The email arrived at 2 a.m. on a Sunday. The subject line said “Menu.” The sender was Grant Achatz.
The message itself was simple and direct: a description of several tasty-sounding dinner courses, written in a clipped, telegraphic style. “A small bite, determined based on what looks good in store. Salad: Orchard fruits, cucumber, radish and endive with white pepper, white miso, white sesame and white soy dressing. Main course: Lamb, ideally a boneless leg. Sides: roasted mushrooms with shallots and Madras curry. Braised fennel with lemon, olive oil, olives, and orzo. Dessert: Warm molasses cake with dried fruit and black pepper-vanilla crème fraîche.”
A week or so before, I’d asked the three-Michelin-starred chef and founder of Alinea if he’d be willing to help me prepare a dinner for seven of my friends at the apartment I share with my boyfriend, Jason. Not only had Achatz gamely agreed to do it, but by all appearances he was taking the job very seriously. In fact, a few days later, when I took a while to respond to another email, I received a subtle admonition: “Just touching base. I’m fine postponing this until we have more time to work on it together if you think that’s best. I’d hate for it to feel rushed and thrown together.”
“Rushed and thrown together” is, generally speaking, my MO as a cook. I typically find myself making ambitious plans and then falling short of them. When cooking for others, I have every hope the meal will turn out OK, but I never fail to rehearse my apologies in case it doesn’t.
As Achatz and I embarked on the planning, it quickly became clear that my standard approach was going to get a major retooling. The first thing he insisted on was that I make a written outline of the meal and its preparation, starting with the initial concept—the kinds of foods and flavors I wanted, how many courses, how many wine pairings—and then, once the courses were decided on, what steps would be required to execute them. He instructed me to break out the cooking stages strategically, with big, time-intensive tasks first and small, last-minute details at the end. “There’s a calculated order to ensure success,” he wrote in an email. Oh great, I said to myself, I’ll be cooking with Alan Turing.
After five days of thoughtful consideration and email exchanges, we arrived more or less at the menu Achatz would sum up with such succinct elegance in that 2 a.m. message—a meal that in my estimation struck a nice balance between fancy and doable, if perhaps leaning a little too heavily (for my comfort, at least) toward the former.
Finally, we agreed on some parameters: Achatz would do the shopping with me and remain by my side throughout the prepping and cooking, but he would not unsheathe his own knives or even so much as whip up a salad dressing. I was to do everything myself, under his watchful eye, the better to develop hands-on experience and know-how. Regrettably, he wouldn’t be able to stay for dinner—he had to be back in the kitchen at Alinea no later than 6 p.m., an hour or so before my guests were to arrive.
Best-case scenario, I figured, it’d be the most memorable dinner party I ever threw. Worst case? It’d still be plenty memorable—and, as Achatz quipped, “You can always order pizza.”
I. “I’d shake your hand, but you’ve got too many peas”
I’ve never been much for lists. The Notes app on my phone is full of half-finished ones, begun in earnest and abandoned in distraction. So it’s a relief when Achatz says he’ll take care of creating the shopping list.
On the day of the dinner, Achatz meets me at a Whole Foods in Lincoln Park, arriving at 12:30 on the dot, dressed in worn jeans and an Alinea Group T-shirt and carrying a four-page typed inventory of ingredients and a fine-tipped retractable Sharpie. He idly clicks it as we begin to peruse the aisles.
Achatz asks if I already have eggs at home.
“Yeah,” I casually blurt out. Wait, do I have eggs? “Well, I think so? Maybe six?”
He smirks a little and marks something on his list. “Let’s go get some eggs.”
I start to worry that his militaristic approach to meal preparation might make for a rather dour day of cooking. But within minutes of starting our shopping, we’ve developed a comfortable comedic routine: me playing the frazzled ingénue, Achatz good-naturedly rolling his eyes. This seems to work for both of us.
At lunchtime on a weekday the store isn’t terribly crowded, but the chef is recognized twice during our visit. First, a woman in her 30s approaches Achatz in the spice aisle, several bags of frozen vegetables piled awkwardly in her arms. She’s bent in a deferential posture and seems almost to be wincing. “Hi, sorry, so sorry, but are you Grant? I’m sorry to interrupt, but I’m a huge fan of yours.”
Achatz smiles and glances at her bags of vegetables. “I’d shake your hand,” he says, “but you’ve got too many peas.”
The woman’s face breaks into a fangirl grin. “This is so crazy! I’m such a huge fan, I follow you and everything, and we came to Alinea the night we got engaged and then we went to the kitchen and took a picture. Anyway, it’s nice to meet you. Eee! Bye!”
She skitters away, peas in hand.
I ask Achatz if that happens a lot.
“Especially at the airport,” he says.
The second encounter occurs by the olive bar. While Achatz is carefully picking through the pitted niçoises in search of the least beat-up specimens, a Whole Foods employee comes up to me and gestures at the chef. “Is that Grant Achatz?”
I tell him it is. The guy surreptitiously snaps a photo on his phone, turns on his heel, and leaves.
After an hour or so, our cart is filled with everything on our list except for two items the store seems to be out of: fresh basil (for the herb butter that will season the lamb) and white soy sauce (for the salad dressing). This is the kind of situation that would have me rushing to the car in exasperation and making a time-consuming trip to another store. Achatz, by contrast, improvises a solution on the spot. He decides to swap in dill and sorrel for the basil, remarking that the cool herbaceousness of dill and the lemony bite of sorrel will make for a perfectly fine substitute. For the white soy sauce, he subs in coconut aminos, a liquid condiment that tastes similar but is made with fermented coconut sap. This is clearly a cook who carries a universe of flavor combinations in his head, ready to deploy at a moment’s notice.
Now all that’s left to do is figure out what to buy for the ad hoc “small bite” that Achatz mentioned in his email. He tells me he’s thinking of some kind of canapé that doesn’t need to be cooked, just assembled.
We happen to be standing by the seafood counter, and the chef’s gaze falls upon a tangle of enormous steamed Alaskan king crab legs.
He looks at me. “I feel like we should do something big, but it should be finger food.”
Now he’s gazing off into the middle distance, seemingly absorbed in thought. “I’m thinking acid, sweet,” he says, pausing for a beat before adding: “Mango.” Another pause. “Lime.” Pause. “Pepper.” Pause. “Crab.”
I feel like I can see the dish coalescing from the swirl of Achatz’s boundless imagination. “Like a nigiri bite without the rice.”
He turns to me. “Do you have mayo?”
I tell him I’m not sure.
II. You’re gonna need more salt
The first thing I notice as we start making dinner is that—except for the cake, which requires precise measurements—Achatz doesn’t seem to have a need for written recipes. Actually, that’s the second thing I notice. The first is this: The chef places a staggering amount of importance on mise en place.
Before I can even slice a peach, Achatz instructs me to remove the dry ingredients from their packaging, take the plastic seals off the bottles of sauces, take the sticks of butter out of their boxes and wrappers, and take the rubber bands off the greens. This, he tells me, will avert needless delays later on, during the heat of cooking.
“Sort the groceries based on what dish you’ll use them in,” he says as the kitchen’s granite countertop slowly disappears under a growing array of smartly organized foodstuffs. Next he tells me to set out three dish cloths—two wet, one dry—next to the cutting board. “And keep your knives within reach.”
I start cleaning the greens, following Achatz’s instructions to roll them up in dish towels to keep them from wilting before stashing them in the fridge for later. I do the same with the dill and sorrel. I wash the fruit after that, then remove the protective netting from the boneless leg of lamb and put the meat on a plate.
My first actual act of food prep is to make the seasoning for the lamb, which entails puréeing softened unsalted butter with fresh herbs, salt, and black pepper. This occasions my first Big Lesson of the day. Having been told to add three pinches of salt, I pour a little into my hand, grab a dainty amount, and sprinkle it into the receptacle of my Magic Bullet blender.
Achatz shakes his head. He hastily rummages in my cupboard for a coffee mug and fills it with salt. Then he grabs what could better be described as a fistful than a pinch and flings it into the blender. “Three big ones.”
Home cooks never use enough salt, he says. It’s why restaurant food so often tastes more flavorful than home-cooked food. Without enough salt, food tastes flat, and if used at the right stage of cooking, salt can bring out desirable flavors, like sweetness, and tamp down unwanted ones, like bitterness.
Achatz has another pet peeve: cooks who don’t taste their food while they’re cooking. If they did, he says, they’d definitely use more salt. The chef says he has to stay on his staff all the time about constantly sampling what they’re making, even during the intensity of meal service.
“Everyone knows how to cook,” he says, “but if something’s going wrong, how can you know how to fix it if you’re not tasting it?”
I take this as Achatz’s way of telling me to taste the herb butter. Eating butter on its own isn’t something I’m accustomed to doing, but I dip in a spoon and bring it to my lips. The fattiness is off-putting at first, but instantly I can sense how the salt has brought forward the subtle flavors of the herbs.
Achatz smiles wryly and, perhaps to drive the point home in case I’m still on the fence, adds, “My doctors at University of Chicago say salt doesn’t cause hypertension.”
That’s good enough for me.
III. There will be blood
I must admit, having one of the world’s greatest living chefs scrutinizing your every move is a little unsettling. This feeling is compounded by the fact that I’m constantly worrying Achatz will become bored or antsy at having to mentor a rube while urgent business goes untended to at his restaurant. And yet during our six hours together, he barely checks his phone, and the only time he leaves my side is to use the bathroom. Though he side-eyes me from time to time—when some of the purée for the salad dressing starts seeping out a broken seam in my crappy blender, say, or when I drop the pepper grinder into the whipped cream—he never seems annoyed by my need for validation. When I repeatedly ask, “How am I doing?” he never fails to calmly reassure me: “You’re good. Really.”
He responds to each of my many questions with Zen-like calm, hypervigilant to take advantage of any teachable moments. Like when he asks me to juice a lemon for the braised fennel dish. I begin to do what I always do with a lemon: roll it across the counter with the heel of my palm to break the membranes inside before cutting it in half. When he sees me doing this, he stops me, gently takes the lemon, halves it, and asks for a fork. Then he punctures the lemon’s flesh and works the fruit around as the juice pours out. It’s a simple trick that’s way more effective than any handheld juicer I’ve ever owned.
When it comes time to butcher the crab legs, Achatz reaches into his knife bag—he’s brought his own blades out of habit, or maybe in case of emergency—and produces a pair of kitchen shears.
“There’s a hard way and an easy way to do crab,” he says. He shows me how to snap the legs just so—right at the joints, with a firm and solid crack—and extract the feathery cartilage. Then he hands me the shears and tells me to make two cuts down the length of the leg’s white underside, remove the strip of shell, and pop out the hunk of perfect, unmangled meat. Those kitchen shears become my favorite tool for the rest of the afternoon. Cutting mushrooms? Sectioning prunes? Cleaning up “schwaggy” (Achatz’s word, not mine) chunks of radicchio? I snip ’em all.
My newfound love of scissors does not, however, prevent me from mangling my own flesh. While zesting an orange on my box grater, I graze a knuckle and start bleeding. Achatz looks genuinely concerned. “Oh no, you OK?” he asks as he hands me a paper towel. A little later I manage to injure myself again while slicing limes, this time drawing a rather copious amount of blood, which I only narrowly prevent from dripping into the food.
A couple of Band-Aids stop the bleeding but cause me to become even more clumsy than usual, and as I’m assembling the canapés, I keep accidentally knocking the fussy little crab towers over. Before long, I’m visibly flustered, angry at myself for having been so careless earlier with the knife.
Achatz interrupts my work to show me something. He points to a spot on his left forefinger. “You see this?”
There’s a pronounced divot where his finger pad should be. When he was 15, he says, he was trying to impress his girlfriend’s father by cooking him dinner but ended up slicing off part of his fingertip. The night ended in the emergency room. Dinner was never served.
Somehow this story makes me feel better. Perhaps Achatz could sense an oncoming freak-out and wanted to head it off at the pass. Whatever the case, I’m amazed by how thoroughly committed he is to the success of this meal.
Indeed, when 6 o’clock rolls around, he’s still at my side—Alinea, it seems, can wait a little longer—talking me through the finishing touches: resting the lamb in a low oven, arranging the bulbs of braised fennel atop the orzo, whipping the cream for the cake.
At last, a little after 6:30, Achatz picks up his knives, smiles at me, and says, “You’ve got this under control.”
IV. “Bitter, sweet, salty, and peppery”
Before everyone arrives, I taste a crab canapé—one of the cockeyed ones I’d knocked over with my bandaged hand. There’s a blip of heat from the Thai chili, but it’s quickly subsumed by the juicy, acidic mango and the cooling dollop of mayonnaise. Maybe it’s because this is the first morsel of real food I’ve had since breakfast, but to me it’s nothing short of a one-bite miracle.
An hour or so later, the guests are gathered around the dining table, the day’s last rays of sunlight streaming through the window. Dishes get passed. I let the lamb sit out a bit too long, but even at nearly room temperature, it’s delicious—the mix of herb butter and breadcrumbs has created a golden-brown crust, and the meat’s interior is a rosy medium-rare. The orzo with fennel is both bright and earthy, and the endive and orchard fruit salad calls to mind Achatz’s flavor philosophy, which he described to me as “weaving in and out of bitter, sweet, salty, and peppery.” The real showstopper, though, is the mushroom dish, sweetened by caramelized shallots and enlivened by curry. That gets polished off before anything else. Even my friend Elvia, an avowed mushroom disliker, devours it.
The only element I’m less than completely proud of is the dessert. Distracted by conversation—my friend Kevin and I had become embroiled in a debate about outlet stores—I leave the molasses cake in the oven too long and have trouble getting it out of the loaf pan. Then I remember Achatz suggesting that I could scoop it out with a spoon instead of slicing it—for a more abstract plating—and suddenly my problem is solved.
I deem the dense, gingerbready dessert a bit dry from its too-long spell in the oven, but if anyone else agrees, no one is saying. Jason announces through a mouthful of cake, “Shit, this is really great.” (He has a way with words.)
The dinner—by leaps and bounds the most elaborate and robustly attended one I’ve ever hosted—is an unequivocal success. All it took was the help of one of the world’s most decorated chefs.
The next morning, my phone vibrates as I’m dragging myself to work. It’s a text from Achatz.
“Everything go OK?”
I consider the question for a few seconds and then tap a reply: “We didn’t have to order pizza.”