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Alinea Book Report: Life, on the Line

Okay, I read the book. Yup, the one I just mentioned about Grant Achatz called Life, on the Line. I was totally engrossed and am still trying to process exactly why. Sure it had to do with food, but it also had to do with how dreams become reality. Achatz worked in kitchens basically all his life and was so sure of what he wanted to do from an early age.

There’s a scene towards the beginning of the book where he is talking to then-CIA extern Richard Blaise (yes, Richard Blaise!!) about how working at The French Laundry is just a stepping stone for him. The book is full of letters Achatz writes along the way to people to convince them of different things (he wrote Thomas Keller 14 letters about why he wanted to work at The French Laundry!) that eventually paved the way to make his dream of owning and running the best restaurant in America possible. Clearly, this guy works so hard and loves his work so much.

When Achatz breaks away from The French Laundry and starts as chef de cuisine at Trio, he articulates what he is after: “I didn’t have notebooks filled with new techniques or recipes, nor did I have complete menus ready to implement. I had a vague notion that I wanted to explore new areas, and I had a very clear idea of how I wanted a meal to feel to the diner. That was the driving force, and everything else simply had to support that. ” (134)

Later, he explains the restaurant philosophy to his new staff, “I want to create an experience that is based on emotions. I want people to be excited, happy, curious, surprised, intrigued, and even bewildered during the meal.” (137)

Something about reading this rang true to me in a way it hasn’t when I have heard about Achatz’s philosophy before. I think because in my own room I have a little square of paper on the wall that says: “happiest, saddest, funniest, most beautiful”. It’s creative writing prompt that gets you thinking about moments in your life and to start to write from there. The result is sometimes that the happy, sad, most beautiful emotion you felt at a particular moment in your life is conveyed through the writing even if the plot is totally different.

I guess when I first heard of Alinea, it sounded like too much of merely an intellectual exercise (I mean Achatz did admit that his crew tries to intimidate diners!), but some else of what he does is about sharing. In particular, I like how he taps into his subconscious with some of the dishes — just how diners sometimes take awhile to figure out his dishes, sometimes he does, too. I think that’s how creativity really works. Take for example when Achatz is working out a seafood sponge concoction. It occurs to him that he should include the scent of spring flowers to enhance the dish.
Photo Credit: flickr/astaa

“Quickly, I settled on hyacinth as the flower that was needed. I had no idea why. I just knew that hyacinth flowers should surround the dish, and then we would have waiters pour hot water over them to release the scent as the diners ate….Nick got a teakettle of hot water for me and I poured it over the flowers — instant spring int he middle of winter…. as soon as I smelled the sweetness of the flowers I was transported back to my childhood. Until that moment I had no idea why I wanted to pair this fish with flowers. But once it was all together, I remembered a day when I was twelve years old, fishing for walleye with my dad in the late spring. We would tuck in along the shore and eat lunch among the wildflowers.” (233)

His ingredients are the stuff of memories, and you see how re-creating emotional memory might necessitate innovative techniques. (Incidentally, Martin Kastner, the guy who designs a lot of the serviceware at Alinea spent time reverse engineering old sixteenth -century padlocks in the Czech Republic. There were no keys for the locks, so he had to think like a sixteenth century lock maker. Talk about preparation for Alinea work — there is some metaphor here, I just know it.)

Achatz gains his business partner, Nick Kokonas, through food as well. Kokonas and his wife Dagmara were regulars at Trio and Kokonas books a reservation for Dagmara’s birthday. He sends Chef Achatz an e-mail a few days before the birthday with a line that can only be taken as a challenge, “Incidentally she is ethnically Latvian, speaks Japanese, and loves Thai food. Good luck!” Of course, Achatz takes on the task and by the end Dagmara is tearing up, tasting a bit of her childhood in a Latvian sorrel soup with smoked ham hocks and quail eggs. That’s the night Kokonas tells Achatz he would love to build a restaurant with him one day.

The tongue cancer appears towards the end of the book and now having understood better just how important taste was to Achatz and how deeply he poured his whole self into his work, you can feel how truly devastating the diagnosis must have been. When he’s doing chemo and his hair is falling out on the sides, his staff at Alinea show him their solidarity by shaving their heads into mohawks, too.

Sure there was a lot of ego in this guy. Much of what he wanted to do was driven by being different, setting himself apart from his esteemed mentors. But the drive was not without heart. It’s so clear that he loves cooking. (For some reason, to me, this counts for a lot.)

His business partner Nick Kokonas won me over not only because he’s the one who dragged Achatz to see the University of Chicago research team that eventually saved his life, but because he is constantly telling Achatz that people would love to eat his “real food”, too. Kokanas gets to sample it whenever he stops by the kitchen and Achatz and his crew create makeshift meals on the fly with “real” ingredients. (Real food may make an appearance at Next, their latest dining venture. Check out a preview of the restaurant here — it opens April 1, 2011.)

Needless to say… this book got me thinking. Imagine what the food would do!

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