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Jonathan Day

Avant garde cooking and El Bulli

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In Secrets of El Bulli, Ferran Adria sets out 27 observations that others have made on his cuisine. I have translated his introduction to this section and the observations themselves. Some of them are clearly very personal (e.g. number 14) but others apply more broadly to avant-garde cuisine.

* * *

What people have said about my cuisine

It is difficult to analyse the nature of my cuisine, because among other reasons it is hard to separate my ideas from my personal preferences. For this reason I have taken advantage of the great cooks and lovers of fine cuisine who have attended the courses we have given over the last four years at El Bulli, by compiling a series of their observations and hence providing a vision that complements my own. Naturally, observations that appear to some as a virtue will appear to others as a defect.

1. The element of surprise is very important.

2. We should bring something new to almost every dish, not just offer a mixture of ingredients.

3. Sometimes I use many ingredients (elementos) in a dish, sometimes far fewer.

4. To really understand this cuisine, it must be eaten in a tasting menu.

5. Almost every dish is served in small quantities

6. There are no second-class products; we get as much from a sardine as from caviar.

7. Nothing must be superfluous: everything must have a reason for being.

8. The complexity of simplicity.

9. This is a provocative cuisine, one that should lead people to think, rich in irony and humour.

10. It is also a transparent cuisine.

11. The cold savoury dishes (foams, jellies, ices, sorbets, soups) are without doubt what make our cooking distinctive; another differentiating element is the combination of many textures in a dish (menestra en texturas)

12. Nobody should really know where the "meal" ends and where the "desserts" begin.

13. We constantly search for new techniques…

14. … and new ingredients

15. We don't use fish fumet.

16. Temperature contrast is important…

17. …as is textural contrast.

18. We rarely follow the basic structure of "ingredient plus garnish". Garnish and sauce should be combined.

19. We have little interest in plates of meat.

20. But we have a passion for tapas, snacks, petits fours -- that is to say, for "little bites".

21. We look for consistency, for minimising technical faults as dishes are being cooked, seasoned, etc.

22. We use relatively few systems of cooking.

23. We respect the basic ingredients. Although we constantly transform ingredients, our point of reference is always the primary taste of the product.

24. Sauces that are soups, soups that are sauces. It is rarely possible to describe our dishes using the vocabulary of classical cuisine.

25. A passion for flavoured oils and vinaigrettes.

26. Almost every dish is matched to the rhythm and harmony of the meal. Each is carefully thought through.

27. Taste is the most important factor; cookery, before anything else, is about making things delicious.


Jonathan Day

"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

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In Secrets of El Bulli, Ferran Adria sets out 27 observations that others have made on his cuisine. I have translated his introduction to this section and the observations themselves. Some of them are clearly very personal (e.g. number 14) but others apply more broadly to avant-garde cuisine.

* * *

What people have said about my cuisine

It is difficult to analyse the nature of my cuisine, because among other reasons it is hard to separate my ideas from my personal preferences. For this reason I have taken advantage of the great cooks and lovers of fine cuisine who have attended the courses we have given over the last four years at El Bulli, by compiling a series of their observations and hence providing a vision that complements my own. Naturally, observations that appear to some as a virtue will appear to others as a defect.

1. The element of surprise is very important.

2. We should bring something new to almost every dish, not just offer a mixture of ingredients.

3. Sometimes I use many ingredients (elementos) in a dish, sometimes far fewer.

4. To really understand this cuisine, it must be eaten in a tasting menu.

5. Almost every dish is served in small quantities

6. There are no second-class products; we get as much from a sardine as from caviar.

7. Nothing must be superfluous: everything must have a reason for being.

8. The complexity of simplicity.

9. This is a provocative cuisine, one that should lead people to think, rich in irony and humour.

10. It is also a transparent cuisine.

11. The cold savoury dishes (foams, jellies, ices, sorbets, soups) are without doubt what make our cooking distinctive; another differentiating element is the combination of many textures in a dish (menestra en texturas)

12. Nobody should really know where the "meal" ends and where the "desserts" begin.

13. We constantly search for new techniques…

14. … and new ingredients

15. We don't use fish fumet.

16. Temperature contrast is important…

17. …as is textural contrast.

18. We rarely follow the basic structure of "ingredient plus garnish". Garnish and sauce should be combined.

19. We have little interest in plates of meat.

20. But we have a passion for tapas, snacks, petits fours -- that is to say, for "little bites".

21. We look for consistency, for minimising technical faults as dishes are being cooked, seasoned, etc.

22. We use relatively few systems of cooking.

23. We respect the basic ingredients. Although we constantly transform ingredients, our point of reference is always the primary taste of the product.

24. Sauces that are soups, soups that are sauces. It is rarely possible to describe our dishes using the vocabulary of classical cuisine.

25. A passion for flavoured oils and vinaigrettes.

26. Almost every dish is matched to the rhythm and harmony of the meal. Each is carefully thought through.

27. Taste is the most important factor; cookery, before anything else, is about making things delicious.

Is it subliminal that TASTE is no. 27. I know, I know, some you guys want to smack me. It's ok.

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Early on in his renaissance, Adria mooted his interest Jaques Derrida post-structuralist thinking. To my mind, what Adria does is a result of a misreading of Derrida, but a productive misreading nonetheless. Adria, I believe, sees technique as the grammar of food, and his work is somehow forged in the sparks of a head on collision with the ineluctable classisicism that pervades our expectations of what fine dining should be.

Since then Adria has come up with a grammar all his own, that is to say a new language. It is not surprising then that he has recently cited Noam Chomsky's Generative Grammar as relevant to his work.

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HELL YES.  Are the rip offs flies buzzing in his ear. GOTTA BE.  Are they any less of a force to reckon with because they like to make consomme into pappardelle...HELL NO.  As long as there are chefs pushing themselves--even if they rip the masters off---then the dining public is more than likely going to benefit.  And the excitement these guys create will ensure that gastronomy will remain a vibrant aspect of modern culture.  (YES, I am bi-polar).

I agree completely.


John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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LML, strictly because he and I used to watch baseball games in the basement of my gallery, I read the poet David Lehman's insightful, even riveting, book "Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man". It told me why Deconstructionism is a crock of shit, as we say. So when Adria talks about it in relation to his food, I think he uses the wrong word. I like the word "displacement" in the music sense in which you take a theme and rearrange its basic components (melody, syncopation, harmony, meter) so that it comes out transformed but recognizable. ("Transformation" is a word I used in the Daily Gullet essay in my succinct description of his cooking). Most of all I like what my brother ( a scholar in the truest sense) said after he told me that food historians were "hot" in academia right now: "They are among those who have "deconstructed" the world and are putting it back together."

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Robert, I definitely agree that "deconstruction" is the wrong word -- or, rather, that it is either an unrelated usage of the same word or a misuse based on a misunderstanding.

In the Gastronomy in France in Flux thread, we had a bit of a discussion about this. I'll inject my relevant comment here, if you don't mind:

The use of the term deconstruction in discussions of Adria has always seemed curious to me, because having studied deconstruction -- as in the philosophical and literary work of Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man -- I've never seen the connection. The word deconstruction as commonly used in the food media -- and indeed it's a handy word for breaking down anything into its theoretical components -- has little to do with deconstruction. At the most basic level, deconstruction in the literary world is not a way of writing; it is a form of criticism. Without getting deep into the semantics of it all, to me deconstruction in the culinary world cannot come from chefs -- it has to come from critics saying things like, "there is no inherent superiority of Les Crayeres over McDonald's."

The more colloquial use of deconstruction -- meaning to analyze the components of a dish and rebuild them into something that tastes good using the tools available in the kitchen -- is simply what chefs have always done. I don't acknowledge an intellectual distinction between making potato foam and turning wheat into bread. Pretty much all cooking is about transformation. Whether the end result is familiar is a completely different issue. Remember that what Adria is trying to do (and I will use Adria as shorthand for the modernist movement in cooking) is extract the essence of flavor from food and present it in a stimulating form. In other words, he's trying to make food taste good by escaping the prison of form and focusing instead on flavor, texture, and temperature as pure concepts. I think the reason Special K is especially accepting of this approach is that it's much like what pastry chefs do every day. Save for the occasional use of fresh fruit, pastry is all about transformation and the essence of flavor. There's no big piece of animal muscle or a whole bird or an asparagus spear to preserve.

Conservatism in art, music, literature, and as we see here cuisine, plays an important role. It's not just the natural order of things -- society depends on conservatism as a tool of self-perpetuation -- but it's also the best way to make a lot of people good at something. Most chefs would be better off following the formulae of the haute cuisine masters. There are schools to teach it, and the distribution of ingredients and the design of kitchens are aligned to support it. Most chefs lack the skill set to depart in any meaningful way from the orthodoxy while still making delicious food. But some do, and they should be celebrated.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Remember that what Adria is trying to do (and I will use Adria as shorthand for the modernist movement in cooking) is extract the essence of flavor from food and present it in a stimulating form. In other words, he's trying to make food taste good by escaping the prison of form and focusing instead on flavor, texture, and temperature as pure concepts.

The April-May number of GaultMillau magazine has an article on "impertinent recipes": "Three ingredients, nine recipes to reinvent the classical and give meaning to modernism." (The magazine also has articles on Bernard Loiseau, on food criticism, and on an event that brought Michel Troisgros and Pascal Barbot together to cook endives. But this note focuses on the "impertinent recipes" piece).

In each case, the author (Gilles Choukroun, chef of Le café des Delices) presents a traditional recipe, then two "modernist" variations.

1. Asparagus

Traditional: à l'anglaise (boiled) with parmesan and soft-cooked eggs (oeufs mollets)

Modern: served raw, with a dipping sauce made of olive oil, pastis, chopped peanuts and lemon juice

Hypermodern: served as a purée, with diced raw asparagus, cream, argan oil, red pepper

2. Rack of lamb

Traditional: Roasted, served with chips of Jerusalem artichokes and a coffee-flavoured jus

Modern: "Pot au feu" of lamb with tea and spices ("Asian-Oriental" style)

Hypermodern: a "Hamburger" of roast rack of lamb served with pesto, spinach leaves and ketchup

3. Chocolate (cacao)

Traditional: Hot chocolate served with "soldiers" cut from pain d'épices

Modern: Tagliatelle flavoured with cocoa served "carbonara" style, with a raw egg and chocolate sorbet

Hypermodern: Chocolate tuiles with honey, lemon juice, red pepper, and vache-qui-rit (laughing cow) cheese (in its foil wrapper)

* * *

Apart from the fact that none of these dishes sound or look very appetising, I was struck that their "modernity" was a derivative of traditional dishes, rather as one might set new words to an old song, or present a Mozart opera with the characters wearing spacesuits. Thomas Keller does something similar, taking favourite dishes ("surf and turf", "coffee and doughnuts", "vitello tonnato") and ringing changes on them. This treatment can be valuable in that it may enable the diner to see the dish with fresh eyes, as it were, to taste it anew.

But I am struck that very few of Adria's dishes seem to work this way. Yes, he makes "caviar" out of tapioca, and "tagliatelle" out of gelatin. And he does a few dishes that are in some sense derivative. In Secrets of El Bulli he describes the process of innovation, starting from the concept of "Mar y Montana" (sea and mountains, surf and turf) and ending up with a dish of marrow served with caviar. But for the most part, he seems to follow Maximin's dictum: "creativity is not copying", either other chefs' dishes or traditional recipes. His innovation is more basic, less a matter of taking old favourites and twisting them around then going straight to the essential form or flavour of something and making essential changes to that.


Jonathan Day

"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

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Hypermodern: a "Hamburger" of roast rack of lamb served with pesto, spinach leaves and ketchup

roast rack of lamb with ketchup!? oh god...:shock: i would be concerned even if the "ketchup" were in quotes, but the fact that it is not just scares the hell out of me.

it does, however, bring up the point that even though surprise (relating to texture, temp, combinations, etc.), irony, reference, and humor can all play an equal part in "modern cuisine," it is TASTE that should be the final measure of a dish. and i am sure that Adrià, Achatz, or Keller would agree. so putting ketchup on lamb may be shocking, but not very smart---and lets all hope it's not actually the future.

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Ryne,

I'm more thrown by a lamb rack hamburger than anything else. Why in God's name would you want to desecrate a nice piece of meat like that? I detest chefs who fool with their food to the detriment of the food itself in the name of hypermodernism or whatever you food theologians call it. That whole menu Jonathan reiterated sounded like it was created by some goobersmootch that just graduated from the Ferran Adria school of hide the salami. It's a sad state of affairs for sure when you've got to weed through a menu to get at the heart and soul of a chef's metier. Everyone is on a collision course with creativity. What happens when everything has been created? I hate to think of what the trends will be when that occurs. Whatever happened to the Mario Batali (simple is better) style?

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Spencer, the point I was trying to make is that there may be a difference between "deep" creativity (which I think Adria practices) and "surface" creativity -- imitating the trappings of creativity but not really advancing the state of fine cuisine. Any hacker could take a classic dish and ring changes on it -- add toothpaste to boeuf bourguignon, serve a horseradish sorbet with your next roast chicken, take "coq au vin" apart by serving a broiled chicken breast, a glass of wine and a glass of chicken blood. What Adria did was different.

In dining, cooking and reading I am generally more interested in traditional recipes, beautifully executed, and I tend to favour the simple over the baroque. I went to El Bulli with some concern that the meal would be conceptually interesting but neither tasty nor true to the essence of what the ingredients were.

Neither supposition proved out. This food was delicious, first of all; then it was conceptually fascinating; finally, it was surprisingly simple. When you have the option to break the meal into 30 or so small dishes I guess it's easier to make each one more focused and direct. There wasn't a lot of "X with Y with Z".

I have not dined at Trio (though it is high on my list) and I am curious to understand how it plays out on the "deep" vs "surface" creativity.


Jonathan Day

"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

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I say if it tastes like shit the first time, why try to intellectualize yourself into enjoying it.

that is tue in and very funny in one regard...

but havent you ever bought a record or cd, and there are a few songs that catch your attention first...and you love them, and then there is that one song that at first was just ok...but then grows on you...and in the end, that becomes your favorite song on the album.

it isnt about over-intellectualizing, though some people are guilty of that...it is about wrestling with your minds expectations, and about its natural inclination to grasp for something familiar...

that is why we cling to the catchy song first (the steak au poivre); but in time grow to love the hidden gem.


Nothing quite like a meal with my beautiful wife.

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It's called "acquired taste". Good post, Pastrami.


John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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A browse through Calvin W. Schwabe's _Unmentionable Cuisine_ or Jerry Hopkins' more unbuttoned _Strange Foods_ will demonstrate yet again that no taste is too painful, expensive, or outré to be acquired if an individual or a society is determined to do so. As with warfare, one common motivation is sheer boredom, and the purpose of advertising is to inculcate boredom where none existed before.


John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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When considering what is avante guard and vanguard it is important to remember that the world is very postmodern.

Just as in movies and literature the only new innovations in my opinion can come from pastiche.

remember that at one point (and maybe for some still now) 50's era cuisine was considered comfort food in the 90s and he restaurants that served this were and still are considered avan guard. Then again though out cultur eis so fast moving it isnt long before the avant guard becomes the guard.

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Robert Brown wrote: "I suspect that Adria's cuisine is more Catalan-based than it appears to the layman and that there are subtleties that escaped people like me."

If you really want to taste great Catalan-based modern cuisine, Santi Santamaria at El Raco de Can Fabes is your guy.

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It does seem obvious that no matter how many people try (and fail) to follow in the footsteps of Adria, it is far less widespread than the rapacious misuse of Escoffier's techniques in the kitchens of conceited, arrogant, coked-up chefs...

it also seems clear that one reason why a lot of people are adverse to the use of new and innovative techniques, a la El Bulli, is the fact that the revolution didn't come from France....or even Napa for that matter (ewww did I just say that?). Personally I think Adria has a great focus: fusing science, art, flavor....some of the best empirical practices we know....to create something that isn't a mirror image of the past, but one that is as if we are looking into a fun house mirror- it distorts our preconceived notions and is pleasant and amusing.

His aim, I believe, keeps things fresh...because it is such an unstable way to cook. It relies on the imaginations of human beings, which are obvious racked with attention deficit disorder. As he said a month or so ago : "Foams are out for us..." To continuously fabricate trends (correctly) is probably the most difficult task a chef can have.


"Make me some mignardises, &*%$@!" -Mateo

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      6. At Trio we found ourselves using the salamander a great deal. It is very useful for melting sugar, bringing on transparent qualities in things like fat and cheese, cooking items intensely on only one side, and it is a highly controllable non-direct heat source. Due to the air gap between the foodstuff and the heat elements the cook can control the degree of heat applied to the dish based on the technique he is using. It becomes a very versatile tool in the modern kitchen, so much so that we will install three Sodir infrared salamanders.

      Again, this is to insure that all the cooks have access to all of the techniques in the kitchen. As I said before it is important for our cooks to be able to sauté, simmer, poach, fry, grill, salamander, and freeze at the same time and sometimes for the same dish.
      We have a few unusual pieces of equipment in the kitchen; the most is probably a centrifuge. A few months ago Nick and I were driving home from a design meeting and ended up talking about signature dishes and menu repetition. Of course the black truffle explosion came up and he asked if I would have it on the menu at Alinea. I replied a firm no, but shortly thereafter said I would enjoy updating it. We threw around some tongue and cheek ideas like White Truffle Implosion, and Truffle Explosion 2005….I said it was a goal of mine to make a frozen ball with a liquid center….but then dismissed it as nearly impossible. Within a few minutes he said …”I got it…we need a centrifuge” His explanation was simple, place the desired liquid in a spherical mold and place on the centrifuge…place the whole thing in the freezer. Within days he had one in the test kitchen. I guess this is better suited for the kitchen lab topic that we will be starting in a few weeks…
      We are working on a upload of the kitchen blueprints. When those post I plan on going into more detail about certian aspects of the design. Doing so now would be pointless as the viewer does not have a reference point.
    • By ronnie_suburban
      It’s the first day of cooking in Alinea's Food Lab and the mood is relaxed. We’re in a residential kitchen but there’s nothing ordinary about it. Chef Grant, along with sous chefs John Peters and Curtis Duffy are setting up. The sight of the 3 steady pros, each in their chef’s whites, working away, does not match this domestic space. Nor does the intimidating display of industrial tools lined up on the counters. While the traditional elements are here in this suburban kitchen: oven, cooktop, sink, so too are the tools of modern restaurant cookery: pacojet, cryovac machine, paint stripping heat gun…wait, a paint stripping heat gun?
      In the physical realm, the Food Lab is a tangible space where the conventional and the unconventional are melded together in the quest for new culinary territory. With Alinea’s construction under way, the team must be resourceful. This meant that renting a space large enough to house both the office and the kitchen aspects of the food lab was out of the question.
      The decision was made to take over a large office space for the research and administrative aspects of Alinea and transform a residential kitchen into the Lab. Achatz and the team would work three days per week at the office researching all aspects of gastronomy and brainstorming new dishes, while managing the project as a whole. The remaining time would be spent in the kitchen executing the ideas formulated at the office. “At first I thought separating the two would be problematic,” says Grant “but in the end we are finding it very productive. It allows us to really focus on the tasks at hand, and also immerse ourselves in the environment conducive to each discipline.” The menus for opening night—containing as many as 50 never-before-served dishes--must be conceived, designed, tested and perfected. The Alinea team does not want to fly without a net on opening night.
      On a more abstract level, the Food Lab is simply the series of processes that continually loop in the minds of Chef Grant and his team. While there is no single conduit by which prospective menus--and the dishes which comprise them--arrive at Alinea, virtually all of them start in Chef Grant's imagination and eventually take form after brainstorming sessions between the Chef and his team. Menus are charted, based on the seasonality of their respective components, and the details of each dish are then laid out on paper, computer or both and brought to the kitchen for development. In this regard, the Food Lab provides something very special to the Chef and his team. “We consider the food lab a luxury,” says Grant. Once Alinea is open and the restaurant’s daily operations are consuming up to 16 hours of each day, time for such creative planning (aka play) will be scarce. Building a library of concepts, ideas and plans for future menus now will be extraordinarily valuable in the future. Otherwise, such planning sessions will have to take place in the 17th and 18th hours of future workdays, as they did when the Chef and his team were at Trio.
      Today, several projects are planned and the Chefs dig into their preparations as soon as their equipment setup is complete…
      Poached Broccoli Stem with wild Coho roe, crispy bread, grapefruit
      Stem cooked sous vide (butter, salt, granulated cane juice)
      Machine-sliced thin bread
      Dairyless grapefruit “pudding”
      Dried Crème Brulee
      Caramel orb shell made with bubble maker and heat gun
      Powdered interior made with dried butterfat, egg yolks, powdered sugar & vanilla
      PB&J
      Peeled grapes on the stem
      Peanut butter coating
      Wrap in brioche
      Broil
      Micro-grated, roasted peanuts
      Instant Tropical Pudding
      Freeze Dried Powders of coconut, pineapple, banana
      Young coconut water spiked with rum
      Muscovado Sugar
      Cilantro
      Candied Chili
      Jamaican Peppercorn
      Vanilla Bean
      The steps required to comprise each dish are, as one might imagine, intricate and numerous. For the Poached Broccoli Stem, Chef Grant begins by separating the broccoli stems from the florets. The stems are stripped of their fibrous exteriors and pared down until they are uniform in size. Grant comments on the use of the second hand part of the vegetable: “This dish started with the roe. Every year we receive the most amazing Brook Trout Roe from Steve Stallard, my friend and owner of Blis. Typically, we serve the eggs with an element of sweetness. I find it goes very well with the ultra fresh salinity of the week-old roe. This time around we wanted to take a savory approach so I began looking into complimenting flavors in the vegetal category. About the same time, our group had a discussion about secondary parts of vegetables and the stem of broccoli came up. I had a past experience with the stem and found it to be very reminiscent of cabbage. Knowing that cabbage and caviar are essentially a classic pairing, I felt confident that we could work the dish out. Now I'm struggling to decide if this is a broccoli dish or in fact a roe dish, I think they really battle for the top position and that helps makes the dish very complex."

      Chef Grant processing the broccoli

      The stems are placed in a polyethylene bag, along with butter, salt and granulated cane juice. The bag is sealed with a cryovac machine

      The sealed stems are placed in a 170 degree F water to cook, sous vide, until extremely tender; about three hours

      Broccoli stems after cooking
      The crisp bread element is fabricated via the use of an industrial deli slicer. Chef Grant then brushes the sectioned pieces of poached broccoli stem with eggwash, affixes them to the thin planks of brioche and places them in a fry pan with butter.

      Grant's mise...not your ordinary cutting board

      Poached Broccoli Stem and Crisp Bread cooking

      Ready for plating

      A bright green broccoli puree is made with a vita-prep blender. Here, Chef Grant "mohawks" it onto china given to him by Thomas Keller

      Smoked Coho roe has arrived via Fed-Ex, courtesy of Steve Stallard

      Chef Grant devises a plating scheme for the Poached Broccoli Stem while Curtis looks on

      Chef Grant ponders one potential plating of the dish. He called this incarnation 'predictable' and started over.

      Another plating idea. This version is garnished with broccoli petals and ultra-thin slices of connected grapefruit pulp cells. The yellow petals are stand-ins for what will ultimately be broccoli blossoms
      Grant is still displeased at the dish's appearance. "The dish tastes as I envisioned it....texturally complex, with the crispness of the bread, the soft elements of the floret puree and stem, and the pop of the eggs. The buttery richness from the bread gives the stem the flavor of the melted cabbage I loved at the [French] Laundry. And the hot and cold contrasts from the roe and broccoli …I like it…..I just don’t like the way it looks.” Another attempt and the group agrees, it is better but not “the one.” The use of the thinly sliced cross sections of peeled grapefruit energizes the group. In the next rendition, they make small packets with the ultra thinly-sliced grapefruit containing the roe...

      A third plating configuration for Poached Broccoli Stems; this one featuring the packets of roe wrapped in ultra thin sheets of grapefruit pulp cells
      At this point the team decides to move on and come back to it next week. After some conversation they decide that in the final dish, broccoli will appear in at least 5 forms: poached stems, floret puree, some raw form of the stem, the tiny individual sprouts of broccoli florets, and the blooms. Grant feels that Poached Broccoli Stem could be ready for service, although he still envisions some changes for the dish that will make it even more emblematic of his personal style. “Our dishes continue to evolve after they hit the menu. It is important for us to get to know them better before we can clearly see their weaknesses.”
      The thought for the dried crème brulee originated over a year ago when a regular customer jokingly asked for a crème brulee for dessert. “He said it as joke, I took it as a challenge,” says Grant. "Of course, we never intended to give him a regular crème brulee.” The team tried various techniques to create the powder-filled caramel bubble while at Trio to no avail. An acceptable filling for the Dried Crème Brulee has been developed by the Chef and his team but several different methods, attempted today, to create the orb from caramelized sugar have been less than 100% successful.

      Caramel blob awaiting formation. Chef Curtis kept this pliable by leaving it in a low oven throughout the day

      Chef Grant’s initial idea to use a metal bubble ring and heat gun (normally used for stripping paint) to form the bubbles does not work as hoped. Attempts to fashion them by hand also come up short.
      Says Grant, “At Trio we tried a hair-dryer. When Martin told me about these heat guns which get up to 900 degrees F, I thought we had it for sure. If it was easy everyone would do it I guess.” Eventually, Alinea partner Nick Kokonas garners the task’s best result by positioning a small, warm blob of sugar onto the end of a drinking straw and blowing into the other end. The results are promising. Curtis suggests using a sugar pump to inflate the orbs. That adjustment will be attempted on another day.
      “We intentionally position whimsical bite in the amuse slot, it tends to break the ice and make people laugh. It is a deliberate attempt to craft the experience by positioning the courses in a very pre-meditated order. A great deal of thought goes into the order of the courses, a misalignment may really take away from the meal as a whole.” For PB&J, the grapes are peeled while still on the vine and then dipped into unsweetened peanut butter. They are allowed to set–up, and then they are wrapped with a thin sheet of bread and lightly toasted. When the peeled grapes warm, they become so soft they mimic jelly. The composition is strangely unfamiliar in appearance but instantly reminiscent on the palate. PB&J is, according to Grant, virtually ready for service. There are a couple of aesthetic elements, which need minor tweaks but the Chef feels very good about today’s prototype.

      Chef John peels grapes while still on their stems

      Peeled grapes on their stems with peanut butter coating

      Chef Grant studies the completed PB&J in the Crucial Detail designed piece

      PB&J
      Often, creative impulses come by way of Alinea’s special purveyors. “Terra Spice’s support over the past couple of years has been unprecedented, and it has accelerated with the start of the food lab,” says Grant. “It is great to have relationships with people that think like we do, it can make the creative process so much easier. Often Phil, our contact at Terra, would come into the kitchen at Trio and encourage us to try and stump him on obscure ingredients. We always lost, but not from lack of trying. He even brought in two live chufa plants into the kitchen one day.” The relationship has developed and Terra team has really made an effort to not only search out products that the chefs ask for but also keep an eye out for new ingredients and innovations. In August, Phil brought by some samples of products that he thought the Alinea team might be interested in trying.

      Phil of Terra Spice showing the team some samples

      Coconut powder and other samples
      Grant recalls “the most surprising item to me was the dried coconut powder. When I put a spoonful in my mouth I could not believe the intense flavor and instant creamy texture, it was awesome.” That was the inspiration for what is now Instant Tropical Pudding. The guest is presented with a glass filled with dried ingredients. A member of the service team pours a measured amount of coconut water into the glass and instructs the guest to stir the pudding until a creamy consistency is formed.

      The rum-spiked coconut water being added to the powders
      At the end of the day, the Chefs assess their overall effort as having gone “fairly well.” It’s a mixed bag of results. Clearly, the fact that things have not gone perfectly on Day 1 has not dampened anyone’s spirits. The team has purposely attempted dishes of varying degrees of difficultly in order to maximize their productivity. Says Grant, “Making a bubble of caramel filled with powder…I have devoted the better part of fifteen years to this craft, I have trained with the best chefs alive. I have a good grasp of known technique. The lab's purpose is to create technique based on our vision. Sometimes we will succeed, and sometimes we will fail, but trying is what make us who we are." The team's measured evaluations of their day’s work reflect that philosophy.
      According to Chef Grant, “The purpose of the lab is to create the un-creatable. I know the level at which we can cook. I know the level of technique we already possess. What I am interested in is what we don't know...making a daydream reality.” With little more than 100 days on the calendar between now and Alinea’s opening, the Chef and his team will have their work cut out for them.
      =R=
      A special thanks to eGullet member yellow truffle, who contributed greatly to this piece
    • By ronnie_suburban
      Sometime this week, at an undisclosed location in the city of Chicago, Chef Grant Achatz begins the next leg of his journey to open his new restaurant, Alinea. Grant will christen the 'food lab' where the menu for Alinea will be developed. eGullet will be trailing Grant and his team throughout the process -- not just in the food lab but through every facet of the launch. Over the next six months, we will follow the Alinea team as they discover, develop, design and execute their plan. We'll document behind-the-scenes communications, forwarded directly to us by the Alinea team. We will be on the scene, bringing regular updates to the eGullet community. And Grant will join us in this special Alinea forum to discuss the process of opening Alinea. eGullet members will have the opportunity to ask Grant, and several other members of the Alinea team, questions about the development of the restaurant.
       
      A Perfect Pairing?
      By the time he was 12 years old, Grant Achatz knew that he would someday run his own restaurant. The story of Alinea is the story of Grant's personal development as a chef and a leader. Grant was brought up in a restaurant family. He bypassed a college education in favor of culinary school, after which he ascended rapidly to the position of sous chef for Thomas Keller at The French Laundry in Yountville, California. In 2001, Grant took the helm of Trio in Evanston, Illinois, which had previously turned out such noted chefs as Gale Gand, Rick Tramanto (Tru) and Shawn McClain (Spring, Green Zebra). In 2003 Grant won the James Beard Foundation's "Rising Star Chef" award, and other prestigious awards followed. By 2004, Grant was recognized as one of the most influential and unique voices on the international culinary scene.
       
      In January 2004, Grant met Nick Kokonas, a successful entrepreneur who was so obsessed with haute cuisine that he had traveled the world in search of it. After globe-trekking specifically to eat at such culinary meccas as Alfonso 1890, Taillevent, Arpège, Arzak, and the French Laundry, Nick was in near disbelief when he realized that the "best food in the world was 10 minutes from my house." Nick had not previously consideredbacking a restaurant, even though he has both relatives and friends in the industry. But in Grant, he saw an opportunity to help create something great.
       
      Through Grant's cuisine, a bond formed between the two men. So inspired was Nick by Grant's culinary ideas that he returned to Trio almost monthly. Finally, he challenged two of his friends, one from New York and the other from San Francisco, to fly to Chicago and experience Trio. He wanted to prove definitively to his skeptical, coastal buddies that Trio was the best and most important restaurant in the country, assuring them that "if the meal at Trio isn't the best meal you've ever had, I'll pay for your meals and your flights." Nick won his bet: his friends were blown away.
       
      Later that night, after service, Grant joined Nick and his guests at their table. The men chatted about a variety of topics and in the '14 wines' haze of the late evening, they discussed Blue Trout and Black Truffles: The Peregrinations of an Epicure, Joseph Wechsberg's gastronomic memoir. The next day, Grant emailed Nick to ask again about the title of the book they had discussed. Not only did Nick remind him, but, within a few days, sent Grant a copy of Wechsberg's book. A friendship was born.
      Shortly thereafter, Grant sentNick his business plan for Alinea, sending an email after evening service. By the following morning Nick had read it and replied with his own enthusiastic amendments. With a burgeoning friendship already in place, trust developing between the two men and proof they could work together crystallizing before their eyes, it became clear that they would become a team. Says Grant, "I think most people, in a lot of ways, look for themselves in other people in order to match with and I think to a large degree, the reason why we get along so well is that our personalities align very well."
       
      Nick felt the same way. "It's one of those situations where everything just lined up right. I had the interest, I'd started a number of different businesses and I felt like it would be an opportunity to work with someone who I'd get along with very well. I wouldn't want to build a restaurant just to build a restaurant and I doubt I'll ever develop some other restaurant. I think this is the right situation at the right time."
       
      Grant adds, "I think we're both very driven and passionate people. So for me, it was about finding someone I could trust, someone that I knew was going to think like me, be as motivated or more motivated than me. Those things were very, very important--and something I hadn't seen--or something I didn't believe in--that I saw in Nick." Nick continues, "I think a lot people come to a chef with their pre-existing vision of the restaurant they want to build. I didn't even want to build a restaurant before I saw his vision, so it wasn't like I was saying 'I'm building this restaurant and I want you to be my chef' -- it was more like 'I think you should build a restaurant, what can I do to help you build it?'" Grant would have the additional supportive backing he'd need and Nick would have another venture -- and one he solidly believed in -- in which to direct his business acumen.
       
      It's All About The Container
      Anyone who's eaten Grant's cuisine at Trio knows that he is intensely concerned with food and the optimal ways to prepare and serve it. His dishes innovate in flavor; they challenge, tease and delight the senses. But Grant is also driven to innovate in service and technique, constantly seeking new vehicles to deliver sensations to the diner. He works closely with a trusted collaborator, Martin Kastner of Crucial Detail in San Diego, CA to create original service pieces for many of his dishes. And as Grant has searched for additional ways to expand the continuity of the dining experience, it has become clear to him that it starts before the diner even gets to the restaurant's front door.
       
      According to Grant, "You can pull it back as far as you want. The experience is going to start before someone even picks up the phone to make a reservation to this restaurant. It's going to be about their perceptions; why are they picking up the phone to make a reservation? What did they see? What did they read? What's leading them up to that point? They call to make a reservation, that's another experience. The drive to get to this neighborhood is another experience. The minute they open their door and take one step out of their car, now they're surrounded by another experience."
       
      Advancing the functional elements of how food is served is an innate part of the cooking process for Grant, who seeks to render the traditional boundaries of dining obsolete. When asked what he will be able to accomplish at Alinea that he couldn't accomplish at Trio, Grant says, "the obvious is to create the container in which we create the experience. I think that's the very exciting thing for me that I've never been able to have a part in." For Grant, a restaurant's physical space represents the ultimate container and the ultimate personal challenge. The result should break new ground in the world of fine dining.   Grant and Nick are intense and competitive. In both their minds, "crafting a complete experience" is the primary focus of Alinea. According to Nick, "the whole idea is to produce an experience where the food lines up with the décor, which lines up with the flow through the restaurant and from the moment you get, literally, to the front door of the place and you walk in, your experience should mirror in some respects--and complement in others--the whole process you're going to go through when you start eating." Grant takes it a step further. "It's about having a central beacon from which everything else emanates and therefore, it's seamless. The whole experience is crafted on one finite point and if everything emanates from that point, then there's no chance that the experience can be interrupted."
       
      The search for Alinea's space further reflects not only their shared philosophy but also their separate intensities. Says Nick, "One of the things we felt really strongly about, and we both came to it, was that we wanted it to be a 'stand alone' building because if you're in something else you can't help but take on some of that identity. And it's really difficult to find the right size building in the right kind of location, with the right kind of construction that was suitable for the identity of Alinea."
      Nick and Grant drove down every street within a chosen geographical band, armed with a giant map and a set of green, yellow and red markers. Once they had found a set of acceptable streets, they asked a realtor to show them every space available on them.
       
      "Once we did find the building," says Grant, "whichever space we would have chosen, we would have analyzed and considered each different aspect to provoke a certain emotion, a very controlled emotion depending on how we wanted it arranged. But I also think that we wanted the neighborhood to feel a certain way, the street to feel a certain way. Is it like Michigan Avenue where I have people 4-deep, walking straight down the sidewalk, non-stop, all day and all night or is it more of a tranquil environment outside? All those things were spinning around and once you identify the golden egg, then you have to go find it."
      While they would probably never admit it, each innovation, each step they take together in building their venture serves as yet another a opportunity for the Alinea team to challenge the restaurant's competitors. Their attention to all the details provides countless opportunities to distinguish Alinea from other restaurants.
       
      Here the two men can share in the creation, combining their diverse skills and experiences into a unified and shared vision. Alinea will be their baby. They want it to be the best --not just the best food -- but the best everything. They even want the experience of calling for a reservation to be a memorable one.
       
      The Path From Here
      In that spirit, the Alinea food lab opens this week. Grant refuses to promote even one of his legendary creations to 'signature dish' status. Instead of populating Alinea's menu with previous favorites from Trio or 'trial' dishes that have been only roughly tested, Grant and his team will take six months to devise, develop and perfect the dishes and delivery modes that will appear on Alinea's opening menu. When the idea of maintaining a kitchen staff for six months before the restaurant's opening was presented to its investors, in spite of the additional expense, "it seemed like a no-brainer" according to Nick. Grant is an equity partner--a true chef/owner--in the venture and there is a solid consensus among all the backers about the priority of his vision.
      * * * * *
      In addition to being one of today's foremost chefs and culinary innovators, Grant Achatz is a long-time member of eGullet, and a lively, provocative contributor to our discussion forums. Read his March, 2003 eGullet Q&A here.
      Photos courtesy Alinea
       
      eGullet member, yellow_truffle, also contributed to this report
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