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Thursday, October 2, 2008

Alinea cookbook launch: burning leaves and shattered glass

Posted By on 10.02.08 at 12:32 PM

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Last night I tagged along with Mike Nagrant to the Alinea cookbook release party at the Wired NextFest wigwam in Millennium Park. Unlike some other recent food-related (vaguely) shindigs thereabouts, this one was was pretty smashing. Things got off to a comical start when Grant Achatz took the stage for a cooking demo, and the AV techs in the "gallery of the future" couldn't get his headset mike to work. And then, just as he got started on "Pheasant, Shallot, Cider, Burning Oak Leaves"--a dish meant to evoke childhood memories of autumn--he was interrupted by a prolonged cascade of shattering glass coming from offstage.

As the tinkling died away he said "As the chef of a restaurant that sound is the equivalent of nails on a blackboard."

And then CRASH! it happened again and he stepped away to investigate. Yuks all around.

Things got back on track as he explained how to sous vide the pheasant breast with butter and herbs, how to cube a tray of cider gel, skewer the bits on some beautiful red oak leaves, procured from the restaurant's florist, dip them in tempura batter, fry, and then torch the leaves. Someone cranked up a big fan to blow the smoke over the audience as Achatz explained how this dish used to infuriate Alinea's manager, because it would leave ash stains all over the chairs. But "People would actually smell that and start to cry," he said. "It did exactly what we wanted to do--transport them back."

Then, while Achatz, deposited himself on sofa to inscribe books, the audience dispersed to five tasting stations to sample some bites including "Bacon, Butterscotch, Apple, Thyme" and a fantastic, explosive, fabricated juice-filled Concord "grape" on a spoon of yogurt (being assembled above).

It was a big night for Nagrant too, who has a nice essay in the book (along with practically every other publication on the planet). It's an origin story of an early Achatz signature dish developed when he was still at Trio: the fragile, Black Truffle Explosion; "like experiencing a water balloon fight in your mouth."

I haven't yet had time to do much more than leaf through this massive, lavish, gorgeous five-and-a-half pound tome, and I imagine this is just the first ripple of what will be a tidal wave of food media coverage on it, but anyone who thinks Achatz is overexposed has lost his capacity for amazement.

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