While leaning against the enormous glass windows of the H+M on Chicago’s North Michigan Avenue with my brother-in-law Aaron, waiting for my sisters to try on God knows what inside, Vince Vaughn, his wife, and an entourage of his buddies lazily walked past us, no further than an arm’s length away.
That was the least-exciting moment of this past weekend for me.
This past Friday night, my sisters, my brother-in-law, Sarah, and myself had dinner at Alinea. I’d made the booking for our table, unbeknownst to any of them, several weeks before my freelance project for Next ever came into my life. Over the course of the project, though, I couldn’t help but mention that we would be in town; this was mostly because I badly wanted to put faces to the emails I’d been wildly trading with Nick and Martin and hoped proximity might afford that opportunity.
I’ll kill the suspense here by saying up front I have no intention of writing up a big blow-by-blow critique of the meal, for several reasons. First, I’m not a food critic by any stretch. Also, mentioning every course and scrutinizing it publicly does a disservice to the entire experience; it’s meant to be a surprise for the diner, an edible Cirque du Soleil-like spectacle, and I wouldn’t want to ruin the efforts of the restaurant by dissecting their magic. But mostly I feel like what we experienced transcended ‘stupidly awesome’ over into ‘something indescribably perfect’ for me, and it’s made me feel reverent and protective of things because of the sheer specialness of it.
I also managed to keep my camera tucked away for the majority of the meal; this was predictably difficult for me. This blog is meant to be a photographic exploration of my own attempts to cook this kind of food, but Chef Achatz’ recent thoughtful commentary about cameras at Alinea was something I found thought-provoking and considered. I knew I would be walking into something that would be even more special for me now than it was my first time there, and I wanted to make sure I didn’t experience it through a lens.
We were greeted just after 7 by a cute girl with a nose piercing whose name escapes me (I tried to ask as many names as I could). Her friendliness and smile immediately put my sisters at ease, who weren’t sure what they were getting into and immediately snapped into ‘tense best behavior’ mode upon pulling up in front of the stark black facade of 1723 N. Halstead (I’d told them we were going out for Mexican…”nice mexican, so dress up ladies”). The girl wasted no time blowing our minds by quietly saying “The chef has requested to meet you all before your meal this evening, if you could all follow me into the kitchen please.” We were given a brief overview of the kitchen, but Chef must have been busy elsewhere because he didn’t show up, so after a few minutes we were whisked to our table. There was a flurry of service staff helping seat us, and a few minutes later another girl, this one with fiery red hair and awesome glasses named Emily, introduced herself and informed us that Chef wanted to welcome us with a few cocktails. Seconds later, a parade of staff members sat several pedestal pieces in front of us, each garnished with a familiarly-unrecognizable ‘cocktail’ (Bloody Mary, Sazerac, a Hurricane, several others). The magic had begun.
A few minutes later, after we’d enjoyed our cocktails and we’d all had a chance to reach the full giddy-ness level of our excitement, a man with tousled long hair appears at our table, throws me a point and casually says “Hey, you’re probably Allen, right?” I nodded, a little confused, and he enthusiastically reassures me: “I’m Nick!” I freak; the only photos I’d seen of Nick were in the Alinea cookbook, and I didn’t recognize him tonight. I’m immediately comfortable around him; he has a warm smile and a casual way about him as he greets us all and asks how long we’re in town, wondering if we might have time later in the weekend to get together for a drink and a chat (!). I ask him to sit and join us, but he knowingly declines, saying that it’s not the same for him having dinner at Alinea, he knows how the magic is done, and he doesn’t want to take away from our experience tonight. I know exactly, exactly how that works, Nick; visual effects artists are terrible movie dates.
Emily brings us some sparkling champagne to enjoy before we get started (Sarah pounded her glass pretty quickly before I remind her that we have 26 courses to go, so pacing is of paramount importance here), and we anticipate with excitement the meal ahead.
Then, head low, long white apron lightly dusting the ground as he strides focused and purposefully through the restaurant, in and out of sparse pools of light, Grant Achatz walks into our room. He surveys us briefly, steps over to me, and shakes my hand.
“You guys hungry tonight?”
I’m speechless, and I’m positive I look like a complete idiot at this point.
“Awesome, well, we’ve got some special stuff to share with you tonight, so enjoy ok?”
And with that, the show begins.
Like I said before, I’m not going to dissect each course. Almost everything was new to me, though excitingly there were a few dishes I’d made from the book, and it was absolutely thrilling to taste them at Alinea and recognize that I’d gotten them almost exactly right on my own. There is one course, though, that represented the pinnacle of the meal for me; this is the photo I thought to take after I’d eaten it:
As the staff contemporaneously sat the plates in front of us, Emily prepared to introduce it to us. Our eyes were on her when we heard a throat clear, and we turned to see Chef Achatz at the end of our table. “I got this one, Emily” he smiled at her.
The dish was “Lamb, Reflections of Elysian Fields Farm”. It’s a farm in Pennsylvania that raises lamb of the quality deemed desirable by Chef Achatz, as well as Thomas Keller’s French Laundry. The dish featured several manipulations of lamb, which was presented surrounded by the very elements the lamb had been surrounded by on the farm at which it was raised. Crispy fried chive blades were nested on the plate, the same chives that the lamb had grazed on. There were blueberries from a blueberry patch on the farm, manipulations of corn grown on the farm, and a small twig of fragrant, incredibly-tender and vital spruce from the trees that line the farm. “This is the first time we’re serving this dish at Alinea”, Chef smiled at us.
The understanding that we were the beta testers for this dish, which was saturated with extreme sensitivity and consideration for every single tiny ingredient (even moreso than that of the rest of his dishes), was such a special moment for me that it nearly moved me to tears as Chef was presenting it. It took me forever to eat it, because I didn’t want it to end, because I wanted to study and appreciate every detail that he had so-thoughtfully considered. I was completely and utterly overwhelmed. It was delicious, as delicate as the moment itself, and absolutely perfect.
The rest of the meal rolled on; nearly 6 hours in total for all 26 courses. Our wait staff was impeccable. At one point, Aaron accidentally knocked over a glass of water. Before the water had reached the other side of the table, 5 staffmembers had swooped silently and precisely to clean it up, replace his glass, and refill his water in a matter of seconds. Emily was funny and forgiving in spite of the fact that I scrutinized every single course, threatening to ruin surprises just from peering into and under service pieces that they intended for me not to play with. About halfway through the meal, the staff noticed us having trouble motoring through the larger courses; we were already getting full, and were regarding the next courses with a mixture of fear and excitement. The staff adjusted brilliantly, slowing the pace noticeably and allowing us to get second winds enough to enjoy the rest of the meal to its fullest potential despite knowing that doing so would extend their already-insane workday by another hour or two as a result.
A couple sitting near our table announced at the beginning of their meal that their dietary restrictions were “they really didn’t like onions”. A few courses into the meal, they were presented with a dish that Sarah had already deemed her favorite, involving Shad Roe, shallot and mustard. The girl at the table recoiled in disgust and threatened to refuse to eat it, reminding the staff that she “just really, really STRONGLY dislikes onions”. Sarah’s gaze was as acidic as I’ve ever seen during this; she strongly dislikes onions as well, and I’ve learned to cook largely without them in our kitchen. She also despises mustard. Yet, in the hands of Alinea, these two reviled ingredients became part of her favorite dish. That she overlooked her own assumptions and prejudices to allow herself to be placed into the hands of this adventure is one of the many reasons I love her so much, and I was equally frustrated with the sensibilities of this picky couple, which extended throughout their meal. It led me to realize that people come to this place with wildly different expectations. Commandeering control of the menu based solely on ill-formed personal tastes and a sense of entitlement from paying for the meal is like going to a John Lennon concert and telling him not to play Imagine because you strongly dislike the piano. We didn’t come to Alinea to critique or exercise control; we came to relinquish it and be dazzled. Kudos to the entire staff for dealing with guests like this with deft grace and aplomb.
For our final course, Chef returned one last time to greet us, along with the Chef de Cuisine of Alinea, Dave Beran, whose twitter feed I follow and who has answered questions for me graciously on the Alinea Mosaic. I’m sure he had zero idea who any of us were, but I still gazed at him wide-eyed as he and Chef Achatz worked on our dessert; these guys are rock stars. They assembled the incredibly-complex dessert on the table itself, drawing a map-like illustration from chocolate, coconut cream, menthol, and more chocolate with stunning precision. This performance was what portable camcorders are made for, but again I refused to invade the moment with a camera (it was tough).
As we left, I thanked each of our service staff for their insanely awesome skills and stamina. Near the exit, I asked if it would be possible to have a very quick photo with the Chef. He unhesitatingly agreed, “Come on into the kitchen, this is where it all happens.” It might reassure you to know that I did get a photo with him where I’m smiling more normally and don’t look like a 4-year-old who’s just opened an Optimus Prime on Christmas morning. We had a few moments to chat about the public reaction to the Next announcement and how big a pain international relocation is before I thanked him one last time.
6 hours later, and we were done.
My sisters, Aaron and I awoke early the next morning; we were all too high on adrenaline and excitement from the night before to sleep in, and all of us wanted to excitedly relive it.
One of my sisters is a clinical pharmacist, the other is a forensic pathologist. The three of us are incredibly fortunate in that we work in high-level careers where there is no shortage of people to look up to or be inspired by. They both remarked, though, that while they’re used to working with very, very smart people, the experience at Alinea was the first time they’d each felt as though they were in the presence of a true genius.
I smiled knowingly; that exact sentiment is what’s driven this entire project for years now. Equally-satisfying to the dinner itself was that the people I love ‘get it’.
On the heels of the amazing evening at Alinea was meeting Nick on Saturday with Sarah for a glass of wine. When we greet each other again, he glances at me up and down a time or two, just enough to make me second-guess my decision to wear my Tron shoes, before settling into chatting. The comfort I glimpsed the night before when I met him is immediately reinforced; he has a casual way of speaking that makes me feel like we’ve known each other forever. He’s hilarious, honest, and inspiring as he speaks about his life leading up to his current involvement with Alinea and Next. He drops comments like “I’m kind of uncomfortable if I think I know what I’m doing”, which are the kind of casual witticisms incredibly smart people make and which slide nicely into the mental portfolio of ideas I keep of people I find inspiring. I feel like he’d get along with the rest of my friends really well.
Every so often, I take a trip to South Bend to talk with students about being a visual effects artist. They didn’t have a program for this when I was there as a student, so I feel strongly about trying to contribute back to the school in a meaningful way to help students who are interested have a resource they can tap for it. I was joking with a friend recently, though, that every time I go I tend to go on these meandering reflections about where I’m at on my journey as an artist. Really, all the students want to know is what steps to take to get into the position I’m in, and I go in and spout all this abstract thought to them that just frustrates and confuses them. My friend laughed “It’s kinda true though; it doesn’t really matter what they do, as long as they do the shit out of it. Good things always seem to come from that.”
I spent all day driving back to Kentucky today reflecting on the weekend. For most of that time, I felt…bad?…in an indescribable way. I think it’s largely because it felt that my dinner experience was meant to be a ‘thank you’ for the small bit of work I did for the Next trailer. What troubled me was that I felt it was completely disproportionate; it felt like me buying a coke for someone and them thanking me by painting me a cathedral. I told myself the entire time I was working on the trailer that I was doing this solely because it’s an awesome story. The opportunity to contribute to something that I’d gotten so much satisfaction from was payment enough; the dinner was just so awesome that I felt oddly guilty or undeserving.
But then I realized something. Achatz and Nick are clearly guys who are just doing the shit out of something. And it’s awesome. And I’m doing the shit out of things too: being a vfx artist, this Alinea project, I sort of can’t help myself. Watching someone do that is fun. They got to watch me do it up for the trailer; maybe this weekend was them saying “We had fun watching you do your thing; your turn to have fun watching us do ours.” I like the thought of this mutual artistic respect, and hope there could be some truth to it.
One thing I absolutely do know though: my sisters are right. Watching Achatz work and listening to Nick talk means being around genius. Meeting them both and having time to soak up a bit of their personas was refreshing and reassuring; they deserve to be looked at as heroes. These stories are ones I’ll tell my kid, and it makes me happy to know they’ll be stories of inspiration rather than caution.
I wrote something on my other blog a while back about character strengths. In tying this all together, I know one thing I can certainly do well to contribute back to Alinea and all that it represents: I can appreciate the shit out of it.
Join the discussion 2 Comments
OMG HOLY CRAP AWESOME!
This seems like such a perfectly conceived and well deserved night of a lifetime.
Oh yea, you do look like a total dork in the first picture. Bravo!
You are my hero…