The Lost Alinea Cookbook Essay Series
Vol 3: How Grant Achatz Constructs his Menus
This is the third in a series of pieces I wrote for the Alinea cookbook that ended up not making it in to print. Looking back at it now I completely understand why. The piece starts out great as a story, but toward the end it becomes a very fine and detailed account of everything Chef Grant Achatz takes into consideration when writing an Alinea menu.
As a hardcore foodie I find this utterly fascinating, but a general reader who bought the cookbook is likely to gloss over it or get bored.
If I’m a young chef, though, this narrative is kind of gold because it’s a primer on how you create culinary interest by pursuing contrasts in texture, aroma, and visuals. That’s also why even though the essay has flaws, I think there’s a good deal of value in putting it out.
One other note: the “I” is me attempting to capture Chef Achatz’s voice in this essay through a series of interviews. I think I only really achieved Achatz’s voice maybe 75 or 80%. There’s a seriousness mixed with wryness I appreciate in Achatz that I don’t think I really caught in writing this.
Cooking has traditionally been a position of servitude. The best of us, from Taillevent to Careme started out as hired guns, chefs to kings. And today despite the rise of the celebrity toque, the ubiquity of Food Network and the growing cache of dining, most cooks still labor in obscurity. Our faces are hammered by the hellfire swelter of ovens and grills, knees pounded by the ceramic tile of a kitchen floor, and back muscles wrenched from thousands of hours arched over a chef’s knife carving out mise en place. For our love of cooking, we relinquish our weekends and evenings, forsake relationships, and surrender our sleep.
This common toil forms a taut brotherhood. When a chef dines at a restaurant other than the one he works at, at least for one night he becomes a king of chefs, a prince of the table. This VIP role is extended to other culinary professionals, friends, and family, but because fellow chefs know our sacrifice, and also because they know many of our secrets, we aim to serve and surprise them most of all.