If you’ve noticed I haven’t been posting a lot lately, it might be because my job has been keeping me away. Or it might be because I’m coaching two of my kids’ sports teams. Or I’m watching them play about 6-8 soccer matches a week. It might be because I’m focusing on my responsibilities as a board member of the Triangle’s largest provider of children’s mental health services.
But that would not really be the truth.
I’ve been away because my signed copy of Grant Achatz’s “Alinea” arrived on Wednesday. Yes, the Alinea “cookbook,” all 396 pages and 6.5 pounds of it, landed on my doorstep two days ago. I know, I know, many of you are saying, “Whoop de doo” or other sarcastic comments, but this book is simply amazing and overwhelming, containing some of the most incredible food photography I have ever seen. It also reminds me of what an amazingly creative mind Chef Grant Achatz has.
For those of you who are still absolutely clueless about this, Alinea is probably the single most amazing restaurant in the country, headed by Achatz. This is no ordinary restaurant, and in the book, co-owner Nick Kokanas states the following: “Alinea is not a restaurant — at least not in the conventional definition of the word. Certainly, customers come here to eat and drink, and they all arrive with lofty expectations. But we expect more from them. They must give themselves over to Grant’s plan for the evening and trust in his decisions. They will be asked to eat from handheld bowls, self-supporting skewers, ‘peacokcs,’ ‘squids,’ and ‘picks’ as often as they will be given a fork, knife and spoon. Flavor combinations will defy assumptions, disregard traditions, or elucidate a previously unimagined hierarchy.”
Frankly, Alinea is part theater, part performance art, and part restaurant. But in the end, the food is really damn good. When I ate there in the summer of 2007, I had read all the detailed reports about the Alinea experience. I had seen photos of every single dish Grant Achatz had ever served. The internet reporting of Alinea dishes had become its own phenomenon, and frankly, I thought I knew exactly what to expect. I was so wrong as the meal exceeded all of my expectations and caused me to laugh, to think, to question, and to enjoy. At times the meal was sensual and then sexual. In one moment I had the proverbial food orgasm with the Black Truffle Explosion, with amazingly rich flavors truly exploding in my mouth. The next minute I was instructed that I had to eat the licorice cake that was attached to the end of a wire without any hands. I don’t know what made me think I was performing a sex act, whether it was the act of “going down” on this thing or if the spun sugar surrounding the cake made it look strangely like a hairy scrotum, but I know I wasn’t the only one in the restaurant whose face turned a little red while eating this scrumptious dessert. And you know the waitstaff is having as much fun watching you eat this as you are enjoying yourself. It’s all in good fun, and in the end, everyone comes away with a unique experience.
The Alinea book really isn’t a cookbook, although it contains complete recipes for every single dish in the volume. This is not home cooking at all, and frankly, I don’t want to start going to “Alinea dinner parties” now that this book is out. I’ll leave it to the experts at Alinea to feed me this type of food. The sheer number of different components with each dish is overwhelming. For examply, a dish simply referred to as “Tomato, Balloon of Mozzarella, Many Complementary Flavors” has 12 different components, each with its own recipe. The assembly of the dish requires not only those 12 items, but 11 additional ingredients. Moreover, some of those individual recipes requires you to learn new techniques, such as blowing up a warm mozzarella and gelatin mixture into little balloons using a nitrous oxide canister. This ain’t a dish you put together in the spur of the moment.
But like the restaurant, Alinea — The Book (my name, not theirs) makes you think, makes you laugh and leaves you amazed. I’ll use the book to make some of the components, such as a squash soup or a cheese-filled cracker, but more than anything, I’ll look at this book for inspiration and ideas. My experience at Alinea made me think of dining in a completely different way, and this book may make me think of cooking in a different way, too.
So leave me alone. I’ve got more reading to do.