Grant Achatz is standing alone. Positioned at his usual station about four-fifths of the way down one of the long stainless-steel islands in the pristine, modern kitchen of Alinea, his four-star Lincoln Park temple of gastronomy, Achatz is looking fairly steely himself. The task at hand-shaving the woody tips of rosemary stems with a vegetable peeler-is an easy one, drawing off maybe 1 percent of his mental capacity. This is how he spends a fair amount of his time during the hours of preparation before the restaurant opens in the early evening. Not barking orders. Not inspecting the work of the 11 cooks around him, who are speed walking the kitchen and churning through dozens of tasks in their race against the clock. Achatz is simply immersed in prepping a dish for the evening, usually a new one that he is refining before introducing it into someone's station. He seldom looks up, and when he leaves his station he walks with his shoulders slumped slightly forward and his head bowed, as if to clear a low-hanging branch. Occasionally, you will hear him speak; rarely will you hear him raise his voice.
"Operating is in complete conflict with creativity," he tells me later. "If I didn't have to feed people every night, imagine how creative I could be. What if you walked in for 14 hours and just brainstormed and experimented and conceptualized? Imagine the list of dishes you would have if you never had to serve them."
Not that he's complaining. He is just telling you what it's like to own and operate a restaurant that has arrived on the dining scene bearing wildly overheated expectations and, more than a year later, has so far managed to deliver on them. In late September, Gourmet magazine stoked the fire, ranking Alinea number one in a list of the country's 50 top restaurants. Achatz is also a pioneer in a movement called "molecular gastronomy," which abandons known cooking techniques for ones so aggressively creative they seem borrowed from science fiction. (Shrimp cocktail sprayed into the mouth with an atomizer is one of his memorable contributions to the genre.) So in these hours before the onslaught begins, Achatz appears to build a little bubble around himself and to retreat, Yoda-like, to think.
I ate at Alinea a month after it opened in May 2005. The restaurant serves carefully orchestrated tasting menus-what is known as a dégustation-and my meal ranged over 25 courses and lasted nearly five hours. My reaction traveled between delight and utter astonishment as dish after dish was like nothing I had ever seen, let alone tasted. How, I wondered, did they do it? So I asked Achatz to let me work in his kitchen for a week, helping with prep and service. He agreed and urged me to visit Alinea again before coming in. "If you eat at the restaurant after you've worked in the kitchen, you'll know how everything is made," he told me. "The magic will be lost." So I indulged in a smaller tasting. Some of the highlights included a frozen cube of corn and coconut that looked as if it had been cut with a laser; a luminous orange ball about the size of a cherry tomato that exploded with the very essence of peach; and, my favorite, a squab dish so perfect in flavor, textural balance, and execution that it achieved a slam dunk, home run, party in the mouth.
To back up a bit: Six years ago I attended cooking school in New York City and worked briefly at Jean Georges, the four-star crown jewel in the empire of the French-born celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. At cooking school, I learned the basics: how to chop, how to sauté, how to grill, how to make a meringue, how to construct a basic sauce from stock, how to butcher a side of beef, how to arrange-or "plate," as they say in the industry-an entrée attractively. At Jean Georges, I learned more: how to please the sous-chef (talk less, work faster); how to ruin a 60-gallon batch of chicken stock (let it boil furiously as you fight with the knob control of the steam kettle); how to continue chopping after you have sliced off the tip of your finger (apply copious amounts of gauze plus a balloonlike fingertip device, while ignoring the snickers of the dishwashers and the line cooks); how to peel a Yukon Gold potato in record time (first circling from pole to pole, then down its length in even strips); and how to properly answer a request from the sous-chef regardless of degree of difficulty, number of minutes left in one's shift, or state of bladder pressure ("Yes, chef, yes").
I had seen the inside of a four-star kitchen before, but would
any of that experience apply here? I had my doubts. Vongerichten doesn't do "molecular gastronomy."
Which brings us, roughly, to a week in late August, when I had arranged to work in the kitchen for five days. The gauntlet was thrown down even before I arrived. In e-mail correspondence, the restaurant's public-relations person told me that the hours would likely be "11 a.m. to 1 a.m." I mistakenly read it as a two-hour shift. "It's not a full shift?" I wrote back, disappointed. We volleyed until, exasperated, she sent this reply: "Here's what [Grant] said, ‘Generally noon to 1 or 2 a.m., but she can come and go as she wants.'" It finally sank in. The shift is 14 hours. Holy crap. A knot the size of a small croissant began to expand in my gut.
I arrive at 1723 North Halsted Street at noon sharp, duck into the alley behind the restaurant's rather forebidding gray brick frontage, and enter through the back door that leads directly into the kitchen. The kitchen is a gleaming sanctuary. Since it is visible from the host stand, it has been designed to meld with the restaurant's elegantly minimalist décor. Sleekly modern pendant lights hang from the 12-foot-high ceiling, and two stainless-steel islands flank a long center aisle. A glow emanates from the large picture windows, and today, sitting on the sill, a square kitchen bucket holds fresh lavender stems in water. The first person I encounter turns out to be Jeff Pikus, one of Achatz's two sous-chefs. "Follow me," he says, leading me downstairs to the basement. "Do you have black pants?" I only brought my black-and-white houndstooth-checked chef pants, I tell him. He heaves a little sigh and says, "That'll do." He pauses to purse his lips, then finishes his thought: ". . . for today."
I am issued a crisply laundered white chef's jacket, an apron, and three towels. Achatz greets me with a handshake and says, "Let's take a little tour." He first introduces me to Curtis Duffy, his chef de cuisine, who is cutting up a large red tenderloin of Kobe beef. Then, Greg, David, another David, Dan, Jeff, John, and Woojay. I'm smiling, but already my mind is starting to reel. "This is where we keep the blenders and other equipment. Here are the spices. Here's where we keep oils and vinegars and such." Achatz is opening and closing cabinets along the island at a fast, practiced pace, and I try to commit at least some of the information to memory as I trail behind him.
"These are the refrigerators. Here are the cutting boards. This is Mike," Achatz continues. He circles back around, grabs two black strips of rubber off a rack, and instructs me to fish out one of the large wooden cutting boards. It's so heavy that I nearly drop it. He lays down the rubber strips in two neat lines parallel to the counter's edge and places my cutting board on top. They use these rubber strips, he explains, to keep the boards from slipping while you work. He instructs Greg Baxtrom, one of the line cooks, to give me a prep job from his to-do list. "Can you make a double batch of tempura flour?" Greg asks sweetly. He hands me a recipe: 600 grams flour, 70 grams baking powder, 90 grams cornstarch.
Here's the thing with professional kitchens: There is no one right way to do any task. There are a million wrong ways, however, each of them inevitably visible to the other cooks. For example, tempura flour, double batch. Basic, easy, no brainer. I look around the kitchen, Greg's scrap of paper in my hand, and gaze on a shimmering sea of unmarked stainless steel. A wave of idiocy tumbles forth: Where did Grant say the flour was? Would it be dumb to ask him? Is there a scale somewhere? Should I measure out a large amount and weigh it here, at my station, where my cutting board is, or take my project over to the flour, which I have realized is hiding somewhere in a cabinet across the aisle. Will the finished batch fit into the bowl I have found? Open, shut. Open, shut. Open, shut. Aha! The flour. Open, shut. Aha! The cornstarch. No baking powder. Run downstairs to the pantry. Search, search, search. Bring up a huge container of baking powder.
It takes me 30 or so moves to complete this simple job, during which I am Bridget Jones–like in my ability to deconstruct every klutzy move ("Am spilling flour all over spotless countertop; am sweeping it to the floor with my sleeve; have now made hideous white pile on pristine black carpet; am sticking head in tabletop convection oven"). When I finish, I present my bowl to Greg-ta-da!-like a four-year-old showing off a glitter-and-glue painting. "Thanks," he says, unceremoniously dumping my hard labor into a plastic deli container. Next up: peeling lychees.
It was around lychee number 54, I think, a short time after I nearly dislodged my thumbnail, that I began tuning in to the sounds of the kitchen. The place can be eerily quiet-there is not a lot of chitchat and there is no music playing. I hear Achatz, who is standing just off my left elbow, stripping rosemary off its branches. Every now and then, the device that vacuum seals food into plastic bags hisses. Someone bringing down the hood of the industrial dishwasher, which cycles through a load in about 30 seconds, makes a ker-chunk in the distance. Behind me, a machine emits a high-pitched whirring. Is it a centrifuge? I think to myself hopefully, turning around. No. Just a KitchenAid stand mixer on high speed.
I am beginning to wonder if I will ever see a bit of molecular gastronomy in action when Achatz beckons. He is standing at a Vita-Prep, the workhorse of the professional kitchen, a blender so powerful it could probably mix concrete. In his hand is a glass jar filled with white powder. "This is one of our magic ingredients," he says, the barest hint of a grin lifting the corner of his mouth. The blender is spinning a bright orange liquid-strained gooseberry purée-and Achatz adds a heaping teaspoon of powder. The purée burps as it absorbs the addition. "What is that," I ask, "and why aren't you measuring it?" He shakes his head and adds more. "It's a modified starch called Ultra-Tex 3," he says, eyeballing the liquid's viscosity as it churns slower and slower with each spoonful. "We discovered it at a commercial food show in Tulsa, Oklahoma, about six or eight months ago."
I find out later that Ultra-Tex 3 is a starch derived from tapioca that has been chemically modified to thicken a liquid at room temperature-unlike cornstarch, which must be cooked to a boil to activate its thickening properties. Made by a New Jersey–based company with the Orwellian name National Starch Food Innovation, Ultra-Tex 3 appeals to Achatz, he says, because it allows him to turn something vibrant and raw like gooseberry purée into a sauce that is thick enough to hold its shape on a plate.
Tapioca maltodextrin is another magic ingredient borrowed from the commercial food world. "It will turn a fat like olive oil into a powder that will rehydrate back when it goes into your mouth," Achatz explains. On this week's menu, tapioca maltodextrin, yet another mysterious white powder, shows up as "dry caramel," the very last stop on the 24-course tour, a brownish blob that looks like nothing so much as a moon rock. In the kitchen, cooks combine four parts real, sticky, gooey caramel to one part tapioca maltodextrin and buzz them together in a food processor. Keep going, and it would transmogrify into a powder, but Achatz likes the way it looks in its halfway stage, a dry yet moldable substance not unlike damp sawdust. It gets pressed into abstractly spherical clumps and sent into the dining room perched atop miniature pedestals. At first, the dish is a study in lumpy ugliness; then-and here is the surprise-chewy sunshine.
Back on earth, I have just been handed my first truly hideous job of the day: skinning peanuts. The skin seems bonded to the nut, like wet pantyhose on an elephant, and it has to be rubbed off more than peeled. Of course, the easiest way to remove the skin is to split the nut and grab a jagged flap. "Do you need the peanuts to stay whole?" I ask Greg hopefully. "If possible," he says. Translation: Yes, whole, thank you. Two hours later, I finish.
If you have never eaten at Alinea, it is difficult to fully appreciate the level of plating offered here. I am in the midst of service, which begins at 5:30 when the first diners sit down. It is not a particularly busy Thursday night-just 44 diners compared with the near-capacity 79 covers they will prepare on Saturday-but the vibe is intense. By about 7:30, the kitchen is fully engaged: the first seating is midway down the slalom, which means the meat and fish stations are ramping up, and the stations responsible for early courses are bearing down hard.
Dan Tucker, a 26-year-old Kendall College graduate, plates a course with the deceptively gentle-sounding name "Tomato." Believe me, it is a beast. Tomato-a lovely middle slice of heirloom tomato that has been unrolled, filleted, and accessorized with a blizzard of micro toppings-shows up on both the 13-course tasting and the 24-course tour, which means every diner receives it. At one point, as I watch five men hover over 12 plates of Tomato at Dan's station to help him assemble, I turn to Curtis and ask, "How many elements are in this dish, anyway?" "I've lost count," he says. So, I count them and come up with 20 separate elements per plate (see annotated photo, page 118).
Some elements are one-dimensional-a basil flower or a sprinkling of sea salt. Others are mini dishes unto themselves: the sparkling spiral of gelée, for example, is composed of two layers of gelatinized liquid-one is saffron-infused tomato water, the other molasses-that must be cooked, placed in the cooler to set overnight, rolled, sliced, then placed, ever so delicately, on its edge atop the tomato layer, which itself is about the width of one's thumb. Then, Dan still has to make the mozzarella balloon. A carryover from Trio, the balloon is actually a bit of mozzarella curd that has been heated to 160 degrees and inflated with air. Dan dons rubber gloves each time he handles the curd, which he folds, stretches, and refolds in order to homogenize the butterfat. He then positions a section of the curd over the nozzle of a carbon-dioxide canister filled with tomato water and blows a bubble of cheese that contains within it a cloud of tomato-water foam. Dan anoints the balloon with olive oil, flakes of Australian sea salt, a fresh grinding of pepper, and two or three saffron threads and nestles it, like the dot on an "i," at one end of the tomato. The now completed dish may be sent on its way.
Every day around 4 p.m., the pulse of the kitchen quickens as the front-of-the-house workers trickle in and the guys tidy their work areas in preparation for the staff meal. Perhaps the greatest thing a chef can achieve in terms of a restaurant's day-to-day operation is the creation of the hive mind, a state of perfect synchronicity in which a multibrained organism behaves as one. The result must look something like what I am witnessing now. Each line cook is hurriedly breaking down his own station: organizing myriad deli cups filled with prepped mise en place, scrubbing and squeegeeing the counters, putting away extraneous equipment and tools, reviewing his list of things left to do. Simultaneously, he is scanning the kitchen for little chores that can be picked up along his path-a pot that needs to be hung, a used paper towel to be tossed, a rack of dirty dishes full enough to push into the washer. The long black carpets underfoot always get swept by someone even though no one has the job per se, a minor feat that probably deserves to become a seminar topic at the Kellogg School of Management.
"A tremendous amount of work gets done, and no one has to say a thing," I remember Achatz saying to me on my first day as we watched the same scene unfold. Just then, Greg comes around from behind the stove bearing a huge roasting pan filled with a steaming-hot Moroccan chicken, aiming to set it down on the countertop. Seemingly out of nowhere, Woojay, his assistant on the line, approaches with metal trivets and flips them, Frisbee-style, into the narrowing gap of space under Greg's pan. Pan is down; Greg and Woojay acknowledge each other with eye contact; they retreat to opposite ends of the kitchen without breaking stride. Serving spoons materialize, as do forks, plates, napkins, Israeli couscous, green beans, water, ice coffee, and a chocolate drizzled pan cookie for dessert. The hive sits down to eat.
To be honest, Alinea's kitchen does not strike me as particularly sciency. Sure, there is an induction-heat cooktop at every station, three dehydrators colonize practically the entire back counter in pastry, and the cooks prepare most of their meats sous vide in an immersion circulator. The staff uses a lot of kooky setting agents such as sodium alginate, gellan, and Ultra-Tex 3. (In a dish called Verjus, for example, frozen nuggets of sweetened beet juice are bathed in a solution of sodium alginate, which reacts with a small amount of calcium lactate that has been added to the juice. After a few minutes, a transparent skin forms, resulting in a liquid-center corpuscle that spills its bright-red contents when ruptured with a spoon.)
The cooks also employ many sheets of acetate for creating paper-thin layers of frozen, gelatinized sauces that melt on the plate yet hold their shape. Acetate is also useful for molding mousse into capsules with the perfectly unblemished surface that characterizes so much of the food here. Tiny scissors and needle-nose tweezers abound, and I have not seen a single pair of metal tongs, the stereotypical tool of the professional chef. Instead, Greg Baxtrom, who is in charge of the meat station, uses a comparatively delicate fish spatula to flip itty-bitty squab fillets in single-portion sauté pans.
In all, the environment is basically ungeeky. Michael Wallace, whom I have been helping prep canapés, works with the famous "anti-griddle," which is a machine that cools a metal work surface down to minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit-so cold that a liquid poured over it freezes instantly. He uses it to cut (with a regular knife; no lasers in here) an inch-thick layer of savory corn-and-coconut sorbet into long batons, then into cubes. Because the sorbet stays frozen throughout the process, the cubes retain their razor-sharp edges-a simple trick yet one that visually packs a wallop. The anti-griddle may be a revolutionary application of science equipment in the kitchen, but to Michael it is just a cutting board. It occurs to me that Alinea's brand of molecular gastronomy is really not about experimenting with high-tech equipment, as is commonly surmised; it's about playing with the idea of what a restaurant meal can and should be.
Indeed, Achatz seems to be distancing himself from the molecular gastronomy label, saying to The New York Times as far back as May 2005, "We're not on the edge." Late one afternoon, he tells me, "People go to Moto first and they see a more sciency side. When they come here they get squab with strawberries and custard, and they're like, Wait a minute, where's the freeze-dried squab pellets and edible paper? And, therefore, they're saying, Well, this isn't as creative. This isn't as edgy." Achatz says he has simply grown up a bit. "We all feel confident enough that we don't feel like we have to show the world the next outrageous idea. Now, it's just if it makes sense, if it's a great idea, if it tastes delicious."
Take Pumpkin. Listening to Achatz narrate his blueprint for a new dish for fall, you would swear that he was just a regular chef talking about, well, food: "In this small bowl, you have pumpkin purée and then various garnishes, which include thyme leaves, pumpkinseeds seasoned with curry, a hot nutmeg gelatin, fresh orange segments that have been dusted in dehydrated niçoise olive powder, black truffle tapenade, walnut froth, and in the bottom of the bowl is a sherry-butter sauce." He pauses for a second. "Oh, and pineapple confit with chilies that'll be cooked sous vide. And bacon chips. This little bowl is set on top of a larger bowl containing crushed-up walnut shells that have been roasted to produce a really heady aroma of toasted walnuts."
Behind us, Mike is scooping out walnut shells from a large bin so that Achatz can prepare one serving of the dish for Joe Catterson, the general manager and wine director, who will figure out the wine pairing. "It's interesting to me to watch certain ingredients behave with each other based on their acidity, their sweetness, their texture, their herbaceous notes," Achatz continues. "Basically you've got to look at the pumpkin as the common denominator going with each one of these garnishes individually. Pumpkin goes with thyme, pumpkin goes with curried pumpkinseeds, pumpkin goes with bacon, pumpkin goes with nutmeg. That's the easy part. But then you've got to go back and link all these supporting garnishes together. Does truffle go with orange? Does truffle go with olive? Does truffle go with nutmeg? Does truffle go with walnuts? Does truffle go with bacon? Yes, it does. You just go through the sequence, and you eliminate anything that doesn't make culinary sense. It's like a big puzzle. You just work it down."
But how are you supposed to eat such a thing? "For me personally, you've got pumpkin on your spoon every time, and you just visit each garnish and see how that texture or that spice note plays off the pumpkin," he says. "But what's really interesting is that once you've eaten that and you have this residual spiced pumpkin pie flavor in your mouth, you visit the bacon, and now you have the smoky element of the bacon playing with the nutmeg and the pumpkin. And maybe you're thinking, This is getting really rich-the bacon and fatty pumpkin purée. Go to the orange for some acid. Go to the pineapple for some acid."
OK, maybe not an entirely regular chef.
All week I have been trying to make it from the beginning of the shift at noon to the bloody end somewhere south of two a.m. But, reliably, at around nine at night (about five hours short of a full shift), I would get the screaming willies, mentally exhausted from watching everybody else do service. The problem is the second wave: from 5:30 to 9-ish, the kitchen is on full push. Dozens upon dozens of plates go by, speed-assembled yet each lovingly adorned with whimsical, feathery garnishes as delicate as a bee alit on a flower. Then, 9 p.m. rolls around and Trinna Schramm, the restaurant's full-time expediter, calls out from her post in the kitchen: "Four, tour!" The cooks affirm the order: "Four!" Oh, my God. A table of four wants the 24-course extravaganza. Here they go again. At this point, I can't stand the intensity anymore and have to leave.
Last night, determined to gut it out, I took a half-hour break, walking up and down Halsted Street, stopping for fries and a Diet Coke. I returned and helped plate a handful of desserts. Around 12:30, the meat and fish stations began breaking down and I thought, "It's over!" Proud of myself, I strode over to Achatz and said, "Well, chef, I guess I'll be going now." He twisted around theatrically to look at the clock on the wall and said, "You did pretty good!" Crestfallen, I packed up to go. One of the cooks caught my eye as I stepped out the back door and said sympathetically, "Couldn't quite make it, could you?"
By today, Sunday, my last day, I am so fully done, cooked, and just plain worn out that I downshift into reporting and spend the afternoon chatting with the guys. They're a young bunch-most in their midto late 20s-and an ambitious lot. Curtis, Achatz's deputy, told me the restaurant receives about 50 résumés a month and that 98 percent are turned away. At Alinea, the starting salary for a line cook is $24,000 with benefits. John Shields, 29, came to Chicago from Tampa, Florida, in 2003 hoping to work at Trio with Achatz. He was running his own kitchen in St. Petersburg but left it behind to move his career forward. He bided his time for two years (at Charlie Trotter's, no less) waiting for a sous position to open up. Andrew Graves, a 28-year-old from Green Bay, Wisconsin, ran a restaurant for the legendary chef Norman Van Aken in Key Largo before coming to Chicago in May. He started at Alinea six weeks ago. "I was taught to layer flavor, but what I see here is isolating flavors and then putting them together. You get really clean, crisp tastes," he says. "I think it's great food." Michael Wallace, 30, moved from San Francisco to work at Alinea last December. He plans to open his own restaurant within five years. For them, a stint at Alinea is a building block in a well-pedigreed résumé.
It's clear that Achatz is not merely interested in cooking great food. He wants to be an artist, or, at least, to push the restaurant meal into a radical new dimension. I ask him to describe what he is trying to achieve. Pausing briefly to put his words together, he says, "Hopefully it's a very emotionally rich experience for the guest." He explains that all the pieces of the restaurant support that goal: The entry hallway, which tapers in and downward, discombobulates you gently, erasing the world outside; the staircase, which is visible to the downstairs dining room, is a "kinetic sculpture"; and the food dismantles everything you thought you knew about tomatoes and lobster and chocolate, then puts it back together-ingeniously, often brilliantly.
Even the serving pieces, designed by Achatz and a Czech-born metalsmith named Martin Kastner, demand a reaction: In one particularly confrontational course, a plug of menthol-flavored mousse is impaled on a long, wavering wire called The Antenna. The waiters instruct you to open up and ingest the morsel in one hands-free bite. Bobbing for apples comes to mind. This delights Achatz. "You can't tell me that you're not feeling something," he says. "You're either going to laugh or you're going to feel intimidated or you're going to feel embarrassed. You're thinking something, and that's the point. And it's a good bite of food. That food could be served on a spoon, and it would taste exactly the same-but it would be a totally different experience."
Achatz allows that you probably don't want to eat this way every day, that the tour at Alinea can take a spot alongside a ham sandwich from Potbelly's ("everything, no peppers" when Achatz eats it) and Thanksgiving dinner. But, make no mistake, when you're in his house he intends to wow you, to give you an ultimate dining experience that goes far beyond eating. The performance is a high-wire act for an elite audience, for which he has conscripted a willing army-some 45 full-time employees-to help him.
William Rice, the retired food and wine columnist for the Chicago Tribune, believes that Achatz is gunning for a permanent place in culinary history. "This restaurant is created to a vision, to a dream, and he hasn't had to compromise to this point," Rice says. "What will happen in the future is hard to say, but a lot of people didn't think Charlie Trotter was going to last." The future may be uncertain. But Grant Achatz is not alone.
One dish, 20 elements. Here, an annotated version of Alinea's most labor-intensive plate