[continued from Part 1]
April 1, 2009, Evanston, IL
In the year 2000, Grant went to El Bulli and experienced something that would change his art forever. There was one course that came out with a vanilla bean pod on the side. It wasn’t a dessert course; it was savory. “You see vanilla and think it’s sweet, but if you put a vanilla pod in your mouth it’s bitter, not sweet at all. You think it’s sweet because you are used to it being in sweet things.” He was instructed to pick up the vanilla occasionally and smell while eating the course. That was the beginning of the idea of incorporating aroma into his dishes. “While I was eating that dish, I thought, ‘This is great!’” he continued, “…but I’m from Michigan; I don’t use fork and knife like Europeans do, so I had to put the fork down, pick up the vanilla, put that down, then pick up the fork again. It was too much work. And I thought; what if this vanilla was the utensil?” He demonstrated this with Sweet Potato. He called it the decomposed sweet potato pie, with tempura crust, sweet potato puree, brown sugar gel, and bourbon. And of course, smoldering cinnamon stick as utensil. He explained that the three cubes inside the tempura were made using different types of congealing agents: agar for bourbon, pectin for brown sugar to achieve chewy texture, and gelatin for sweet potatoes so it would melt easily when fried. He made tempura batter and the assistant started to fry. He told the story of how chefs tease entry-level cooks by giving them 12 sticks of these at once to hold over hot oil. “When the inside of these melts, they are liquid. Liquid in hot oil… you know what happens.” While Grant was torching the tip of the cinnamon sticks, the assistant said it amused him that the servers always had to tell the diners not to grab the lit end of the stick. Grant said, “If some ashes fall on you and we need to pay for the dry cleaning, it would become a very expensive course for us.” 3 lucky (and most assertive) people in the audience got the taste.
He then talked about seasonal cooking. “When you hear ‘seasonal cooking,’ you think of cooking with seasonal ingredients, right? But can we push it further? Can we make a dish that is the essence of the season, the taste, the smell, all of it? Because each season has its own smell, and we all know what it smells like, don’t we?” And the smell could be very personal. For some people the smell of winter could be of evergreens, but not everyone had Christmas trees. He asked the audience; what’s the smell of fall? Leaves. Bonfire. Apples. Pies. Pumpkins. For him it was hayride: pumpkin guts, cider doughnuts, with the earthy smell of hay. He was working on the concept of hayride at Trio, when Mary came running to the kitchen, saying, “Chef, chef, there is a lady in the dining room who is having a massive allergy attack!” He had bought a couple of bales of hay that morning. He demonstrated how he puts aromatic elements in a big bowl and food in the small bowl on top of it, pours hot water over the outer bowl and voila, another way to add aroma to a dish.
In 2005, when they were working to open Alinea, one of Grant’s supporters came home from Amsterdam with a vaporizer. He asked Grant if he would be interested in using it for cooking, not for the common usage (hmmm, Amsterdam, smoke…). Grant experimented in their “test kitchen” (which was his business partner Nick’s home kitchen), making all kinds of smoke, and figured out that he could capture the smoke in a plastic bag, and by poking small holes and putting a dish on top of it, he could release the aroma slowly as the diner eats the course. “But we were working to build the best restaurant in Chicago, aiming for 4 stars. We thought plastic bags might not be elegant enough to go out in the dining room, so we specially made nice linen pillow cases for them.” He put some lavender in the machine, and poof! The whole place started to smell like lavender tempura (the latter part being left over from the previous demonstration). He captured the smoke in a bag, half sealed it and let the audience pass it around to get good sniff. We all got high on lavender.
Those are the aroma techniques circa 2000 and 2005. He is trying to come up with a new technique for 2009.
When Kaden was 5, he took an ice cream sandwich out of the freezer (“without asking his dad…”) and forgot about it. Later he realized that the ice cream part had all melted and oozed out on the counter. He asked Grant, almost in tears, “Dad! Can’t you scoop this all up and put them together again?” Grant told him no, once it’s melted there was nothing he could do. But then he saw two cookies from the sandwich still there, and an idea of “frozen something melted inside an encasement” came to him. He demonstrated with Yogurt. He took a frozen sphere of yogurt mixture, dipped in white chocolate, let the inside melt in refrigerator, put it in a shot glass (“These are from Crate & Barrel”), pour a bit of pomegranate juice, grated some cassia buds over it (“It’s like cinnamon”), and put a teeny mint leaves on top with a pair of tweezers. Then he said something that was contrary to what I usually hear from the servers at Alinea. He said that those shot glasses made the spheres look bigger, and some people felt they couldn’t put them in their mouths. “But look at this: same size as gumballs. Anybody can put it in the mouth, no problem, right?” Normally, at Alinea, we hear servers caution us to open wide, because the spheres were deceptively large. I tend to agree with the servers: they are big, and when they break in the mouth it feels like an explosion of fresh flavors. 3 people were lucky enough to enjoy the one-biter. Grant said they made eggnog version during the holiday season. I have tasted 5 or 6 different incarnations of the spheres over the years.
Someone asked, “How thick do you have to coat the frozen sphere? How do you know that there is no hole in it? Do you double coat it?”
“We should,” said Grant. He explained how sometimes tiny little air bubbles in the coating liquid could make holes that were almost invisible, and when the inside melted it would start to ooze out. He also told of the time when they did an event at the MCA: they had to transfer enough bites for 500 people in a van and a whole tray of the spheres got smashed up. Yikes.
The other day, Grant walked into the kitchen and there was this big case of green Thai chilies. “I never liked spicy food. I’ve asked people, who like spicy food, what exactly they were tasting. When I eat something spicy, my mouth gets on fire and I can’t taste anything! My eyes water, my mouth waters, and that’s it, isn’t it?” So he was wondering what the Thai chili really tasted like, when the president of PolyScience (the engineering collaborator to Alinea kitchen) called and asked if he wanted to try a distiller for some reason. He went on distilling frenzy: he distilled everything. Things turned into their essence, very condensed version of the taste of them. Milk became water; but the byproduct was this creamy substance that’s unlike anything he knew before: it was like crème fraiche, heavy cream, and other dairy products but not quite and rather unique. And for the first time he could taste Thai chili without burning his tongue. 3 people got to taste it too. I wonder what it was like…?
Always Something New
“I recently had an opportunity to visit Japan, spent 5 days in Tokyo and 5 days in Kyoto. I’ve been to Europe numerous times, been to Spain a lot, but Japan was something completely new for me and it was very inspiring. I could go on and on about it… I saw these in Japan. These are called ‘medical wafers,’” said Grant, holding up something. I couldn’t see it at all, because I was standing all the way back against the wall, but I knew what he was talking about. Then I heard,
What did he just say? It sounded like…
“Tomo, where are you? I need you up here.”
What!!?? He’s kidding, right…? He wanted me to explain to the audience what those “wafers” were for. I went up, because when the chef calls, you do what he wants: for someone who is very quiet and gentle in manner, Grant sure has that authoritative quality. And I didn’t want to disturb the flow of things by protesting. But it would have been easier for me if he had asked me to hold something or stir something. I could have happily held 12 sticks over a pot of hot oil. I could have sung. But speech: not my forte.
“Can you tell them what you do with these?”
“Well, in Japan we use those starch paper to wrap awful tasting medicine, so we wouldn’t taste it. Medicine comes usually in powder, we don’t have those liquid antibiotics like you do here, so we put powdered medicine on those obulato, wrap it up and swallow it. It gets slippery when wet, so it’s easier to go down. That’s what we do from… maybe 3 and up,” I bumbled, and went back to where I had been standing as quickly as possible. Phew.
Grant then went on explaining how those wafers reached his hands at first: “When I came back from Japan, I e-mailed Tomo and asked, ‘Where can I get these?’ She went to Arlington Heights, to… what’s that place called, Mitsuwa? She found them and called me from the market and asked how much I wanted, so I said ‘Get them all!’ The sales lady thought she had a family member who was really sick.”
I do take the Crazy Japanese Lady role seriously.
He gave out little packets wrapped in obulato to 6 people. “Put it on your tongue and see what happens.” It was Grape Soda—he said it’s like those fizzy candies, or the kid’s volcano experiment: vinegar and baking soda.
With that, the demo part of the evening came to an end. It was a little peek yet clear illustration of what’s going on in the kitchen and the brains at Alinea: always pushing the boundaries, always trying to find new angles, always something new.
Alinea—a new train of thoughts
When you see and listen to all these high-tech cooking concepts and methods, you might think it is all foam, smoke, gimmick and show with no taste. There are so many restaurants like that and we are weary of them. Alinea is quite different. Grant’s palate has been lauded as “perfect pitch” and I think that is a very apt description. He comes up with combinations of unexpected flavors, textures and aromas as if they are meant to be since the birth of the planet and we just hadn’t realized it yet. And executed perfectly with his solid skills, his food is mind-boggling but always delicious in a heavenly sort of way. But it even goes beyond that. Grant somehow merges so many aspects of human experience into each dish. As the menu progresses, I see colors of golden field with wild flowers, hear my favorite fugue or jazz or a Coldplay song (in reality, there is no music in the Alinea dining rooms), smell the mountains I hiked in, and taste waves after waves of pleasure that makes me want to stand up and shout “I’m alive!” or give hugs to everyone around me in the dining room. Each of his dinner is a wondrous journey that takes me to different places. He even managed to make me homesick for a couple of occasions. Considering he had never been to Japan before February of this year, and I don’t get homesick easily, it is by itself quite amazing. And there is the wine paring that elevates the food even more and composes symphony in my mouth. And there is the marvelous service: the front-of-house staffs are all so very personable that I sometimes wish they would sit with us and have a glass of wine and chat. I can tell they love what they do: no matter what the profession, that is a fantastic vibe to soak in.
I once told Grant that he had crippled Dave and I for good. Alinea experience is such that we cannot go to other high-end restaurants anymore. We decided we would rather save the money and go back to Alinea twice a year than try other restaurants and pay a lot for disappointment. It works great, because Alinea is constantly evolving; you will never experience the same Alinea twice. Alinea, with Grant at the helm, strives for perfection every single day, while determinedly keeps moving forward.
Q & A
(I had tough time hearing what the questioner was saying, since I was standing in the back of the room, and also because some staffs of the venue started bombing me with whispered questions —“How do you know him?” “Are you a chef too?”—, I don’t remember all of them… sorry!)
When did you decide to go to a culinary school and how did you know that you wanted to be a chef?
G: You know, I think it is not all that fair… when you have to make a big decision like that to determine your life, you are like 16 or 17. How do you know what you want to do in life at that age? I was lucky: I was born into this industry. My grandparents had a restaurant, my dad has a restaurant. I grew up in the kitchen, started washing dishes at age 5, so it was a very natural thing for me to get into. But I still had to choose to go to a culinary school rather than pursuing art or architecture. I was always creative, and I knew I loved to cook.
Have you tried those miracle berries?
G: Do you all know about this? There is this berry that affects palate and when you eat something sour or bitter afterward you taste sweet. So you see people biting into a lemon like it was an apple. No, I haven’t tried.
I watched the YouTube video of you cooking a turkey sous vide. Could you tell us what you recommend to sous vide rather than cooking conventionally?
G: Everything. I mean, think about your holiday meal. It’s extremely hard to cook everything just right. When I was in the culinary school, I went home for the holiday and cooked up an eight-course meal for my family. For all the tuitions they were paying for me, I needed to do something. So I cooked for two days straight, and when the dinnertime came and I started serving courses, the main course, a goose at our house, was sitting in the oven and being totally overcooked. It was terrible. Sous vide is very precise. You put the meat, some fat, garlic and sage or other herbs in a bag, vacuum seal it, and drop it in the water bath that is temperature controlled. If I want my meat to be done to 165 degrees, I set the water temperature at 165 degrees. Simple.
(Someone must have asked him what the powder in the beef course had been, or something like that… I heard him say:)
G: A1. You know, my dad is a big A1 guy. He would slobber the stuff all over everything. So I wanted to create that Great American taste. But if you look at the ingredient list on the bottle, I think most Americans would freak out! Anchovies and raisins!
What is the hottest ingredient nowadays?
G: It’s hard to say… there are many things I would like to try, but they are really hard to find. A while back yuzu came in. It’s a citrus fruit from Japan. Now the new thing is called sudachi. It’s also a citrus fruit that looks like key lime… Tomo! Sudachi?
T: (I was talking with a staff who asked a lot of questions, when I heard my name being called again!) Yes! They are this big and very green, very sour!
G: Do you use it on sushi?
T: Yeah, for fishy fish like…
T: …Aji, yes.
Have you considered going organic and local?
G: It’s funny… this morning I saw in the Twitter—um, yeah, I tweet—, “Alice Waters launches her new frozen entrée line!” I said what?! I couldn’t believe it. Then I realized it was an April Fool’s prank. You should all see the “60 Minutes” segment they did with Alice. She goes out to her garden and picks all her ingredients, plops them down on the counter of her kitchen with all those copper pots hanging, and cooks omelet for… what’s her name? Leslie Stall. That’s beautiful. Can we go that way? Well, that’s not what we are aiming for. We do get local produce and some specialty items, like the amazing trout roe that we get from this one fish grower in Michigan, but what we do doesn’t allow us to be completely organic or local. But we are not the guys who play with all those chemicals all day, either. I think we are somewhere in between.
Do you like bread? Do you serve bread at Alinea?
G: I like bread, and we use it in many different ways at Alinea. When we opened the restaurant we didn’t have bread service. I thought bread would interfere with our food: you know, bread needs things to put on, and I wasn’t sure all those extra flavors would always work with our food. But then our front staffs started to tell me that a lot of diners wished there were bread. They were still hungry after 27 courses! One of our food runners said he liked making bread. I told him we created this kitchen without bread in mind and we couldn’t remodel it for baking now, so he had to work with what we had, and he said sure. So he started making bread for us. It’s been great. He makes good bread: I mean, who wouldn’t like bacon donuts? But we also do other things with bread, like burning it to really black and making sauce for a dish out of it. Yeah, I like bread. It’s good. Starch.
Which restaurants do you like to go to when you go out?
G: Well, I don’t really go out… I do when I go to NY, but when I’m here in Chicago I’m working. I liked Schwa, I went there in… 2006, I think. (Laughter from the audience.) I like all Paul Kahan’s restaurants: the Publican, Blackbird, avec. I haven’t been to Avenue yet. That’s where Curtis Duffy is now. He was Chef de Cuisine when we opened Alinea, who also worked with me at Trio. But it’s kind of hard to go to those places. Like, when I went to Schwa, Michael made a huge deal for me. Michael also worked with me at Trio. I go out in NY a lot more than in Chicago.
Time’s up. Big applauds. Grant then went to a table at the opposite end of the room and started signing books. There formed a long line along one side of the entire length of the room and then continued on diagonally across the room to get to him. King’s audience, this time for sure.
I noticed that Grant used first person plural when he talked about Alinea and its cuisine. He said, “we do this” and “our food,” rather than “I do this” or “my food.” I think it mirrors his recognition of the whole operation as a team effort and how he values everyone’s contributions. See, he is not egomaniac. He listens to what others have to say, even to my opinions. I think that’s why he is where he is now. He has exceptional talent, creative energy and style, of course, but if he were a person who didn’t listen, he would have gotten stuck somewhere way below and never have reached where he is standing now.
After chatting with several people, I sat down with a glass of wine and a scallop, and my mind wandered to a conversation I had had with Grant’s father at one of the book events 6 months ago. Grant, Sr. and his wife told me about how “Jr.” had grown up in their restaurant, how he had stood on a milk carton to reach the sink and counter. I told Mr. Achatz that I thought he had played a big part in his son’s success. He shook his head with an amused expression on his face and said, “Oh, no. It’s the same as Mozart or Einstein: nobody taught them to be that way. Nobody can teach that.” He was quite humble and didn’t use the word “genius,” but I knew what he meant. He was beaming with pride for his only child.
I let out a big sigh of contentment. It was time to go home. I approached the table, at which Grant sat signing, from the opposite direction where everyone was lined up. I said to him “Sorry, I didn’t buy another book,” at the same time he said, “How many books do you need? How many do you have already?” I did have 6 copies already. The book events had been very generous. I gave one to my friend who used to run a private chef business, another to my sister-in-law, and Dave took one to his office, but I still have 3 in my house. One of them is very precious to me: I brought a Sharpie to the official book release party and walked around asking for autographs from Alinea staff, co-owner Nick, Martin the designer and Lara the photographer, all of whom were celebrating there. Grant personalized that copy for me too.
He gave me a hug and said, “Be good. I like your e-mails, by the way.”
Oh, good! So I wasn’t freaky—yet.