My birthday was in February – I turned 23, the Michael Jordan year of slam dunks. Jokes aside, I pretty much exclusively received books, which truthfully are always a great option if you need to buy me a gift – I love recommendations but always forget them, so putting the physical title in my hand ensures I will read it.
Among the gifts, I received from my boyfriend a copy of Chef Grant Achatz’s memoir, co-written by Nick Kokonas, both of Alinea, Next and The Aviary. While it may seem a bit presumptuous of a 30-something to author a life story, Chef Achatz has nearly been to hell and back already. The book details his life thus far, and Kokonas jumps in once Achatz reaches Chicago. Having both voices adds a lot to this story, particularly when things get dismal.
As I’ve mused on before, magic is what I feel necessary to an excellent meal. Magic is something I believe Chef Achatz strives for every time he plates a dish, prepares mise en place, drafts a new menu. He said as much himself – he enjoys catching the guest off guard, presenting something in a completely new way. One of the distinct moments of the book, in reflecting upon this slight-of-hand, is the “pizza” – a small pocket containing the elements of pizza, but one bite, that delicately melts in your mouth. The staff tests it out and all laugh – it’s delightful, it harkens back to everyone’s childhood. The taste is present but it’s formed in a completely different way.
The way Chef Achatz talks about creating food is the way I want to feel when I eat food. I am no chef, and I do what I can in the kitchen, but eating out is, at least to me, always a special occasion. It is a step outside the home to partake in something at once communal and personal. Food is a nourishment, it’s something we have to do every day, multiple times a day. I presume those reading this blog are of the same status as I am – we can eat when eating is necessary, and rarely go without. The mundane daily task is sometimes, then, to be brought up onto another level from time to time – not only in the sense of an experience in molecular gastronomy, but perhaps a conversation about local ingredients or factory farms, about farm-to-table advocacy, or about nutritional health. Special meals stick with us – one can recall holidays of extra special food, the once-a-year treats, the birthdays you got to pick where and what you wanted to eat. There are also the intimate moments of home-cooked favorites – meat loaf, lasagna, macaroni and cheese with hot dogs. Food is an integral part of life, and the moments that elevate it from meaningless thrice-daily task to momentous experience…it’s why I even considered writing about food.
Chef Achatz reflects upon all of this when he comes to fight tongue cancer – a cancer that could have eliminated his sense of taste, and could have very well ended his life. Kokonas highlights the moments when perhaps Chef Achatz could not himself be forced to recall. Chef Achatz’s climb to where he is now is inspiring to say the least, and truly demonstrates the care and passion he has for food. I should hope to be so lucky to visit Alinea, Next or The Aviary, and undoubtedly a spirited post will follow. Alinea was just named the best restaurant in the country by some publication, and lord knows while living in the city that houses it, I ought to go. Knowing he thinks of dining the way I hope to experience it puts another layer of intrigue to the meal, and he also recently announced that he hopes to even further redefine Alinea, in ways I can’t even begin to understand (floating food? music as an ingredient?).
The book is worth reading. It explains how Alinea came to be what it is today, from the first time Chef Achatz cracked an egg to the moment the duo conceptualized Next Restaurant. As I work on this blog, I want to continue to educate myself as well – to talk of chefs and restaurants, of techniques, of Chicago’s scene. This book is a great starting point.