I just flew in from Chicago, and boy are my arms tired...
Sorry it's been a few days since I last posted. Working in the kitchen at Alinea has been utterly and completely exhausting. I'm not sure if I can hack it. I mean, Grant is such a taskmaster, and everybody there knows what they're doing and I am so in the shit nearly every night. I haven't had a day off since I started, and at the end of the night, I'm too tired to write or think or even open my laptop. The restaurant is closed today, so I thought I'd take a few minutes to update you on what it's like to work at Alinea. Except, I'm lying, because I'm not really working there, and instead, thoroughly enjoyed this year's April Fool's Day prank. Hee!!!
Those who know me only through this blog probably weren't aware of the two April Fool's Day pranks from French Laundry at Home: Chicken Stack-ups and Fruited Nectar Salad; and, French Laundry at Home Forced to Close.
The fake cease and desist from French Laundry at Home was fun, and I knew I wanted to up the ante this year, but had no idea what to do. A few months ago, I was exchanging email with Russ Parsons, and we somehow got on the topic of what my April Fool's Day prank might be with this blog. We tossed a few funny ideas back and forth, but none of them jumped out at me as "just right." Then, a month or so ago just as I was falling asleep one night, I thought to myself, "hey, what if I announced that the restaurant hired me to work there?" The next morning, I woke up and decided that it wasn't believable and actually might be offensive to the incredibly talented people who actually DO work there, and tried to come up with something else. The more I thought about it, the harder it was to think of anything fun, creative, or workable. So, I tried to write the "they hired me" post, but it just wouldn't come together the way I needed it to.
A week later, as I was waiting for a friend to meet me for lunch at Central, it hit me -- what if I asked Grant to join forces with me on the prank and go with the idea of him hiring me, and we shoot a video in the Alinea kitchen to make it all seem more believable? I dug through my bag to find my little black Moleskine notebook and wrote myself a note that read: Alinea hire kitchen video Grant???!!!
When I got home that afternoon (after eating the most delicious shad roe, I might add), I drafted an email to Grant outlining the idea and asking if he wanted to participate. And then, I didn't send it. I saved it in my drafts folder and worried and obsessed over whether or not it was even appropriate to ask him to do this. I knew he might be game for something -- he's done 4/1 pranks in the past -- but the whole notion of my even joking that I am qualified enough to cross the threshold of his kitchen made me hold off on sending that email for a week. I mean, who the hell did I think I was, making such a request?
Then, on Thursday, March 19 (coincidentally, after yet another lunch at Central) I sent it, because I figured, nothing ventured, nothing gained. And then? I panicked. Immediately after the whoooosh of it leaving my Outbox, I closed my laptop and left the house to get as far away from my computer as possible because: a) Grant will think I'm insane; b) the request will offend him and I'll be forever banned from the restaurant; c) holy crap, what the hell did I just do; and, d) all of the above.
When I came back home, I busied myself with a million little things to avoid opening my laptop (including folding laundry, which I despise doing) because I was sure my Inbox had a "never contact me again" email waiting for me to read. Instead, when I finally summoned the courage to sit at my desk and open my laptop, I found an email, sent back soon after I sent mine, saying, "Sounds fun."
I squealed, and kicked the plan into action. We went back and forth confirming timing, tone, and how it would all play out. In all, I think it took a total of fifteen minutes to finalize all the details.
I hired a camera guy, booked my ticket, giggled to myself like a crazy person, wrote a script, and flew to Chicago four days later -- on the most beautiful Sunday in the history of weather in the mid-Atlantic and the Midwest -- hopped in a cab and went straight from the airport to the restaurant, where I met my camera guy out front on the sidewalk.
When we heard the thunk of the deadbolt being unlocked by someone behind the heavy grey doors, we gathered our things and walked through those doors, down the hallway, and turned left into the restaurant. Grant and his team were in the kitchen working (even though the restaurant was closed that night), and the place smelled amazing. Lobster stock, rhubarb, chocolate... fifteen people working at their stations, chopping, straining, blending, vacuuming... the sensory overload (for someone like me who doesn't do this for a living) was equally intoxicating as it was paralyzing. I wanted to just stay right where I was and absorb everything. I wanted to jump right in and do something. I wanted to build a perch high up near the ceiling and watch from above for months on end.
Instead, I shook Grant's hand and said, "It's so nice to see you again!"
My videographer, a fellow by the name of Marcus Quant (he goes by "Q"), and I set our things down at one of the 4-tops in the first-floor dining room, which felt slightly sacrilegious.
I took off my jacket and put it over the chair where I'd put bag (the first time in my life, by the way, I've gotten onto an airplane with just my purse and no other bags or luggage -- felt weird), and sat down at the table. I'd written a script outline a few days prior, so I whipped out my copy and began reviewing it and making edits in blue pen while Q checked the lighting in the kitchen. I could feel myself sliding ever-so-quickly quickly into a hunkered-down work mode that I made myself stop, for just a minute, to remind myself where I was. I put down my pen, and ran my hand along the edge of the table as I turned in my seat to take in the quiet fact that I was sitting at a table in one of the world's best restaurants. The room was lit naturally by whatever light could make its way through the semi-sheer blinds in the front window. There was no one else there. It was impeccably clean and orderly. Just 20 feet away and just in my peripheral line of sight, one of the world's most creative chefs was moving from different stations in the kitchen to his laptop, to his yellow legal pad, back to one of the stations, then back to his laptop.
I had dinner at Alinea last summer, so I looked fondly over at "my table" just a few feet away and remembered that amazing meal. Cobia. Chicken Liver. Yuba. Tomato and Mozzarella. Lobster. Truffle. Waygu. Duck. Bacon. Chocolate. Potato. Rhubarb. Watermelon. Foie. And more and more and more.
After a minute or two of marking up the script, I stood up and walked back into the kitchen (feeling reaaaallly out of place and reeeaaalllllly intimidated by my surroundings). As we got ourselves miked and Q did a final lighting check, Grant and I chatted for a bit and ran through what we wanted to say and how it would all play out. The original idea was to just stand in the kitchen and announce the "big news." Right before we started our first take, Grant had the idea to add the walk and talk -- going further back into the kitchen and getting me started with my tool kit of the probe, duct tape, tongs, syringe, and smoke gun. So, he gathered all the tools, and we just decided to ad lib that part as we went along.
We shot two takes, and that was it. Easy peasy. The first take was good, but the second take is the one you guys saw. It felt more real, and the audio was better.
Grant and I de-miked while Q shot some b-roll footage (that I ended up not needing), and had a chance to talk for a bit. Guys, I could've stayed in that kitchen all afternoon. All week, even. It was fascinating to watch people work, and the place smelled amazing. It was a gorgeous Sunday afternoon, the sunlight was streaming into the kitchen, and it felt like some of my favorite Sunday afternoons at home -- something simmering on the stove, beams of light coming in through a few windows, and the kinds of aromas that make a house smell like home.
Knowing Grant and his team had work to do, Q and I went back to the dining room to pack up our things, said our thank yous, and went on our merry way. In and out in 30 minutes. Outside, Q handed me the footage to take back to Washington to edit and drove away while I perched myself on the steps of the brownstone next door. I whipped out my phone to check in with my friend, Marisa, who knew what I'd been up to and was anxiously waiting to hear how it went. But before I dialed or stood up to hail a cab, I sat still for just a moment soaking in a bit of the sun and feeling the breeze on my face, and wondered how the hell I got to be so lucky to get to spend time with a chef who is not only one of the most uniquely talented individuals in his craft, but also who is incredibly generous, funny, smart, and intuitive. Someone who one moment looks so focused, serious, and intimidating, and yet a split second later whose grin makes you feel like he's someone you've known for a lifetime.
Over the years, my work has taken me all over the world and put me in contact with and in close working relationships with some very well known and very influential people in business, politics, philanthropy, finance, and entertainment. But I can honestly say it's a rare few who are of genuine character and who actually do the hard work day after day to stay on top of their game and shape others around them. Grant Achatz is one of those rare few, and it was an honor to spend a few moments with him on a sunny Sunday afternoon in his restaurant. I'm going back to Chicago in a few months for dinner at Alinea, and it'll take every ounce of resistance for me to not build that perch in the kitchen and never leave.
I left 1723 N. Halsted and hailed a cab back to the airport for my flight home. Yes, I flew in, shot the footage, and flew right back home just in time for a few hours of sleep before starting yet another hectic workweek. In the cab on the way to Midway, I called Marisa, I called my parents, and when I got to the airport, called Michael Ruhlman to let him in on the secret and see if he'd play along on his blog, which he did. As I waited at the gate for my flight, I was giddy and exhausted, giggly and happy, hungry and distracted, inspired and thankful. My mind was going a million miles a minute, and from the moment we were wheels-up in Chicago until 12:01 a.m. on Wednesday, April 1st, I was much like a five-year old on Christmas Eve. Worse, probably.
I had dinner with two friends at CityZen on April 1st Eve. It was a special dinner we'd planned long ago, and I had yet to let them in on my little secret. They'd seen my Twitter and Facebook updates planting the seed about an upcoming "big change" and "big decision" -- and they wanted to know if I could tell them my big news. When I said, "Um, well? Those updates are actually part of an April Fools Day prank that involves a video I shot with Grant announcing that I'm moving to Chicago to work in the kitchen at Alinea..." they nearly howled.
After I hit "Publish," I knew I was going to approve only the "wow, congrats" comments in the beginning to keep up the facade, and then release all the other comments later in the day (so, for people in the future who are reading this, that's why some of the comments from that day may seem chronologically a little wackadoo). All day long on Wednesday, my phone rang off the hook and my email was buzzing with messages from friends and family members who were either incredibly thrilled about my big (fake) news or kind of pissed off that I didn't personally tell them I was moving to Chicago, and I thoroughly enjoyed replying with, "have you looked at today's date?" I know payback is hell, but it was more than worth it. Grant is a good sport for playing along, and you guys are good sports for being so supportive all the way, whether it was real or not!
So, there you have it. I'm not working at Alinea. I'm staying put right here in Washington, working my butt off at a job I love, and cooking and writing and eating (the other job I love).
Special thanks to: Marcus Quant (and Terry Maday for sending Q my way); Chris Shlemon (for editing and general scotch-drinking awesomeness); and Nick Kokonas for helping everything come together.
Up Next: Verjus, lemon thyme, beets, olive oil