Tuesday, March 13, 2007

An Afternoon with Grant Achatz

I've never felt so much like a foodie as I did earlier this month. I got an email one Friday morning that notified me that Grant Achatz (of Alinea fame) and Michael Ruhlman would be discussing "The Making of a Chef" at the Steppenwolf Theater. No, we haven't yet made it to Alinea to use our gift certificate, but ever since Gourmet magazine's Ruth Reichl named it the best restaurant in America I've been following the restaurant and Grant's career. And Ruhlman's book The Making of a Chef is one of the driving forces that caused me to want to attend culinary school. So when I learned about this event I just had to have tickets. Devoted readers and friends will kindly remember how starstruck I get in the presence of celebrities, and to be this close to two celebrities (at least to me) made me giddy.

This might be a good time to pause for a moment to comment on the fact that Mr. Achatz managed to pull in a crowd of over 400 avid foodies, all gathered and paying money simply to be in his presence and hear his thoughts on food and how he got to where he is. Undoubtedly the audience was full of fellow foodies and kitchen professionals (the pre-show conversation eavesdropping was fantastic), but we had to wonder if this kind of crowd would have paid money for such an event even 5 years ago.

It's no small task that he's accomplished all he has in a mere 32 years. He's worked at some of the best kitchens in the country: Trotter's, French Laundry, Trio. He spoke most fondly about his time at FL, clearly a life-changing experience. It was here that under the tutelage of one Thomas Keller that Grant says he gained a mastery and appreciation of the "basics." But when he visited the often cited "El Bulli" restaurant in Spain for a week-long stage, he knew he had to break out of the FL kitchen for a brave new world of an entirely innovative type of food. Though he detests the word, some have termed this cuisine "molecular gastronomy."

It's strange stuff, really truly. If you haven't heard about this phenomenon, it's food unlike any other you've seen or tasted before: a single bite of food perched on an antenna; a spritzer that you squirt in your mouth that contains the essence of shrimp; foams and gelees aplenty; solids suspended in liquids. Interesting, of course, but my main concern about all this cuisine de science has been about how utterly un-filling and un-satisfying I perceive it must be. Food that doesn't require a utensil? My fear is that it's all in the clever, coy and innovative presentation and not about taste.

If you haven't guessed yet, I'm skeptical of this new type of cuisine that Achatz is spearheading in the United States. Could Grant convince me otherwise? We've had a gift certificate for Alinea we've yet to use, but I'm looking forward to it soon.