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Interview with Grant Achatz

Alinea, Chicago

What's the most versatile spice?
Curry. We use it everywhere, from savory dishes to desserts. We take pear juice and freeze it in a spherical mold, then dip it in Mycroyo (which is like processed cocoa butter) infused with hot and mild curry, a little bit of salt and a little bit of white chocolate. This creates a shell. At room temperature, the pear juice melts and the shell stays rigid.

What's the most underused spice?
Mastic. It's a resin from a tree that grows on an island in Greece. It's super expensive and the flavor is amazing. It's piney, very evergreen-y, but complex and rich. We blend it with anything that has fat or is butter- or cream-based.

What items should be in every pantry?
Grapeseed oil, salt and flour. Grapeseed is our oil of choice for any vinaigrette, sauce or emulsification because it's more neutral-tasting than olive oil. We cook with Diamond Crystal kosher salt. Coincidentally, the Diamond Crystal factory is in the town where I grew up—St. Clair, Michigan. It's funny that we tried all these different kosher salts and the one we ended thinking was the best was from my hometown. Most people use Morton, which is coarser. We finish sauces with Maldon salt, but we also use gray salt, salt from Brittany, smoked salt. Most smoked salts are made with liquid smoke, which is a condensate, but really, really good smoked salt is literally smoked. Ours is from Denmark and smoked over peat.

What's your favorite knife?
Global. For the longest time I used MAC, and I still like them, but then a Global rep from Japan came to eat here and brought us a prototype for a 12-inch chef's knife. It's gigantic! I thought it would be unbalanced and uncomfortable, so I was polite to him but put the knife away thinking I would never use it. Then one day I didn't have any sharp knives around, so I gave it a try. And once I picked it up, I didn't want to put it down. It's very balanced and stays very sharp. Global GF35 is the model.

What's your favorite pan?
We use All-Clad. We don't use copper. We use their MC-2 line.

What's your favorite place to buy equipment?
We develop equipment [for Alinea] with PolyScience. About six months ago, PolyScience started selling retail [through cuisinetechnology.com]. They also distribute through JB Prince [jbprince.com].

What's your favorite mail-order source?
We buy from Terra Spice [terraspice.com].

What's the kitchen appliance you wish for most?
Thermomix. I haven't gotten one yet, but not because of the expense. I just can't make sense of it. It's a blender that heats things and cools things. But why can't you just heat or cool the thing you want to blend? I can't wrap my mind around it. But everyone talks so highly of it, so I guess I should get it.

If you could design one piece of serving equipment, what would it be?
Martin Kastner [who designs the serving pieces at Alinea] is working on a dried-food dispenser for us, for one-bite courses. It'll be like you're eating bites of powder.

What's the best restaurant dish you ate in 2005?
I ate at the French Laundry [in Yountville, California] recently and you can't beat the Oysters and Pearls. It's perfect. And I can say that since I've been eating it since 1996 and I still close my eyes and say, "My God, it's a perfect dish."

What restaurant would you want to eat in once a week?
If I could eat at Potbelly Sandwich Works once a week, I would. They're all over Chicago [and elsewhere in the country]. You can't beat it. For three or four dollars you get awesome toasted bread, great meat, fresh vegetables.

On a scale of one to 10, with one representing an emphasis on using in-season ingredients as simply as possible and 10 championing high-tech, scientific cooking, where do you rank yourself?
You're going to be shocked, but I'd say we're about a four. Everything we do, no matter what we do, is about the purity of the ingredients. You might take a pineapple and juice it and gel it and turn it into a film, but it still tastes like a great, ripe pineapple. The science is an avenue for creativity. It's not the genesis of the cuisine. It's not the voice of the cuisine, at least here. When we employ science, we use it in a way that's discreet. The guests might know they're eating something unfamiliar, but the science is never exploited.

What ingredient used by avant-garde chefs (i.e., agar-agar, transglutaminase, methylcellulose) do you think will make its way to the home kitchen?
We're using tapioca maltodextrin, which is really no different than using baking soda. And agar-agar is sold at Whole Foods. That's where we buy it. But definitely not methylcellulose or transglutaminase.

What's your favorite cookbook?
The French Laundry Cookbook [by Thomas Keller] is always at the top of the list. And I'm pretty infatuated with the 2003-2004 El Bulli book. The cooks and I just gather around and look at it like goofy teenagers.

From whom would you most like to take a cooking class?
It's got to be Escoffier. I would hope to trace the origin of what I'm doing today back to him. People might not see it, but I think it's the case.

If you had $10 to spend on any piece of equipment, what would you buy?
We need a new hook for our little Swiffer. We take our Swiffer and go phewt, phewt and everything's clean. But our hook just broke and I haven't found time to go to Home Depot yet.

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