Writing about Grant Achatz for no apparent reason

Nope, I didn’t fly to Chi and dine at Alinea this weekend. I didn’t score a ticket to Next or get ruphyed at The Aviary. I’ve never met Grant Achatz, and you’re almost guaranteed some cash if you bet I never will. But I’ve been thinking about him for the past several days and I need to put those thoughts down somewhere so I can let them go and move on.

My opinion of Grant Achatz doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter to him. It doesn’t matter to me. Yet after taking in so many representations of his life in the past few days I very much want to draw some sort of conclusion. I want to stamp some sort of verdict on the meaning of Grant Achatz’s story and stories like his and what they mean…well I guess what they mean to my life. Why do I read them? What are they for? Is he inspirational? Quixotic? Lucky? All of the above? Is he awesome?

Grant Achatz and Alinea were actually separate in my brain for a very long time. I had heard Chef”s name and seen pictures of his food/performance art. I had heard of Alinea , but somehow I always missed the part of the article, interview, what have you, when someone explicitly said ‘Grant Achatz, Chef Mastermind behind Alinea.’ Thus, I didn’t have any sort of association with Alinea. But I associated Achatz with (and judged it as) fussy-for-fussy’s-sake food.

Eventually I put the two together. I grew inexplicably irked by Alinea’s ‘it’ status. I worried that the ‘food as experience’ thing was going to become what restaurants had to do, and I wanted neither the poor-quality knock-offs nor to put someone else in the driver’s seat of my emotional experience while dining. Further, I just don’t care about food trickery. I was, quite frankly, totally freaked out by the three course dinner in a piece of chewing gum in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. Why would I want it now that it’s real, presented to me on Beetlejuice looking serving pieces (No offense to their designer, though. I appreciate hard work even if I don’t like the aesthetic. And I loved Beetlejuice. I just didn’t want it to come to life)?

Fine. Agree to disagree. Sounds like Alinea/Achatz’s vision is just not for me. Except…

When I first fell down this foodie rabbit hole, the second book I read was The French Laundry Cookbook. I was duly impressed and absolutely intimidated. ‘I guess I like rustic food,’ I thought and let it drift into the background of culinaria that I continue to absorb. Last week, I checked three books out of the library Michael Ruhlman’s The Soul of a Chef, The Alinea Cookbook, and Life, On the Line (the Achatz and Alinea biography, with a co-author credit for business partner Nick Kokonas). There’s a lineage here. Micheal Ruhlman was the writer for The French Laundry Cookbook. Achatz was working  at the French Laundry when the book was being researched and Ruhlman mentions him in The Soul of a Chef. Achatz then fills out the rest of the story in his biography and suddenly one has a pretty decent understanding of his path to the food he creates.

Does that change how I feel about Alinea? It does a little.

Grant Achatz also had cancer (and I hope that verb remains in the past tense for a long long time). He tells a very unsentimental, non-martyr-y story about this which I respect a lot.

Does that change what I think about Grant Achatz? I think it does a little.

If you had asked me three days ago, I would have said that I did not want to dine at Alinea but I would probably try to make some of the elements in the cookbook at home. Today, I would probably  dine there, or at least at Next. I could give a fig about a fig & foie gras lollipop handed to me by a custom-made robot while I sit in a moat of aromatizing chicory (yes, Virginia, that’s an exaggeration), but I have mountains-high and oceans-deep respect for the  technique, craftsmanship and care behind the food he has chosen to do.

And I am a little jealous (and a little inspired) that he just went out and did it. And it’s working.

These stories are always hard for me to place in my understanding of life. On the one hand I really think society can benefit from big, public heroes (though I think one’s personal heroes, big or small, should be more influential). On the other hand the three venues and two books make him seem a bit like Grant Achatz, the  brand, with a VERY LOUD marketing firm behind him. I have no doubt that he could cook several well-known top-notch chefs under the table, but is he truly nonpareil?

I also struggle with his innovation. Is it innovation? Or is it sleight of hand? Is a flavor new just because it is in a new context or delivered in a new way? I think art would argue yes (think about pointillist paintings or even matching an outfit, your perception of and feeling about a color changes when you match it with something new). But there’s some part of me that argues no. Raspberries taste like raspberries no matter what he puts them through (that is typically the point). So, why?  I guess that’s my problem, why? I’m not sure I will ever feel any urgency to pay a lot for a meal that is made up of things I already like to eat because the presentation is better than a Vegas show. Of course, If it were up to me I probably wouldn’t have funded manned space missions. Yet, I have deep respect for the engineering required for both.

So, I guess what I think is, in real life Grant Achatz is probably a PFA* chef; Alinea is probably like a really good Cirque De Soleil show – quite possibly the most amazing experience ever, but I just don’t care. And all the hype is…just what you have to do in our Warholian present. Okay. I’m sorted. Carry on.

*pretty [expletive deleted] amazing


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