Alinea: The People

April 21, 2011

What a Week for Grant Achatz and Alinea

Chef Achatz gets listed in the Time 100.

Alinea moves up the Pellegrino 50 Best Restaurants list.  They're #6 in the world, #1 in North America. 

Couldn't have happened to a nicer bunch of people.  Really and truly.

As for me, I'm cooking this weekend.  The mushroom lady at the farmer's market had fresh porcinis (she only has 'em once a year), so look for a new post soon.

March 13, 2011

The winners! And some thoughts on the new book: Modernist Cuisine

Congrats to Rob and Matt on winning the two copies of Life, on the Line.  I used to choose both winners because your stories were too awesome and too powerful for me to try and choose two on my own.  Thanks for being so willing to share who you are.

Here's what Rob said about chasing greatness, who he is, and what he wants to do:

Being keen on electronics, particularly computer hardware parts, always wanted to help a wounded animal (thus becoming a veterinarian), and always helping around the kitchen were things that I liked doing as a kid.

However, when my grandfather passed away on the 64th anniversary of D-Day (June 6th) back in 2008, my path in my life took a dramatic change in direction with what I do in my spare time. I started reading everything I could get my hands on that had to do with World War II, whether it be the Pacific or Atlantic theater (he served in Italy in 1944-1945 as a navigator on a B24). Now, I feel that it is my duty to preserve this memory of these war vets that fought in the worst war in human history. Not only do I feel it needs to be done, it is my honor to do it for them.

Posted by: Rob | March 02, 2011 at 12:13 PM

And here's Matt's comment:

I'm failing out of school. My parents love to tell the story of my first day of school. I was excited to ride the bus to school, to be on my own and to learn. Half of a school day later I swore to both my mom and dad that I would never ever go to another day of school in my life. Despite this promise I'm in university again and hate everything. Your two blogs, linked to me by a friend, have been the catalyst for failing exams because I was making stock not studying. Thanks Carol. I'm going to say fuck it and do what interests me, family and everyone else be damned.

Posted by: Matt Shackleford | March 02, 2011 at 05:35 PM

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I have three more copies of Life, on the Line to give away, so stay tuned for that.

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I had a bit of an ingredient-ordering/delivery glitch late last week and into the weekend, so my cooking schedule is all farkakted and I don't have a new dish to post on the blog this week.  When the stuff didn't arrive, I was suddenly faced with a completely free weekend.  THAT NEVER HAPPENS.  So, I watched Season 1 of Modern Family, worked outside in the flower beds to get them ready for spring, ran errands, hosted my neighbors for an evening around the outdoor firepit, watched St. Elmo's Fire on Netflix Instant (!!!) and started gathering up some things I need to sell on Craigslist and eBay.  It was exactly the kind of weekend I needed.

And, what I lacked in cooking this weekend, I made up in reading.  Oh, you guys.  Modernist Cuisine?  Is jaw-droppingly gorgeous and full and rich and amazing.  There is just so much to read and learn and absorb, and it's really going to be hard to step away from it and work this week.  I mean it.

There are multiple volumes covering the history and culture of food, ingredients, science, cooking techniques and fundamentals.... I mean, everything you ever wanted to know or learn about food is in here.  The photography will take your breath away.  It will also instruct you in ways no other cookbook ever has (or probably could).

But what I found really amazing, and honestly, unexpected, was that there are many, many things in this book I want to cook.  Like, immediately.  Brussels sprouts.  Fish.  Pistachio consommé... the list goes on and on and on.  And, I'm here to tell you: much of it is doable in your very own kitchen.  I swear.  There are workarounds for gear you don't want to, or can't, buy.  But, trust me: you can cook this food. 

I'm not a professional reviewer, but I'm coming at this book from a unique perspective, I think.  I tackled The French Laundry Cookbook as a complete amateur.  And now, I'm cooking my way through Alinea.  Better-skilled, yes, but still: an amateur.  I have never gone to culinary school.  I have never taken cooking lessons or classes.  I have never worked in a restaurant kitchen.  I am not inherently a creative or craft-driven person.  And yet, I want to learn.  There's the adage "write what you know."  I find that to be bollocks.  I get bored writing what I know and doing what I know.  That's why Modernist Cuisine is so appealing to me.  It's kind of cool that I can leaf through the book and say to myself: oh, I know how to do that or I've made that before or that actually looks kind of easy.  But you know what?  You'd be able to do the same thing.  And, in doing so, you'd learn a hell of a lot over the many years you'd refer to this book.

There are pages where my brain explodes.  Centrifuged pea purée? Mussels in mussel-juice spheres?  Edible soap with honey bubbles???  Teach me how to do that.

And, there are many, many pages that make me hug myself in joy: flourless gnocchi, deep-fried Brussels sprouts, caramelized carrot soup, risotto Milanese...

Some people will scoff at this book, whether at the price or the sheer size of it.  Or, that the recipes aren't written in the way they are in most cookbooks (which, quite frankly, is a refreshing change).  Others might be afraid of it... afraid that it's suggesting a new way to cook and isn't the way we do it now just fine as it is? 

Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion.  Mine is that I love this book.  Unabashedly.  There is so much to learn, and so much to read.  It's the kind of book I might open on a Thursday morning and think: what can I learn to do this weekend?  What can I cook that I already love?  How can I grow?  Where can I improve?  Or, I might just drool over the photos.  This is a book I will refer to for years and years and years.  I know that already.  In fact, I'm making a space for it in the little mudroom/pantry just off the kitchen because it doesn't belong on a shelf in the living room or den.  It needs to be read and used, and kept close by.

It's difficult to put into words all that this book encompasses, and all that can be learned.  So, if I may, I'd like to borrow from Carl Sagan, who once wrote:

What an astonishing thing a book is. It's a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you're inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.

Modernist Cuisine is on back-order everywhere, and they're working on another print run.

I wholeheartedly recommend it.


You can read more about the inner workings of producing this book here.

March 02, 2011

Life, on the Line


This, my friends, is an incredible book.

It's a book you'll want to read in a day, but there are times you'll want (or should, or maybe even need) to put the book down for a bit because some of the moments in it are so big.  And, I think some of the turning points deserve a pause before moving on.

I could spend paragraph upon paragraph on the stories in and nuances of this book, but to sum it up neatly: it should be required reading upon one's 18th birthday, or any point thereafter.  Why?  Because, ultimately, this is a book about knowing what you're good at, and then making the decisions that enable you to pursue the opportunities you know in your gut are right.

There's a natural, almost-seamless back-and-forth in the narrative between Grant's story and Nick's story and the writing is strong.  Both their stories share the commonality of being confident in who you are as an individual and building a life around your sense of self.

In life, each of us can be described with a variety of labels.  Husband.  Wife.  Boyfriend.  Girlfriend.  Parent.  Son.  Daughter. Workaholic.  Free spirit.  Democrat.  Republican.  Sick.  Healthy.  And with every one of those labels comes a set of rules or expectations that you or other people measure against, or in some cases, we use as excuses to not pursue the things we're supposed to.  Because, if we're being honest with ourselves, sometimes we're afraid to really be who we are.

Reading Life, on the Line felt like I was reading about two men who eschew living a life constrained by the expectations that come with labels.  Instead, they set only their own own expectations and goals, and as a result continue to build pretty fantastic lives without compromising who they are or what they believe.

So, here's my challenge to you:

If you stripped away all the labels you place on yourself or that others place on you... if you laid the groundwork to be able to blow past every roadblock and obstacle (because you can, you know)... if you lived your life in the pursuit of "chasing greatness" (as the book's subtitle suggests)...

In the comments below, tell me:

Here is who I am, and what I want to do.

And, I'm not talking about a "bucket list," or that "life list" nonsense...

You know deep down inside what you're good at.  So, with nothing stopping you, what is your big, hairy, audacious goal?  Are you "chasing greatness"?

If you're not, why?  And when will you?

I've got two copies of Life, on the Line to give away.  I'll choose two winners next week.

Comments close Monday night at 11 p.m. ET.

p.s. Check out the Life, on the Line website with excerpts from the book, a slideshow, and some really great video interviews with Grant and Nick.  My favorite video clip is where Grant confesses to having called out "Duuude!" when he unexpectedly ran into Thomas Keller at an awards ceremony.

October 18, 2010

Media Roundup

First, let me say that I love that you love the Tomato Video.  I had so much fun putting it together, and even more fun making the dish.  Thanks for all your great comments and emails.

I took a much-needed break this weekend to visit my cousin, her husband, and their daughter, so I didn't cook.  I'm tackling a few dishes this week, so there'll be a new food-related blog post up over the weekend or next Monday.

In the meantime, I thought I'd include some Alinea-related links and videos you might be interested in ('cause I am).

First, here's a video of Chef Achatz explaining "flavor-bouncing," and how he plans a dish at Alinea:


David Tamarkin at Time Out New York did a great interview with Grant in their most recent issue.  Click here to read the article.

I find the title/topic of David Chang's December 6 Harvard lecture intriguiging: Creative Ceilings: How We Use Errors, Failure and Physical Limitations as Catalysts for Culinary Innovation.

And, last but not least, I can't stop watching this video... and wondering if I can make food do what this water droplet is doing (particularly at the 1:40 mark): Bouncing Water Droplet on a Superhydrophobic Carbon Nanotube Array.


August 02, 2010

A Little Something From the Trib

One of the many things I do as part of my day job is teach.  My first teaching experience was at Johns Hopkins University, where I taught in their graduate communications program.  I then moved on to become an adjunct professor at Georgetown's graduate school of communications where I taught public relations writing and a class called "The Power of Opinion."  In that second class, my students were required to write and submit one letter each week to the editor of a major daily newspaper, and write and submit five op-eds over the course of the semester.

Most of them were solid writers to begin with; they just needed some fine-tuning and an editor (me) to help shape their pieces so they'd have a better chance to be considered for publication.  They had to be able to articulate in 200 words or less for a letter to the editor and 700 words for an op-ed what they thought about a particular issue and why... which is a hell of a lot harder than it sounds.  It's not creative writing, and it's not news writing.  It's opinion writing which is persuasive, factual, and sans adverbs.  It's the kind of writing I love to read, and getting my students to the point where they could whip up a really strong, printable letter in 10 minutes or less during a timed class assignment was quite an accomplishment.

By the end of the semester, I was so proud of them because every single student got at least one letter to the editor published, and many of them had their op-eds printed, as well.  And we're not talking about the Butt-Scratch Herald in NeverHeardofYourTown.  Their pieces ran in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Chicago Tribune ... all papers and op-ed pages that our country's policymakers, decision makers, and business leaders read and pay attention to.

If you're not reading the editorial and op-ed pages of your daily newspaper, you should be.  While some may argue the print medium as a distribution platform is dying, the power of our opinions is not.  You should also be checking out the letters to the editor.  Sometimes, they're full of reader crankiness.  Other times, they shine an interesting new light on a news story you read a few days before.  And other times, they make you smile and say, "Richard and Carlotta, you are so, so right!"

This letter to the editor ran in the Chicago Tribune last week, and I couldn't agree more:

Food, not politicians, should represent Chicago

My, how times change. During our frequent travels, my wife and I have had some interesting conversations about our wonderful home town of Chicago. These have typically run the gamut from gangsters (Capone), sports heroes (Jordan), mega-celebrities (Oprah), wacky films (Blues Brothers), and most recently our pantheon of corrupt politicians (Blago).

Much to our delight, it appears as if the world view of Chicago might actually be changing. On a recent trip to Quebec City, we were momentarily taken aback, when one local, hearing that we lived in Chicago, posed the eager question: "Have you eaten at Alinea?"

It was our good fortune to be able to tell him about two wonderful dining experiences that we had there. After some further discussion of the allure of Chicago, we eventually tallied another future visitor to our sometimes overlooked, fly-over Midwest mecca. Go Grant Achatz!  A better ambassador we could not find.

-- Richard Hren and Carlotta Olson, Chicago

As a teacher, it thrills me to have an example such as this to share with my students. It's interesting, relevant, newsworthy, and tells a great story in a succinct, direct manner.  As someone who reveres innovation in business and food, this letter makes my day.

June 21, 2010

Q&A with Joe Catterson, Alinea's General Manager

Below you'll find my interview with Joe Catterson, Alinea's GM.

But first, I hope you'll indulge me in a little link-love.  I hope you all regularly read Hank Shaw's fantastic blog: Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook.  I'm a long-time fan of Hank, and had the great pleasure of meeting him (and Holly, hi guys!) in New York in early May.  Hank and I talked about the Alinea cookbook and how, when seasonal ingredients come into the markets, a home cook could really find inspiration in this cookbook.  And, he's gone and done it.  Here's Hank's post, Porcini-O-Rama, featuring a dish inspired by "Porcini" on Page 180 of the Alinea cookbook.  I love it!  Only wish I'd been there to eat it.

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Joe Catterson is the General Manager and Wine Director at Alinea.  His official bio on the restaurant's website is as follows:

Overseeing the service staff at Alinea is our GM/Sommelier Joe Catterson, a native of New York who, before settling in Chicago, had also lived in Seattle, Los Angeles, Berlin, London, and Tenerife. A career path that zigzagged between service and management positions in numerous fine restaurants and studies and professional engagements as a classical musician, found itself focused on a long-held passion for wine. Catterson honed his chosen craft and was named Sommelier at Le Français in 1996 and later also at Les Nomades. Challenged to create a wine program for Trio to complement the cuisine of incoming chef Grant Achatz, Joe found an ideal environment to explore the pairing of wine and spirits with Chef Achatz' cutting edge menus. The opportunity to entice diners with a highly eclectic selection of obscure discoveries as well as classic favorites led to Chicago Magazine bestowing "Best Wine Program" honors to Trio in their 2002 and 2003 restaurant award issues, and naming Joe "Best Sommelier" in 2003.

What the bio neglects to specifically mention is that Joe is awesome.  True story.  Read on to learn more about Joe, what makes great service at Alinea, and what the team had for staff meal:

Carol: First of all, congratulations on Alinea's 2010 James Beard Award for Outstanding Service.  Having dined at Alinea, I know why you won; but, if you were to encapsulate Alinea's service philosophy in 20 words or less, what would it be?

Joe: Strive for detailed, polished service.  Create a comfortable tempo and flow for the experience.  Provide engaging narrative for the cuisine.

IMG_0121 Catterson, celebrating with what looks like a g&t at the James Beard Awards, New York, May 3, 2010.

Carol: How did you get to Alinea?

Joe:  Henry Adaniya invited me to return to Trio when he hired Chef Achatz. He knew I would enjoy creating a wine program to match Grant's cuisine. Alinea was the next step, taking what started at Trio and finding ways to make the entire dining experience more polished and complete.

Carol:  In the course of your career, how have you seen restaurant service evolve?  Are diners more/less demanding than in the past 5, 10, 20 years? 

Joe: My experience is that diners are increasingly more knowledgeable about food and wine, and in many ways more demanding, but also, on the whole, more respectful and appreciative of a well-trained and professional server.  But as far as demanding diners, in a sense, we work at Alinea to diffuse the diners' need to control the dining experience; they'll have the best time giving themselves over to our program.

Carol: Does your front-of-house staff turn over regularly, or have many folks been on board for the five years Alinea has been open?

Joe: Very few remain from the opening team, but there’s been little turnover in the past 2 plus years.  Right now we have a very solid crew.
Carol:  Alinea is moving to a single menu in August.  What kind of impact will this have on both the kitchen and the front-of-house service?

Joe:  It will increase efficiency in many regards, but the net result will be a longer average menu and actually a small reduction in the number of guests we serve per evening.  More diners will get a broader sampling of our cuisine, and our currently very long workdays should become somewhat shorter.

Carol: It seems Grant's post on Alinea-Mosaic about photography and videography has spurred some debate, leading to many misinterpreting his post to mean that he hates or wants to ban photography altogether.  Care to set the record straight?  What is the restaurant's policy on photography and videography in the dining room and kitchen?

Joe:  It’s a very double-edged issue, isn’t it? On the one hand, much of the photography that gets shared in posts and blogs has undoubtedly served us well as effective promotion. On the other hand, the act of taking the pictures can be disturbing to other diners and, for that matter, to the staff.

We allow photography, but ask that in consideration of other diners, people not use flash in the dining room. For some reason, there are always some folks that don't agree with that policy and don't understand why we would ask them to do without the flash. So they flash anyway, and we ask them not to, et cetera. Some people will unabashedly film the chef preparing something at another table; we're amazed that we need to suggest that that might be intrusive of the other diners' experience.

We get frustrated that excessive photography (I've seen people honestly stage a dozen shots of a single dish, multiplied by 20-odd courses) interrupts the pacing of the menu (something we feel is important to the overall experience), and sometimes detracts from the intended experience of a dish, particularly when temperature is an issue.

I honestly get the impression that for some people, the act of photographing the food is more important to them than actually enjoying the food. I hope I’m wrong about that. But no, I don’t believe anyone here hates or wants to ban photography. We would, however, hope for moderation and, mostly, higher consideration for the dining experience of others.

Carol:  Thank you for clearing that up.  And while we're on the topic of manners, I'm not asking you to rat out rude diners or "tell tales out of school," but what kinds of things do you and your team find most frustrating or challenging?  Is it people who talk too loudly?  Show up drunk?  Not understand the concept before making their reservation?  Show up with a list of alleged food allergies instead of telling the reservationist ahead of time?

Joe:  I’m sure we could post quite a long list, but I think you landed on one of our most regular challenges. It is disappointing that there are often groups who seemingly have no concept that the volume of their conversation and laughter is out of any reasonable proportion. Of course we want them to have fun, but there are other people in the dining room. Pretty basic lack of manners.

Carol: Most chefs I know do what they do because they've always known they wanted to cook.  When it comes to the service side of the business, I'm wondering if the same pull is there.  Did you always know this is what you wanted to do?

Joe: I was always interested in wine and cuisine; I became fascinated by the running of a restaurant and the choreography of the dining experience. This was never my first choice of career, but it was something I did for a job and came to appreciate more and more over time.

Carol: Never your first choice of career?  What was? Astronaut?  Cheesemonger?  Neurosurgeon?  Race car driver?  Barber?  In a dream world, is there another career you'd love to pursue?

Joe: When I was in high school, I narrowed my college choices down to studying architecture, enology, or music. Music won out. My choice of career was playing the horn. I was lucky enough to get to do that for a while, but unfortunately injury led me to veer from that path. If I were to leave the food and wine business altogether, I’m sure I would find some way back into music.
Carol: What advice do you have for those who want to get into the restaurant management business?  Do you need a culinary or hospitality degree?  Or, can you learn by working for good people/establishments? 

Joe:  I’ve seen people get great benefit from culinary and hospitality degrees, and I’ve seen many who didn’t. I was fortunate to work for talented people in some really excellent restaurants. It worked out to be an effective education for me. Whether someone chooses a focused culinary or hospitality degree or not, I don’t think there is any substitution for practical experience in the best venues possible.

Carol:  You're managing service and operations at Alinea while also helping open Next Restaurant and Aviary.  (do you ever sleep?)  How will service be different at these two new ventures?  Will some of the Alinea staff move over to either of these new spots to help during the opening? 

Joe:  The nature of the new ventures will undoubtedly be more casual, but we would certainly expect to uphold similar standards of service. The bottom line of the success of Alinea's service is the care and thoughtfulness everyone in the house applies to their job, I should hope we will be able to carry that over to Fulton Street. And yes, bringing along team members from Alinea will be an important step in expanding the brand.

Carol:  Alright, no more talk about work (for a minute).  What's your ideal vacation?  What do you like to do when you have time off?

Joe:  An ideal vacation definitely includes plenty of beach time. I also very much enjoy exploring other cities, checking out the local food scene, art, and architecture. With time on my hands I will go to symphony concerts, look for good jazz, get to sports events when I can. And, over the past five years I’ve played a fair amount of poker.

Carol:  What did you have for staff meal last night?

Joe:  We had chicken breast fillets with a very tasty barbecue sauce, fingerling potato salad, slaw, and green salad.

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Thanks, Joe.

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