, is the next frontier.

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“But everything has to taste good,” he  adds. “If you give someone a maki paper it’s got to taste more like a maki than a maki itself. If it doesn’t you’re in trouble. Then it’s a David Copperfield act with no finish. You can’t charge this much per meal [$160 for an 18- to 25-course tasting menu] and have people walk away hungry.” In November, Moto announced plans to enlarge the front cocktail lounge and offer customers small sample plates—before they commit to the full tasting menu. The moves had insiders wondering if the original program was too far out for commercial success, but Cantu—who does things his own way—insists everything is on track.

 

Achatz, too, has come up with a crop of new devices. Trio, during his glorious reign from 2001 to 2004, was known for its unusual presentations, including “The Antenna,” a skewer that allowed diners to eat without using their hands. He was fond of the vertical, constantly pushing to get past food that “lay down.” Now, like Cantu, he wants to suspend food, “like when you hang clothes out to dry and the wind blows them.” He’s very big on freeze-dried food, and he loves his heat gun. (“The air that comes out is 950 degrees. It’s basically a hair dryer on steroids.”)

At Alinea some items will be served on the “anti-plate,” a hockey puck–size spoon holder that elevates the utensil’s handle for easy removal. His ideas extend to the restaurant itself, in particular the entryway. “It’s such a crucial point. It’s the diner’s first and last impression. Coming in, we want a feeling of excitement, a little disorientation, intrigue, and anticipation. We don’t want people to immediately see the restaurant.”

So don’t expect to sail in and wave to your guest at a table. Achatz plans to create a narrowing hallway with a tapering wall that looks as if it had come from a fun house. On leaving, you should experience something “warm, comfortable, familiar,” he says. Tricky recessed lighting, hidden on entering, will emit a “beautiful white luminous light” as you stagger out after 25 courses.

 

Cantu has gone him one better—he has deconstructed the very idea of a restaurant, or at least its hierarchy. The entire staff rotates from the kitchen through the dining room on a regular basis. A cook may be a busboy one evening and a server the next. If all goes as planned, every member of the staff will be a certified sommelier within a year. The evening I was in the basement kitchen a call came over the internal public-address system: More waiters were needed. Andreas, a photography student with no prior restaurant experience (he had always wanted to work in a restaurant and answered an ad), was in the midst of caramelizing micronets of sugar around popcorn with a blowtorch. He immediately snuffed the flame and bounded upstairs.

The son of an engineer, Cantu grew up in the Pacific Northwest. He did time at Portland’s outpost of the famed Parisian cooking school Le Cordon Bleu, then dropped in on the kitchens of more than 40 restaurants for brief internships—a practice called a “stage” (pronounced “stazh”) after the French, “sta-gière.” Certain he was ready for the big time, he came to Chicago and literally knocked on Charlie Trotter’s back door. Trotter agreed to give him a day’s tryout; Cantu stayed for four years, working his way up to sous-chef.

When asked about Cantu and Bowles, Trotter is complimentary but guarded. “They’re two quality hardworking guys. Both are forging ahead and challenging the accepted norms. Of course it’s easy to be in the moment,” he adds. “It takes more wherewithal to run the marathon.”

Cantu, for one, insists he’s in for the long haul. “Do I think it will work?” he asks. “I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to make it work.” If it does, he’ll owe a nod of gratitude to Trotter. “I took a dramatic turn when I started working at Charlie Trotter’s. I saw his attention to detail. He’d walk through a room and see a speck and say, ‘What is this mess?’ What mess? It was a tiny piece of dirt. But it got me to focus.”

He hooked up with Joseph DeVito, a native of Chicago’s Little Italy who had put in years at Tufano’s Vernon Park Tap and later progressed to a Taylor Street staple, La Vita. DeVito met Cantu in 2003 and thought he was brilliant; within a year, Moto opened. It was a seminal event in the forward food movement. With Achatz wowing guests at Trio, the city was gathering critical mass, a point Cantu stressed to his friend—and fellow Trotter alum—Bowles. “I told Elliot a year ago when he went to Vermont, ‘I’m going to be doing my food and Grant’s going to be doing his and Chicago’s going to be the hotbed for food ideas.’ Chicago’s filled with young, savvy foodies. Given the huge number of steak houses, these younger people want to experience weird things and wind up in clubs or bars. There’s no place for them now.”

 

It’s unlikely that many “younger people” will be padding across the deep carpet at The Peninsula and into Avenues. But Bowles is every bit as excited as Cantu about Chicago. “Was it the major reason I came here? Sure,” he says. “Everyone knows about San Fran and New York. But take New York. You’ve got chefs doing 600 covers a night because the rent’s $30,000 for this tiny room. So you have to do salmon with red wine sauce. You play it safe. There’s no opportunity to be creative.” Even the purported wild man of forward thinking in New York, Wylie Dufresne at the Lower East Side’s WD-50, faced resistance when he opened in 2003. William Grimes, then The New York Times’s dining critic, called the dishes “borderline freakish,” and weighed in at a disappointing two stars. Dufresne sounds almost rueful when asked about Chicago’s new scene. “I hold Chicago in high esteem,” he says. “I’m interested that people are taking these new, exciting steps to build a movement there. Maybe it will translate to one here.”

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For his part, Bowles will continue offering a nice piece of beef on the three-course prix fixe menu—both Moto and Alinea are strictly tasting—but he’s got plenty of tricks up his sleeve, if you happen to be interested. He adores his soda gun so much that he throws in oysters and carbonates with glee. He also drops water into calcium chloride and combines lemon juice with sodium alginate—the chemical used to make gelcaps—“and all of a sudden I’m creating these lemon gelcaps that look like tiny balls of caviar that pop in your mouth.” He’s got 400 dishes on his handheld planner. He scrolls down the list, stopping at random. Ooni ice cream with yuzu foam. A coconut Key lime pie with a curried crust and Arnolti chilies. Cornflake-crusted bay scallops with milk jam.

Where does he get his ideas? Everywhere. “I think of food 24 hours a day. I’ll be at a stoplight and see the red and think, Gee, berries are in season. What if I did a berry purée and put it in a dehydrator and made it a fruit loop, then wrapped it around a raw piece of fish? It’s like being a musician. You’re always riffing.” One thing Bowles never does is go to a cookbook. Not for recipes, anyway. “No one uses cookbooks for recipes,” he says disdainfully. “They look at the pictures. It’s all about who can plate. El Bulli, the mecca, the temple, came out with a cookbook. It’s $300 and two inches thick. It’s all pictures with a little CD-ROM of recipes. I guarantee no chef has ever opened the CD-ROM.”

 

Certainly no one is using a recipe at Alinea’s test kitchen in Kenilworth. Instead there’s a fat binder with probable menu items like “Stuffed Leeks” and this single instruction: “Basically just determine the best way to cook them and hollow them out. We will work on the flavors later.”

The kitchen is in the home of the entrepreneur Nick Kokonas, who used to eat at Trio monthly, and became such a rabid fan of Achatz that he happily funded Alinea. It’s a fabulous kitchen with woodwork to die for and a six-burner hooded Viking stove. Achatz imported a few appliances of his own, such as a Cryovac food packager and the $4,000 Swiss Pacojet, an industrial-strength blender with fearsome blades that Kokonas says “could go through concrete.” It’s being used to shave slivers off hard-as-rock frozen apple sorbet, just to see how it will turn out.

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Achatz is here with his two sous-chefs, John Peters and Curtis Duffy, both Trio veterans. Three months before the Alinea opening, he is creating new dishes and fine-tuning others. Right now he’s got a KitchenAid mixer furiously frothing water from steamed mussels and clams, plus aromatics, Pernod, and vermouth, to create what he’s calling a “shellfish sponge.” Fifteen minutes later it’s inflated into a poofy meringuelike pillow. Achatz scoops up several spoonfuls and slathers them atop a ringed puddle of pear purée. Around it he adds intricate tiny forms he has carved from a pear, then tops the pear city with slivers of mussels and clams and, finally, micro fennel and a sprinkling of licorice powder.

“It’ll be a transitional course,” he explains, “from sweet into savory. With the pear and licorice it’s a good transition after the four-course dessert. It’s right in the middle of the largest tasting menu, probably dishes 17 to 21.”

Elsewhere in the kitchen his team is working to thin the membrane of a tiny caramel sphere, which will be injected with powders of cream, butter, and egg yolk. It’s the Alinea dried crème brûlée and will be served in the “squid,” a gizmo that clutches the food with contracting metal threads. In final stages is an artful clump of stone crab that perches on a chilled slab of puréed coconut, cashew, and parsnips. Achatz is particularly enchanted with a single spoon containing the four basic tastes—sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. Each is represented by a marble-size translucent ball, created by dropping dollops into a calcium solution. Amid all the gourmet geekery, it’s surprising to stumble across a simple recipe for a “yummy frosting” in the Alinea binder. The recipe is for a woman named Angela.

“Oh, that,” says Achatz. “It’s for my girlfriend’s birthday. She likes the same thing every year. Crabs with drawn butter and German chocolate cake.” He gives a shrug and goes back to his calcium bath. 

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