March 29, 2010

Open Discussion: Photography, video, blogging as documentation... what's okay, when, and why?

Yesterday, Grant Achatz tweeted about something he posted in the forum on Alinea-Mosaic:

Picture 1

I clicked on his link, and read what he wrote on the Alinea-Mosaic forum, which is re-posted below (the link to his post and ensuing comments is here):

Documenting ...well me. When photo and videography becomes a bit much.

I appreciate that people are so into food, and excited about eating at Alinea, to the point where it drives them to record it. Obviously these “foodies” are a large segment of our cliental, and the very people that help propel the awareness of food and dining. I certainly admit that the popularity of web based reviews and information has helped Alinea achieve a certain level of popularity, and ultimately some level of success has to be attributed to this. In fact, since the beginning we have embraced the web, often contributing to food blogs with things like the egullet project before the restaurant was even open. With the proliferation of food blogs and the almost competitive nature of the posters to delve further into detail with their reporting, coupled with the ease of capturing images and video with our phones, we have seen a very high rise in photo and videography in the restaurant.

Documenting the food is one thing. I understand taking a photo in the kitchen with the chef after the meal to frame and hang in your office, perhaps of a particular course that you want to remember because it was so amazing, so you can remember the presentation, or even the manipulation of an ingredient in way you have never seen before. Taking it to the next level many people take pictures of every course and some even take photos of the wines as well. I don’t necessarily mind this, but I wonder why people so passionate about food would sacrifice the integrity of the courses, instead prioritizing the documentation. Courses get cold, or melt while the images are taken, and in extreme cases the intended effect of the dish is completely lost. A month ago a front of the house team member served the Hot Potato –Cold Potato to a blogger that was taking photos with a camera resting on a tripod. The server did their normal spiel, telling the guest the dish was intended to be consumed right away so the sensation of temperature contrast could be experienced. Instead they took a few minutes to move the course around on the table to find the right light, snapped several images, and then undoubtedly enjoyed….Warm Potato –Warm Potato. Not to mention the time that is added to the experience. Three extra minutes to take a photo is not much, but if you are eating 30 courses, you just added an hour and a half to your dinner.

And what about the people in the restaurant that are there to –- eat? Or enjoy an evening out with a significant other, or even having a business dinner? Often we have guest request to move tables in the restaurant because they feel the sound of the shutter, the light produced by the auto focus assist, or the person’s actions are ruining their own experience.

But recently the trend has been to video myself or the front of the house team. This is where I feel the documentation crosses the line. Now that I spend a good amount of time in the dining room with the table-plating concept we are doing guests will often stick the camera in my face as I walk up to the table. I never say no to guests when they ask to take a photo with me, but I always suggest we do it in the kitchen after their meal is finished. This is happening with the servers as well. Voice recorders are being held in front of them while they describe a course or a wine, or video is shot. It is uncomfortable… and frankly rude to do so without asking. This activity seems strange to me, I can’t imagine how celebrities feel. No wonder they punch the paparazzi out when they get the chance.

I re-Tweeted Grant's link (adding "it's about time someone said something") and have been getting some interesting replies via both Twitter and email in which most everyone agrees with what Grant's saying in his post.  A few people disagreed, and one person actually said they thought his post was rude and that because dinner at Alinea is expensive, you should be able to do whatever you want.  Which..... sigh.....  I mean COME ON.  A person can't honestly believe that, can they?  Wow.

Maybe it's just that I'm a wannabe Luddite, but I can't bring myself to take pictures at Alinea, Per Se, The French Laundry... heck, most every restaurant I've ever been to.  I sneak the occasional iPhone photo if I wanna remember how something was plated, or if I want to make my Twitter followers drool along with me over something particularly delicious that's sitting in front of me.  But the thought of bringing a camera into a restaurant -- let alone a tripod or a videocamera (the Share Our Strength videos at Bibiana and Central were my only exception; and, I asked for permission ahead of time, and then also checked with the people dining around us) -- just seems so weird to me.  I mean, if Grant were plating something on the table in front of me, you can be damn skippy I wouldn't want even a tiny Flip video camera between us.  Video can't capture how a chef breathes as he works, how his whole body moves, what his hands look like when he holds a spoon versus an offset spatula, how the staff is attuned to a table's needs, what the food smells like as it's being placed on the table.  These are things that can only augment a diner's experience, if only he or she would allow them to be felt instead of putting up that electronic wall and separating him/herself from what's really going on.

Which led me to thinking about how it feels like the way we document our lives has totally changed, and maybe not for the better.  I'm not sure.  Stay with me here...

Like Grant wrote above, it does seem like more people are photographing their food, taking notes to post to Yelp (which is a whole separate matter, that hackjob of a site), and not paying very much attention to a) the pleasure of eating; and b) the pleasure of the company of their dining companion(s).

I'm not perfect.  Like I said, every now and then I've snapped an iPhone photo of the plate in front of me. There have been a handful of times where I've texted a friend about my meal while at the table enjoying said meal.  But on the whole, my phone stays in my bag while I'm enjoying what I eat (and the company of whomever is eating with me).

So now after reading Grant's post, I'm curious: do you take photos at dinner (whether at home, or out)?  Is it okay to bring a tripod to a restaurant or take multiple photos from multiple angles, possibly disrupting the staff or others' dining experiences, not to mention your own?  Is it okay to videotape your meal, doing running commentary or interviewing others at the table while they're eating?  Is it okay to do any or all of this stuff, which likely results in not getting the full experience of what it's like to eat at a place like Alinea (or any restaurant, for that matter)? Do you feel like you deserve to be able to do it?  Do you think it's rude?  Do you care if people do this?  Does it make you crazy?  Tell me.

This topic of documentation struck a nerve with me because I started thinking about it in the context of food and restaurants, but Grant's post also had me thinking about blogging in general, and wondering how many bloggers -- not just food bloggers, mind you -- think about their life as content.  In some ways, maybe, that's good.  Maybe to be a better writer or even a better human being, some people need to feel the pressure of having something to publish -- whether it's photos, words, video, etc. -- to be able to push themselves to do interesting things.  But then in the same breath I have to wonder if people who blog (or anyone, I guess, really) are really missing out on life -- or, at least, those great unexpected, mind-blowing moments in life -- because they're too busy photographing all the things they see/eat/do/buy/cook, scribbling notes about all the funny things their toddler says, or shoving a videocamera in front of someone's face to try and capture something likely uncapturable?

Then, that led me to ask myself: Have we lost the wonder of having personal experiences?  Does everything anything have to be shared?  And, if experiences are to be shared, how do we decide what they are, and then, how do we share them?  Have we lost the joy in simple, person-to-person storytelling?  Do we need 500 photos in our digital cameras or on our Facebook pages of a night out with the girls, or the dinner we ate in New York, a family vacation, or our kid's soccer game?  Is it not enough anymore to just have really wonderful personal experiences?  Does living a good life now have to be measured in the number of "likes" on Facebook, the amount of email or number of comments on a blog post, the size of your Flickr portfolio?

Do we do it to be in competition with one another -- I ate here and you didn't; my kid did this and yours didn't; I bought this cute red sweater and you didn't; I traveled here and you didn't ?  Is it about self-esteem?  Do people blog because it allows them to put a certain "face" on a life that in real life, they maybe aren't really happy with?  If you blog, tell me why.  If you once did but don't anymore, tell me that, too.  If you take a lot of photos, tell me why.  Do you still hand-write the day's account in a personal journal?  If you document certain things in life, but not others, tell me why... and tell me how.  Tell me what gets shared, and what doesn't.  I would love to know what's going on inside that lovely brain of yours.  I'm completely curious about what you document, and what you just experience.

I'm not a technology hater.  I think you guys know that.  I love that I can stay in touch with my faraway cousins via Facebook.  I like that my mom can see something on my Twitter feed and ask me about it the next time we talk.  I love love love that my nephew and I can make fart noises and sing the ABCs to each other over Skype.  I love that old college friends and former work colleagues find me blogging here when they Google my name.

But as documenting parts of our lives in certain ways can be a tool to help keep people together, has it also contributed to taking us or keeping us further away from ourselves?  And, with particular regard to what Grant wrote about, by documenting the things we do in the ways we do, what are we missing out on?  If these frequent-food-photogs take pictures or video in the way he's describing, do they even taste what they eat?  Can they appreciate how many hours/days went into one bite?  Are they honestly getting their money's worth?  Are they cheating all five of their senses out of one of life's truly pleasurable experiences for the sole purpose of maybe, possibly having someone say, "Hey, that's a neat picture"??  Does someone else's "hey, that's a neat picture" matter more to us than whether or not we loved something ourselves?

If anything, for me Grant's post was a gentle reminder and reaffirmation that I don't want to be the kind of person who sacrifices being present in everyday experiences AND special occasions for the sake of/at the risk of being a distracted or distracting documentarian.

What say you?

February 25, 2010

In Which I Am Medicating With Wine, So Take THAT Health Care Reform Advocates...

I was all ready to devein the foie gras that had just arrived from Hudson Valley Foie Gras when this happened:

Photo 12

Three eency-weency microscopic hairline fractures in the metacarpals, and some gorgeous bruising and swelling.  Nothing serious, and it's already starting to feel better now that the swelling is going down.

Per doctor's orders, I'm keeping it wrapped and not using my left hand until the weekend.  In fact, I'm typing this entry with just my right hand, and since it's taking about nine thousand years let's wrap this up and end it on a fun note: use the comments to guess how I broke my hand!!

The person who comes closest wins a packet of Barley Malt Powder and a packet of Malted Milk Powder -- both from Terra Spice -- as well as a packet of juniper berries.

Submit as many guesses as you'd like -- no limits here, folks.  Be creative, be specific.  Have fun busting my chops, because I deserve it.

Photo 10
Photos taken with PhotoBooth on my Mac. So, it's like me looking in the mirror. It really is the left hand that's injured, not the right.

Oh, and p.s.?  It's not a cooking injury.  GO!

February 04, 2010

Here... have some sugar.

Remember the $40 in wasted vanilla beans?

After scraping out the insides of 10 vanilla bean pods for a powder that NEVER POWDERED (I'm still a little bitter about that, can you tell?), I tossed those mostly emptied pods into a ziploc and stored them in the freezer because I knew I'd find a use for them when the food fog lifted and I was ready to re-embrace my kitchen.

This morning, I made vanilla sugar:


You don't even need a recipe.  You put two vanilla bean pods into a jar and pour in some sugar.  Seal it tight, shake it, and don't open it for a day or two... then, enjoy however you'd like.  When the sugar runs out, you just add more to the jar.  The pods should release fragrance and flavor for about 8-12 months.

Along with a splash of whole milk, I like just a half teaspoon of raw sugar in my coffee every morning, and this vanilla bean-infused raw sugar doesn't make my coffee taste vanilla-y at all (Jean-Luc!)*.  It just makes it more smooth and lovely and coffee-y.


I've got many more pods in the freezer, so when these start to lose their luster, I'll start anew.

What kinds of ingredients do you like to re-purpose?  Any cooking accidents you've been able to salvage?  How so?  Hit me in the comments, and I'll pick someone at random and send them a jar of vanilla sugar.  

*Snort.... Jean-Luc.  I remember thinking, when I was in junior high, how cool it was gonna be when I grew up and could drink that stuff.  Only now, I know... IT'S NOT COFFEE!

Up Next: Maytag blue, grape, walnut, port

Read My Previous Post: Yuzu, pine, black sesame, shiso

January 14, 2010

Alinea at Home Extra: Rendering Beef Fat

Deep breath.... stretch fingers.... aaaaand, go.

One of the elements in the upcoming Bison, cranberry, persimmon, juniper dish is to use rendered beef fat as part of the sous vide process.  Now, I know you can buy rendered beef fat (or tallow, as it's also called) in cute little jars for $8 or $9 in grocery stores, but I needed a kick in the ass to get myself back into the kitchen, so I decided to make my own.

I mean, really: if I can't dice some beef fat, add water, and let the fat melt, I should just quit cooking altogether and crawl into a cave.

I wanted beef fat that I knew had been handled well in a butchering environment, and the closest butcher-ish place to me is Max's Kosher Market in Wheaton, Maryland.  They do all their butchering on-site, and have really good product, so I knew I'd be all set.

What I didn't expect is that they wouldn't charge me for the fat.  Could this be a sign that my bad mojo is turning around?  I told them I just needed a pound or so, and they wrapped it up nicely for me and sent me on my merry way.  Thanks, guys!

I'd never rendered my own beef fat before (I'd never needed to use it to cook anything), but I remembered reading Lisa Fain's pork fat rendering post on her blog, Homesick Texan, so I drew from that and got started.

Here's the beef fat:


I cut those two slabs into a 1/2"-ish dice.  Note -- cutting through fat is easier than it might seem.  It's not slippery or gooey or gross at it.  In fact, it felt like cutting through cold butter.  You don't have to do exactly a 1/2" dice.  Anything 1" or smaller will work.  Just try to keep them all relatively the same size.  More importantly, there should be no meat at all on these pieces.  Meat will leech blood and other impurities into the fat as it renders, then it'll burn, and you'll end up with nasty bits you don't want, and that are impossible hard to strain out.


I put the fat cubes into a heavy pan (I'm using a Le Creuset here, though I'm pretty sure any heavy pan will work -- cast-iron enamel is preferred, though):


Then, I added a bit of water.  I didn't measure it precisely as I poured, but in eyeballing it, I'd say there's maybe a cup of water (for a little over a pound of diced fat).  But, since fat floats in water, it looks like there's more water than there really is.  My advice -- just put the fat in, and pour some water in until it barely surrounds the fat:


Cook over high heat (a 9 out of 10, if your stovetop has number dials) until it boils (this took about 3 minutes):


Then, reduce to medium heat (I turned my dial to a 5) until the water cooks off (takes about 20-25 minutes):


Then, cook over a low heat (I turned the dial down to 3) until the fat begins to melt.  You'll hear cracks and pops and sometimes a BLAM or two as the fat releases air and moisture as it melts.  See the fat splatches all over the stovetop? It was also on the windows and floor.  And, after I thought I'd cleaned everything really well, I found three giant fat blobs on the ceiling.  

It'll cook for 45-60 minutes before you start to hear those cracks and splats goin' on.  After that point, you'll see that some of the fat is starting to turn brown.  It's at this point you should stir it every 10 minutes or so -- and wear an oven mitt while you do, use a long handled wooden spoon, and don't stand directly above or in front of the pot.  When you stir and agitate the fat, it will splatter, and it's hot as all get out.  I'm glad I had my glasses on, or else I'd have had fat in my eye, I think.

Once the fat chunks have begun to turn brown, and renders the liquid fat, you've only got about 20-30 minutes to go.


Line a fine-mesh strainer with some cheesecloth (or, if you don't have cheesecloth, then be prepared to strain it twice) and pour the contents of the pot of fat through it into a heatproof (heat-safe?) bowl.


Discard the brown cracklings (or save them and salt them while still hot, for a snack -- though I think they're not as tasty as pork cracklings), let the liquid fat cool for a bit (10 minutes), then pour it into an airtight container.  I used a Mason jar:


I let the liquid cool for a bit longer in the jar (another 10 minutes) before putting the lid on it and storing it into the fridge.

After it's been in the fridge for a bit, it'll turn whitish and become opaque:


And there you have it.  Rendered beef fat.

Oh, and before I go... you guys?  Your comments on the last post?  Your emails?  Your Tweets?  Amazing.  Just amazing.  Thank you so much.  You have NO idea.

Up Next: Bison, cranberry, persimmon, juniper branch aroma

Read My Previous Post: The Thing a Food Writer Isn't Supposed to Say

November 03, 2009

Alinea Leftovers: Duck and butternut squash salad


Some of you have asked what I do with the leftover ingredients and elements from the dishes I cook for this blog.  Some of the gels and puddings and sauces and juices, I try to use in other things.  Sometimes they work.  Sometimes they don't.  I'll start telling you more about those experiences the next time I have something like that to work with.  I've wanted to be better about that on this blog, and I've not been.  Sorry 'bout that.

Meantime, here's a little something I pulled together for lunch the day after I made the duck dish: a bowl of mache, with leftover grilled duck and butternut squash.  I sauteed the squash in brown butter, and made a lime vinaigrette (olive oil, juice from a lime, salt, pepper, tiny blob of Dijon mustard).  I also sprinkled a few of the curried pumpkin seeds on top.  And yes... sometimes I have a little nip of wine with lunch here at home.  That's a glass of Stag's Leap Sauvignon Blanc.  In all, a great lunch, and pretty typical of the way I cook and eat from day to day.


Any chance I get to sit at my table outside for a meal, I'll take it.  Soon, the table will be tarped for the winter, and I won't see its loveliness again until after the spring rain subsides.

*   *   *

Chef Achatz has been having his team post some really interesting real-time updates to the Alinea Mosaic forum.  One of the sous chefs in the kitchen is now doing a lot of R&D work for Grant and his team, and he's posting photos and write-ups of the dishes and elements he's working on on a pretty regular basis.

Check it out if you can; some pretty interesting stuff there.  Grant weighs in from time to time, and answers questions that forum participants have.  It's interesting to see how dishes come about, and learn from some of the smartest in the business.

Alinea Mosaic > Dish Development > Fall 2009 Dishes

*   *   *

A few of you sent me the link to this interview, so I wanted to share it with everyone, because I think it's interesting:

For the last couple of months, Eight Forty-Eight food critic David Hammond has been using more than his palate to experience good dining in Chicago. The series, Soundbites, has taken you through a journey of the senses. His last stop is Alinea.  As you might suspect, controlling sound is a big part of the cooking and dining experience at this restaurant, which many consider one of the finest in the world.   Audio interview with Grant Achatz here.

*   *   *

Lastly, a friend sent along this quote she read from an interview with fashion designer Isabel Toledo:

"Craft takes time, and therefore it is luxury. You cannot do an amazingly well-made garment without taking time—not just the time it takes to make something but also the time it took the maker to come up with the idea. That is all luxury, and that has been lost because we're trying to make things faster and faster, cheaper and cheaper. The consumer tends to lose track of what luxury is."

The same applies to food, don't ya think? And how sad that luxury (when it comes to food) is a dirty word. 

p.s. -- GO PHILLIES!!!!

Up Next: Pheasant, shallot, cider, burning oak leaves

Read My Previous Post: Duck, pumpkin, banana, Thai aromatics

August 03, 2009

Alinea at Home Extra: Veal Stock

The day is done, the sun set hours ago, the neighborhood is quiet, and most people are tucked into bed, watching the last few minutes of Jon Stewart, turning off the lights, setting the alarm for the busy day ahead...

The clock inches closer to midnight.....


You're in your pajamas, ready for bed........


But you're far from tired.  In fact, you know you're facing yet another night of insomnia, so what do you do?  Have a glass of water?  Read a book?  Toss and turn? Take an Ambien?

Me?  I make veal stock.

Since making veal stock for the first time when I did French Laundry at Home, I now keep packets of veal bones in my freezer at all times so I can make veal stock when the mood strikes.  In the past few years, that's been more often than not.  In fact, I've become a bone-hoarding freak, with all sorts of bones and shells and other detritus in ziploc bags in my freezer, ready to make nearly any kind of stock at any time.  It's like my superhero power -- although Stock Girl doesn't sound all that awesome, now does it?  Well, crap.  I'll have to come up with something else, then.

I was curious to make the Alinea veal stock because the ingredient list is different from TFLC.  Alinea's veal stock has no fresh tomatoes, no bay leaf, no garlic, no leeks, but the basic process is the same: blanch the bones, make the first batch, then the remouillage, then combine them, then reduce.  And strain and skim all along the way.

Making stock really isn't that difficult -- I swear.  And, having veal stock on hand, not just for my blog cooking but for making sauces and soups in general, has made my day-to-day cooking even more pleasurable and easy.  And, the best part about making this veal stock is that you can do it in your sleep. Literally.  Well, most of it.

As I said at the beginning of this post, I started my veal stock around 11:30 at night, got it going by 12:30 or 1 a.m., and let it do its thaaaang overnight while I slept... ah, sweet, elusive sleep... which finally came, once I slowly and steadily inhaled the aroma of stock simmering on my stove.

The first thing I did was put the calf's feet and veal bones into a large stock pot, cover them with water, and bring them to a simmer:



That took about 40 minutes.

I dumped the enter pot of water and bones into a fine mesh strainer, letting the nasty liquid go down the drain, and rinsed the bones under cold, running water.  This first blanching-the-bones step helps remove the impurities and other icktastic stuff from the bones, giving you a better, more pure, final product. 


I put the bones back into the now-cleaned stock pot, and covered them with water.  I turned the burner up as high as it would go and brought the liquid to a simmer.



I skimmed the impurities that rose to the top:


And then, I added the carrots, thyme, parsley, onions, peppercorns, and tomato paste:



I let this come back up to a simmer, and then went to bed, letting the stock simmer on the stovetop for 8 hours on low heat.

Let me just say that I can't remember the last time I slept for 7 hours in a row so soundly, and so restfully.  Wow.  I know I've pined for sauces and foodstuffs to be made into bath products, but if there's any way to make a veal stock-scented sleep aid, I will invest in that, tout de suite!

In the morning, at around 8:30, 9 o'clock, this is what greeted me:


I removed the bones and put them in a bowl on the counter until I needed them again.  I then poured the liquid (and aromatics) through a chinois into another stock pot:



I skimmed that liquid one last time before putting it in the refrigerator to hang out while I did the remouillage -- or "remoistening" of the bones for the second step of this process.  So, bones back into a now-clean stock pot:


Covered them with water and brought them to a simmer:


Added some more tomato paste and continued to simmer for another 8 hours, during which time I did some work for my clients, gardened, reorganized the pantry, and hosed off the front porch and back deck -- all while my stock happily simmered away...



I removed the bones (discarding them, along with the now-fallen apart calf's feet) and strained the liquid into a bowl.


I then poured this second step -- the remouillage -- into the first pot of liquid:


And I turned the burner onto a low-medium heat and began to reduce it.  By this time, it's about 5:30, 6 o'clock in the evening on Day 2.

It's at this point that I see I need to reduce it to 1000g.  Now, I know what a gallon of liquid looks like.  A quart.  A pint.  A cup.  That's easy.  But, I didn't know how to eyeball 1000g of liquid.  So, I measured 1000g of water in a bowl and used that as a rough guide or estimate, knowing that this same visual amount of stock would weigh more than water since there are dissolved solids in it.  But, it was a helpful guide, nonetheless.



I turned up the heat a bit, to reduce it more quickly (so I wouldn't have to stay up all night):


And, by 10 p.m., I had what looked like would be 1000g of veal stock:



It actually ended up being 1,015g of veal stock, so there you go.  Done and done.

I stored the stock in four containers: 3 300g containers and 1 115g container.  I let the stock come to room temperature before covering and freezing the containers, and here's what they looked like before going into the freezer:


Here's a shot of the stock itself:


Isn't it gorgeous?  I wish you could've been here to smell it.  It's one of those things that kept a dork-ass little grin on my face all night long, and made my house smell fantastic for the next two days.

Flavor-wise, it tasted different than the stock from The French Laundry Cookbook.  Not better, not worse, just different.  The Alinea veal stock was more more (does that make sense?): it felt like it had a wee bit of weight to it (like comparing the weights of a baseball and a softball -- incremental difference at best), it was a tad bitey and it had a deeper caramelization, all while staying silky smooth and sleek.

The stock is in my freezer now, ready to be used in one of the dishes I've got planned for later this summer. 

In the meantime, if you're interested in making your own veal stock, here are some great resources: Michael Ruhlman's blog post on making veal stock; and, Ruhlman's chapter on veal stock in The Elements of Cooking. And holy crapballs, I just googled "veal stock" and am gobsmacked that my old FL@H blog post is the top search return, followed closely by Ruhlman's posts.  That's damn cool.

Up Next: Octopus, Oyster Cream (I know!!), or Idiazabal... or maybe Kuroge Wagyu

Resources: Veal bones from Smith Meadows Farm; calf's feet from Wagshal's; aromatics from the Takoma Park Farmers Market; peppercorns and tomato paste from Whole Foods.

Music to Cook By: Podcasts: NPR Science Friday.  I'm on a podcast kick these days, and in an effort to clear out my backlog of books and articles to read, shows to watch, and other miscellaneous things to do, I've been cutting way back on TV and music for the past few weeks and listening to all the podcasts I subscribe to.  Plus, there's also always some sort of statistic or discovery on Science Friday that make for great dinner party chatter.

Read My Previous Post: Oyster, ginger, steelhead roe, beer

April 05, 2009

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

Read My Previous Posts: Alinea at Home -- BIG NEWS!!!  and Dry shot, red peppers, garlic, oregano.

January 23, 2009

Alinea at Home Special Edition: I be illin'...

Y'all, I feel like a Tyrannosaurus Rex tore open my head, dropped a deuce into my sinuses, then stomped on my chest on his way back to terrorize Jeff Goldblum and Sam Neill.  It hurts to look my laptop screen for any length of time, so I'll get the promised post on the Tuna, candied and dried, up in a few days.

Meantime, let me share with you a few links for your reading enjoyment:

Carol's Top Ten Guilty Pleasure Blogs.  Joining the ranks of Craig Newmark and Marc Andreessen, I was honored when the good folks at Six Apart asked me for my ten favorite blogs for their Top Ten column on Blogs.com.  It was too hard to narrow it down to just ten favorites, so I focused the list on my guilty pleasures -- and yes, I DO love the meteorologists' blog posts on the Weather Channel web site.  I just wish we heard more from my Weather Channel boyfriend, Jim Cantore.  Sigh....

Is there really an Alinea movie in the works?   No clue if this is really happening, but for fun, go ahead and make your casting recommendations here in the comments.  I think Matthew Modine could play TK, Edward Norton is a shoo-in for Chef Achatz, and I think Lauren Graham or Leighton Meester should play me... because you know I'm going to have to find a way be written into the script as the-spunky-ingenue-who ever-so-slightly-channels-Gladys-Kravitz.  Or, feel free to suggest ideas for awesome plot twists (Achatz as Bond!  Achatz opens a day care with Ben Affleck, hilarity ensues!) or celebrity cameos (Don Rickles sous vides Jack Klugman).  I don't know.  Clearly, I am sick and my funny bone is suffering.

And, it's not online, but a special thanks to Claire Tansey and her editors at Canadian House & Home for including Alinea At Home in their January 2009 trends issue.  It's a beautiful magazine, and I'm beyond thrilled to be included.  As thanks, I will no longer refer to Canada as "America's Hat."  You're welcome.

Be back soon..

Alinea Book


  • I'm cooking my way through the Alinea Cookbook. Because I can. I think.


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