Fri 5 Jun 2009 11:29 pm
I’m blogging on food books over at The Christian Science Monitor, and this week I took a (virtual) stab at the Alinea cookbook. The short version is that I couldn’t wait to take a look when I first hauled home my copy. I even thought I knew what I was getting into: Hey, I can hold my own around words like “spherification” and “tapioca maltodextrin,” and I thought The French Laundry Cookbook made good bedtime reading. But after just a few pages, I knew this book was something else. What, I wasn’t sure — I had to connect with some specialists. First came art critic Regina Hackett, who has a flawless talent for talking about art in a way that makes sense to people both in and out of the professional fishbowl. I thought she might have some thoughts on whether Alinea should be considered art. (Certainly, it’s beautiful.) And then I went on to see the good-hearted guys at Spur, the ones who put the “gastro” in “molecular gastronomy”, to get their take.
The full story is here. If you want more of the details I couldn’t fit into that post, they’re after the jump here. And, after the initial blog post ran, the folks at Alinea sent a thoughtful and classy note, letting me know that they had debated these issues when writing the book, and made their choices deliberately. They also made me want to eat at the restaurant. But I am still no Carol Blymire.
First, Regina. I meant to take her to Taste SAM’s cafe at the Olympic Sculpture Park, but forgot they were closed on Mondays. That’s how we wound up at the Subway up the street, eating tuna subs while we read about bison tenderloin and “beet sheets.” I loved her off-the-cuff, stream-of-consciousness thoughts as she paged through the book for the first time, so I’ll just repeat a few of them here. You’ll have to imagine which pictures she was looking at as she spoke:
“This could sustain you if you didn’t need sustenance. You know, the Japanese have a phrase, to eat with the eyes, and that’s where they’re going. However, the Japanese then proceed to feed you, whereas it looks like they’re just going to leave it to the oracular.”
“This kind of book prepares you to live on the moon. It has nothing to do with us.”
“Is this a waiter in a jacket, looking as haughty as any waiter could? Plus, see his parallel spirit behind him. So this is the look that they’ve endorsed, the haughty white young male. And what does it produce? The illusion of something to eat.”
“I call it meticulous high style for the moneyed classes, for the moneyed classes who want to feel bad, because they do not have what it takes to do justice to this oyster. They don’t. They’d probably find all that foam faintly repellent, reminding them of spit, and then they’re self-conscious, right? And this next (picture) might remind them of a worm, as it’s meant to. They’re not brave enough. They want that small audience confident enough not to be intimidated by the food, and overconfident enough to think they’re worthy of this food, and shallow enough to think that this has any depth.”
“You drag your body in here, and the food says to you, you’re not worthy. Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof…This is food as religion. Your corporeal self with its hungers and desires is so completely insufficient to the experience.”
Regina was, to put it mildly, a thumbs-down. (”I hate this book,” was how she closed the conversation.) So it was on to Spur, where the book got a far warmer reception — as a textbook, and as a source of inspiration.
Dana Tough and Brian McCracken didn’t see the book as one for the home cook, mainly because they thought the recipes required industrial-strength equipment. (The book says home versions can suffice; they’re doubtful.) But for a chef’s purposes, the book was a gift of the highest order. It wasn’t a bible, as far as I could tell, something more like an apprentice getting to browse the lab notebook of a master scientist, then using it as a launching point for their more straightforward experiments. Alinea’s gels, for instance, are firmer than the Spur team likes, so they “took it and messed with it a little bit,” Tough said, telling me a story of a dish that involved gelling and dicing spot prawn stock, pairing it with sweet carrots diced the same size, and sauteeing them. Nothing about the dish shouts “post-modern cooking” to the eyes, and customers might not even notice the technology that went into the food; that there’s something odd about a gelled spot prawn, or at any gel that holds its shape when hot:
”It’s a rich sweet carrot, with sweet, rich spot prawn stock coming through with every bite…If we were going to say “spot prawn jellies, or something like that, people might be thrown off a little bit.”
Here’s just a bit of the team’s own stream-of-consciousness discussion as we looked through the book (likewise, you’ll have to guess at the pictures.)
“There are lots of little techniques like this. It may seem kind of crazy, all these little sauces sitting here…but sauces cut on a template and molded around, it’s inspirational to think about.”
“Something like this doesn’t make sense to me, a stabilized piece of sugar like that — even sugar on this dish, period — but then again, what he’s doing here is all revolutionary…it’s all trying out new things and seeing where he can take food.”
Top Chef gave foam a bad rap. “It’s hard to even have to say ‘foam.’ The nice thing is, you can add such a rich sauce — the flavor of it — but without the rich cloying mouthfeel that’s going to overtake the rest of the dish.”
“You shouldn’t really play around with hydrocolloids if you don’t understand the ingredients themselves. It goes for anything in cooking, you should have a basic understanding of what you’re putting together…If I just came out of culinary school and went straight to Alinea, I wouldn’t have a clear understanding of what the food is, as a basic standpoint. Grant Achatz, he cooked all over the place and decided, ‘This is my style.’ I can respect that.”
The two are going to eat at Alinea for the first time during a Chicago trip in August. I’ll wait for the report back.