When Grant Achatz, chef and restauranteur of Alinea walked onto the stage at Chefs Revolution in Zwolle there was a sense of anticipation among the audience. Two days of great presentations by some of the world’s most avant-garde chefs was coming to a close. In that situation, anyone standing in front of a packed theatre might panic. But then again, it must have been obvious that the organisers would leave something special as the last act?
It was not even a question of time. Achatz did not fly in all the way from Chicago for the presentation and leave. Chefs have a very busy schedule but Achatz and his team had been in the Netherlands for four days and were in no hurry to leave though they were then heading to Rene Redzepi’s Noma a day later and then to Frantzen in Sweden.
Achatz and his team made a spectacular presentation but you cannot expect anything less from this American chef and restaurateur who is often considered as one of the leaders in molecular gastronomy or progressive cuisine.
In pitch darkness, Achatz started off with a video of Alinea which I urge you to watch just to get an insight into Achatz’s philosophy of food.
He then started speaking in near darkness and many were wondering what was happening. He switched on a blowtorch and set a centre piece that was on the kitchen top on fire.
What was this, many wondered.
“At Alinea we have a concept of putting a fire at the centre of the table. We hide a wagyu beef wrapped in kombu (a type of seaweed) and a charred parsnip amid the burning charcoal. We light the fire in front of our guests and can leave it like this for 10 to 15 minutes. Many of our guests think that we will be cooking something on the fire. But in reality, the actual food they are going to be served is hidden inside the fire. We then unwrap the wagyu beef, put the charred parsnip on the plate and that course is served. This is normally one of our courses in the tasting menu.”
Achatz said that he wanted to take this concept and expand on it with ingredients which he and his team had found in the Netherlands. “We have been inspired by new techniques and ingredients in the Netherlands. We found great ingredients and what we will do is pull everything apart and present six different courses built around the concept of the fire.”
He started off with an Oyster served with an apple seed oil which they create with a German oil press. We started to press these seeds and what we discovered is a liquid which smells of marzipan. The oyster was covered with a small concrete slab. He lifted the first concrete slab and presented the cooked oyster with the toasted apple seed aroma to dress the oyster.
On a boat tour in the Amsterdam canals they had sandwiches with onion, herring, cheese and pickles. Herring is not something they use in Chicago but Achatz said they wanted to use it here. For the second dish, he warmed up cheese, herring, minced onion in a tin and then added caviar which was inspired from his time at French Laundry where he worked between 1996 and 2001.
This was followed by light salted mackarel with fennel and angelica root.
Achatz said that in mid-west Chicago, one of the most important vegetables that is grown in summer is corn. “When we came to the Netherlands we were a bit nervous because we were not sure whether we would find it here, only to be relieved when we were driving from Amsterdam to Zwolle to see fields full of corn. We have a supplier one and a half hours away from our restaurant who grows corn in a great way. The way the sun sets over the field is spectacular and once we took a photo of the sun and the corn fields which gave the illusion that the corn was on fire. When we saw that photo, we knew we wanted to make the connection between sun and fire so we put the corn in the fire.”
Knowing Achatz, however, you know that you will not be getting the corn cooked like it is on a barbeque. “We set about presenting the corn in its husk but a problem with the kernels is that once you remove them, it is difficult to get them to stick together. They immediately fall apart. We finally found a way to make them stick together by dipping them in clarified butter before cutting them gently. So they charred the outside and when it comes to table the clients are surprised to find that the corn has been removed but is still presented as a whole with a layer of custard underneath.
He then served a stew of pork belly with chanterelle mushrooms, endives and herbs which was being slowly cooked on the fire. The final dish was a Dutch cow’s cheese which was warmed and therefore melted and served on bread with a roasted apple.
The starters finished, the creativity was about to go up one notch. Achatz said that the city scape of Chicago was very different to what one could find in the Netherlands. However, just like in Amsterdam, going to the restaurant, they always find lots of graffiti. “We therefore wanted to replicate this aesthetic of what we see when we go to our restaurant on a plate. There is lot’s of graffiti and the question we asked ourselves was how could we take this art form and turn it something which we could serve. What we finally did was take a slab of concrete which we form into sheet trays and then tagged them. We then create concrete graffiti which forms the plate. This to us reflects our city.”
Achatz then went on to prepare a tomato course with tomatoes and raspberries, goat’s cheese, hazelnuts, basil and peeled grapes. Grey is a dull colour which is not used very much in cooking. But we managed to create ash goat’s cheese which we put on a sheet to hide the ingredients. Once we freeze the goat’s cheese ash we are able to manipulate it even though it looks like a sheet of concrete. We then spray rhubarb to create the graffiti feeling. “To us, this is a homage to the concrete jungle we live in,” he said.
The final act was a work of genius. He said that since 2005 they had been trying to come up with a way to make food float. “How could we do this. Do we embed things in the table surface? Do we use a magnet? It took us seven years to find how to make it. We created something which is on the borderline of unachievable. Sugar’s worst enemy is water but here we mix it to make it work. The amount we use depends on the humidity. We have 25 variations of the recipe depending on the weather and humidity. We made an edible string with apple to tie the sugar balloon. In 2005 we challenged ourselves with an impossible idea. It took us 7 years to find the answer. Sometimes we joked about it and time and time again we took what we learned and advanced a bit further. Then I was in France and received an email from a chef telling me we got it. I asked whether it tastes good. He said yes chef.”
Alinea serve the balloon which is sugar blowm with helium as part of the tasting menu. This is served as the course before the last. “Our idea of a restaurant is to make people laugh and to feel relaxed. We want to create texture and emotions. We want to take it a step past just delicious food. My idea is to connect with people. If I can make my guests laugh, then that is a huge achievement,” he said.
Achatz on Creativity
I had heard about his restaurant Alinea in Chicago since at least 2008 when he published a coffee table book called Alinea with some of the restaurant’s recipes but nothing had prepared me for this level of inventiveness despite the fact that Achatz’s reputation should have been indicative of what to expect.
Achatz says that many people have a misconception about creativity. “Some people think that you can sleep and come up with an idea. But in reality, its a lot of hard work.”
The American chef says that he stays inspired by traveling and working with great chefs. “We work in a highly collaborative environment which is great because we speak the same language. But traveling and visiting other great chefs is essential. This is inspiring.”
Even eating street food can lead to inspiration. You just need to be aware of what’s around you “At the farmer’s market here, we were looking at smoked eels. Now this is something which we will not find in Chicago. But we can try to do something similar so we have already started to ask whether we could use a big smoker or a small one.”
The presenter asked whether he considered cuisine to be art given that when you go to an opera for example you use your ears and eyes to listen and view while in a restaurant you end up using all your senses. Achatz said that using all senses was essential. “You realise how important it is when it is taken from you,” Achatz said referring to his cancer which had effected his taste for a few months before announcing that he was cancer-free on 18 December 2007. He said that when chefs traveled they sometimes had to merge two lunches and a dinner in a day to try and get the most of the experience. So not being able to taste the food was a terrible experience.
Just listening to Achatz makes you want to catch the next flight to Chicago to try his menu. For the time being, we just have to wait for the right occasion hoping that when and if we eventually get to go, he can also make us laugh.