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Brain Food | Grant Achatz

Grant Achatz could sauté shrimp, but he'd much rather atomize it. Pete Wells visits him in Chicago to preview what may be America's best new restaurant, Alinea.

PB&J

Your waiter will appear bearing a small steel contraption. Wires radiate up and out, like the skeleton of an upside-down umbrella. Snuggled into those spokes will be a small bunch of grapes, but the grapes are gone—all but two, which still cling to their denuded branch, partly visible through a lacy, paper-thin wrapping of toast. It won't look like food, exactly, but you're in a restaurant and this seems to be your first course and you're hungry, so you will pick up the whole weird mess by the stem, dangle it over your mouth, Roman emperor-style, and bite. The outside will be crisp; inside will be something juicy. A grape, of course. But there will be something else, something sticky and totally, utterly familiar. You've known this taste since before you could tie your own shoes. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich! And you will wonder: Just what kind of restaurant is this, anyway?

It's called Alinea, and when it opens in Chicago this month, I predict that it will quickly prove itself one of America's most unusual, provocative, challenging and entertaining restaurants. Also, I'll bet, one of its best.

Heirloom-Tomato Salad

I've admired Alinea's chef, Grant Achatz, since 2001, when I ate a meal he cooked shortly after taking control of his first restaurant kitchen (Trio, in Evanston, Illinois). Achatz was 27, but his technical command and self-assurance were apparent from my first course, an heirloom-tomato salad. Behind every other plate of glossy Brandywines and Cherokee Purples I'd ever been served, I could hear a chef bragging about the cool farmers he knew. All that reverence for seasonal produce got so boring after a while that I wanted to round up every heirloom-tomato salad on earth and set them all adrift on an ice floe. But Achatz didn't worship his tomatoes. He wanted to see if they could do something new. So he peeled them, chilled them so hard he nearly froze them and hustled them out of the kitchen escorted by a scoop of tomato sorbet. He'd turned the sloshy, sloppy tomato salad into something taut, rigorous and new.

What I didn't know at the time was that Achatz wasn't finished with the tomato salad. He's never finished with anything. Any ingredient that strays into his kitchen is examined, poked, prodded, stretched, reshaped, transubstantiated. Herbs are turned into gas, fruit is turned into paper, pizza is stripped of crunch and chew until it's nothing but pure flavor. By tomato season in 2003, Achatz had figured out how to blow bubbles out of mozzarella and trap tomato foam inside them. The search for tools that enable such culinary makeovers has led Achatz and his cooks to laboratory-equipment manufacturers, snack-food conventions and the corner hardware store.

Achatz describes the philosophical break that he and a few like-minded chefs have made with the so-called market-driven school that still dominates American cuisine: "We know we can get awesome shrimp. That's not good enough for us anymore. How can we manipulate it? We're still dealing with the same ingredients, but we sit down and say, 'What's a shrimp?'"

Virtual Shrimp Cocktail

The waiter brings you a black plastic atomizer, the kind some pretentious people use to anoint their martinis with a faint haze of vermouth. "Open your mouth and press the pump at least five times," he instructs you. Feeling like a bit of a boob, you do. Flavors bob into your consciousness—shrimp...horseradish...tomatoes—and crystallize. Shrimp cocktail. But better.

The sensation that materializes in the back of your throat is so eerily precise that you wonder if artificial flavorings are involved. In fact, this effect is achieved by honest means. Achatz and company stew shrimp and the other ingredients, then run the slurry through a wine press for maximum concentration.

Black Truffle Explosion

In 1996, when he was a 22-year-old graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Grant Achatz submitted his unimpressive resume to what he believed were the best restaurants in the country. None replied. There was also this new place in California that sounded intriguing, so he mailed a resume there. He sent another the next week, and the next. "Finally," Thomas Keller recalls, "I thought, Okay, I'll hire him." For most of the next four years, Achatz worked at the French Laundry, studying Keller's refined, whimsical cuisine, his weaving together of French traditions and American icons like Pop-Tarts.

One day in the kitchen, Achatz had an idea: exploding ravioli. In 2001, he flew to Chicago to audition for the job at Trio by cooking a meal for Henry Adaniya, the owner of the restaurant. Adaniya was the first person to taste the exploding ravioli. He popped it in his mouth, bit down, and hot truffle broth came pouring out.

The Black Truffle Explosion contained, in embryo, some of the central ideas Achatz would go on to explore at Trio: The food looked like one thing (ravioli) but behaved like another (a Shanghai soup dumpling, Freshen-Up gum). Most crucially, some action by the diner (biting down) unlocked the transformation. A playful intellect was bound together with a sensual instinct; one mouthful sent you on a quick trip from the ordinary to the unexpected by way of real pleasure.

At the end of that meal, Achatz was hired as Trio's chef, and during his three-year run he secured a reputation as one of the country's most promising culinary stars. (F&W named him a Best New Chef 2002.) After that same meal, Black Truffle Explosion started its tenure as Trio's signature dish. It was the only item on Achatz's opening menu that he was still serving when he left, last July. Then he retired it. He also retired every other dish he and his staff had developed at Trio—more than 250 of them. With Alinea, he would start over.

Dried Crème Brûlée

Customers who reserve a table at Alinea can expect disorientation, confusion and intellectual vertigo from the moment they open the front door. Achatz and his team wanted to build a restaurant that looks sleek, modern and luxurious. At the same time, they intend to spring a few Coney Island fun-house surprises. An LED lighting system will let them change wall colors at will, so they could, in an antic mood, bathe the dining room in fuchsia while you're eating beets. (Achatz promises the effect will be far more subtle.) The auditory equivalent is something called the Audio Spotlight: a sound system that can beam a column of sound so tightly focused that only one person in the restaurant will hear it. Some of the architecture is meant to mimic the playfulness of the food. "When you finally make it to your chair and sit down," Achatz says, "I want you to be, like, 'I can't wait for this to start. Because it's already been exciting, and all we've done is walk to our table.'"

After studying the menu, diners at Alinea will be asked one question: Do they want a tasting of six courses, 12 or 30? Achatz believes the longest menu shows off his cuisine best, but it also means perfecting an ungodly number of dishes by opening day. So he borrowed a kitchen from one of Alinea's investors while the restaurant was being built. Alinea's kitchen will be uniquely suited to Achatz's needs. Because he doesn't expect to use high heat at Alinea, it will have just one stove, with four open burners; most of the heat will be provided by induction surfaces, salamanders and hot-water baths in which the cooks can immerse ingredients sealed in plastic by a Cryovac. A few other space-age machines have been procured, like a centrifuge. But not all problems can be solved with advanced technology.

For weeks Achatz and his staff worked in the borrowed kitchen, attempting to craft a bubble from caramel. This seemed easy but turned out to be diabolically challenging. A hair dryer was employed, and a heat gun of the kind furniture restorers use to strip paint, and a small hand-operated pump, and a drinking straw. Finally, they dipped a small balloon into hot caramel, popped the balloon and extracted the shreds of rubber: a caramel bubble. They filled the bubble with dehydrated and pulverized eggs and cream and powdered vanilla sugar. They'd perfected a crème brûlée that was fit for an astronaut. Then they read in the November issue of F&W that a restaurant in Washington, D.C., was offering a dessert called the Light Bulb of Flavor—a caramel bubble.

Dried Crème Brûlée was retired before it was served to a single customer.

Loin and Leg of Young Rabbit, Evergreen Vapor

Early on at Trio, Achatz tried seasoning lobster with rosemary, but the herb was too strong. This led to the idea of rosemary vapor: The waiter would bring the customer a plate of lobster and a dish of rosemary branches, then pour scalding water over the rosemary. The diner inhaled the vapor, which powerfully altered the experience of eating the lobster without masking the flavor.

Achatz believes that a great restaurant should stimulate all five senses. Any good chef understands that smell plays a large role in taste, but Achatz is talking about something more: manipulating and exploiting the olfactory sense to deliberate effect. "Everybody knows how powerful the aroma of a baking apple pie in the oven is," he says. "But for whatever reason, chefs haven't tried to harness those aromas." Lately his team at Alinea has been test-driving a vaporizer that can extract the scent from a rosemary branch (or anything else).

When I ate at Trio the second time, early in 2004, the lobster dish had evolved significantly. The seafood had been replaced by rabbit and the seasoning had become green pine needles. My waiter gave an odd speech comparing the dish to a walk in the forest, with things one might smell (pine trees) or see (mushrooms, bunnies) along the way.

Sixteen thrilling, mind-bending courses later,Achatz asked for my impressions of the meal. These generally began with "Oh, my God," but I did wonder if the walk in the forest wasn't influenced by a dish at Spain's iconoclastic El Bulli, in which waiters armed with atomizers spritzed the air with the scent of forest leaves. "I know the dish you're talking about," Achatz said. "But that's not what I was thinking of when I came up with mine."

During Achatz's time at the French Laundry, Thomas Keller arranged for him to work with Ferran Adrià at El Bulli for a week. Keller had taught Achatz to pay attention and strive for perfection. Adrià gave him something else: freedom. Cuisine did not need to be a piece of protein with a sauce. Cuisine could be all sorts of things, some of which, like vapor, weren't even edible. "Grant was just smitten with Ferran's style, Ferran's philosophy, Ferran's passion," Keller recalls. "He came back with a whole new point of view."

Achatz knows how much he owes to Adrià, but he can't stand being called an imitator. "Ferran started the whole thing," he says. "He's creating techniques that haven't been done before. That's phenomenal. What bothers me are chefs who insinuate we're not being original. I have to turn to them and say 'You're sautéing a piece of fish!'"

Nantucket Bay Scallops, Roasted Pear, Olive Oil and Licorice

The waiter brings you a long skewer. It sways gently from the weight of the scallop impaled on its tip. That tip is at the level of your mouth, bobbing up and down. The waiter asks you, nicely, not to use your hands.

You are entitled to ask: What's going on here? You had fun picking up the PB&J. But now they want to take away your hands? And put a sharp spear in your mouth?

Here you have reached the core of what Achatz wants to accomplish at Alinea: You are feeling something. You're not judging the technical execution of the food anymore. The food may, in fact, be judging you.

Achatz, for all his interest in chemistry, physics and mechanics, only views them as means to an end. And that end is you. When he manipulates a shrimp or a tomato, what he's really thinking about is how that manipulation is going to play out in your head.

The skewer is one of 20 service pieces that a Czech-born designer named Martin Kastner has made for Achatz. Each piece, Kastner says, is meant to give rise to a different emotion. The upside-down umbrella that cradles the PB&J (Kastner calls it the Squid) conveys "a real feeling of gentleness," he says, "whereas the Antenna"—his name for the spear—"is about tension."

"Martin and I came up with four main reasons why we're doing all this," Achatz explains. "The primary one is emotion: How can we change emotion through the mechanics of eating? Sometimes, quite honestly, we want diners to feel confronted, if that makes their hearts beat faster, if that helps them take note of the moment."

"What kinds of emotions are you after?" I ask.

"Certainly happiness is one of the main ones, but that can come in so many forms," he replies. "I don't think we want to make people...fearful. But there can be levels of intimidation, surprise, excitement, intrigue, mystique. It's provocative food, and we want people to ponder it. We want to get into their heads a little bit. If they just eat it for the taste, they're only getting 50 percent of what we're trying to project."

Instant Tropical Pudding

At any point during a tasting menu Achatz may dispatch a sweet course to your table, and it can range from comfortingly sugary to not very sweet at all. This one is comforting. A dish of white powder topped with spices and sugar. The waiter adds a measure of coconut water spiked with rum. You stir the liquid and the powder together into a lovely, smooth cream that's like a very sophisticated piña colada. The secret of Instant Tropical Pudding is spray-drying, in which a liquid sprayed from the top of a silo dries to a powder as it falls. Here, pineapple, banana and coconut purees are spray-dried; when reanimated by coconut water, they are more intense than when they were alive.

Once I asked Achatz the difference between Thomas Keller's philosophy and his own. "Thomas is interested in creating perfect dishes," Achatz replied. "Once he's created the perfect dish, it'll always be there. He just wants to refine and refine until he's got the perfect restaurant. It's different for us. Almost the opposite.

"Sure, we want to create a perfect dish," he continued. "Then we want to replace it."

Alinea, 1723 N. Halsted St., Chicago; 312-867-0110.

Pete Wells, a former staffer at F&W, is an articles editor at Details and the winner of three James Beard Foundation journalism awards.

Published March 2005
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