Chef Grant Achatz treats his restaurant kitchens like scientific laboratories: They are places in which to invent wildly sculptural dishes that are seldom what they seem. Though he characterizes himself simply as “a cook,” his food is a feat of culinary engineering that uses science, technology, and design to dissect and reconstruct texture and form. This multidisciplinary approach is often called molecular gastronomy, a term Achatz doesn’t embrace “Some call it techno-emotional,” he says. “We call it progressive American.” “Progressive” seems understated—but as far as our eating habits go, it’s ultramodern, to be sure.
At Achatz’s Chicago restaurant, Alinea, guests enter through a 40-foot corridor with a polished black granite floor that tapers as it nears the doorway, creating the illusion that visitors are changing size as they approach. Inside, the atmosphere is less funhouse than theater. Meals are presented over many hours, in as many as 27 courses, in a carefully choreographed spectacle of custom-designed tableware. Achatz says the sequence of intentional events is meant to give diners “a sense of comfortable surprise,” though he also relishes the opportunity to challenge them. “Sometimes we will take comfort food and present it in a very confrontational manner. People will have to overcome a bit of fear just to find that it is a pleasant experience.”
The language on the Alinea menu is deceptively simple—sometimes a single word is used to state the main ingredient. What arrives, however, is a series of tasteful interpretations linked to that item; for instance, there is Beef, which stars a rib-eye steak, but Achatz supports it with raisins, chives, anchovies, red peppers, and ginger.
Achatz and his culinary construction crew execute transformative procedures, often obscuring the visual identity of the ingredients but amplifying their true flavors. The kitchen’s toolkit includes everything from a Cryovac vacuum sealer and a paint-stripping heat gun to a starchy miracle thickener called Ultra-Tex 3. When placed before the diner, Beef looks like an edible landscape composed of doughy volcanoes, gelatinous boulders, and crisp tufts of grass.
When it comes to flavors, Achatz rarely favors subtlety. In 2007, he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of tongue cancer, treatment for which temporarily obliterated his sense of taste. For a man whose life revolves around food, this might have been a recipe for despair; instead, Achatz used the opportunity to push innovation even further. Then, in December, contrary to prognoses, he was declared cancer-free.
Achatz has long believed that to repeat a menu item is to forestall ingenuity. But this year, with the release of his book Alinea, Achatz has conceded that perhaps a brilliant invention is worth repeating—and even archiving. The book contains hundreds of recipes and highly detailed photographs that glorify the architecture of Alinea’s plates. Though many dishes call for esoteric ingredients, dozens of elaborate steps, and as many unusual tools, Achatz assures aspiring home cooks that there’s no reason to be intimidated. “Bite it off in small chunks,” he suggests, “and you will be rewarded.”