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What’s Next?

By May 4, 2010June 26th, 2016Cooking

This is the story of how I got to do something totally, totally awesome.

Shortly after I wrote a recent post about moving to the US, Nick Kokonas emailed me a thoughtful little letter along the lines of “Hey, good luck with your move.” This was, in and of itself, a total mood-booster and excited me all over again to be in contact with him. I realized in the post I hadn’t mentioned that the other end of our move involved me starting work at Pixar; I mentioned this to Nick, and he responded by asking me if I have time for a freelance project in between jobs.

(pause for dramatic effect)

I told him “Eh. I mean, I got this napping thing planned for most of the month that I really don’t want to cut into…”

(pause for laugh track)

I’m kidding. I did not say this to Nick Kokonas, guys. Instead, I totally freaked out, and after failing to find an emoticon to properly convey my excitement at this proposition, responded with a resounding “YUS!”

With this, I was launched into something so surreal that I still can’t quite wrap my head around the reality of it. The first step involved him describing the project to me; to cut to the chase, what we were working on was this; a trailer for a new restaurant being opened by the Alinea guys in Chicago:

The first step in getting started working on this was introducing me to Martin Kastner, who would be doing the bulk of the work for it. Martin Kastner is another culinary hero for me; I’ve got several of his Alinea servicepieces adorning my kitchen shelves, and I’m in awe of this guy’s talent. Being introduced to him for collaborative purposes left me a bit starstruck. One of his first emails to me included something like “Oh yeah I remember you, I sent you some Alinea serviceware once and it got stopped in the mail because the police thought it was bomb-making material”. I’d forgotten about this incident because it happened a year and a half ago, but he was totally right, and I freaked out again that he remembered me so specifically.

Trading creative emails with two icons is a bit of a daunting process. I mean, I’m a professional in my own arena, I’m confident and capable when addressing directors and producers, but this threw me off balance. Not wanting to appear so starstruck that I looked incompetent, I snapped into ‘Serious Bid’ness Mode’. I think I over-corrected a little bit, because Nick joked once about how I might be ‘to professional for them’. I think I handled it ok though; it was absolutely fascinating to settle into my own contribution to the project, and working with Nick and Martin was awesome; they’re both excitable and encouraging, and were very clear in providing feedback and direction.

In the midst of all of this was my move; in between packing boxes, tidying loose ends up at work, and basically trying my best to deal with the emotions of leaving a very good life in New Zealand behind, I was working late at night and early in the morning on shotwork for them. It was the exact right assignment at an exactly inopportune time, but for some reason the extremity of all of it only motivated me more. There have been many times where I’ve daydreamed about washing dishes in the Alinea kitchen just to feel like I was contributing to it in some way that reciprocated how excited it makes me feel. Never in a squillion years would I have imagined actually contributing something that I was good at, though (because Sarah will tell you that I suck at washing dishes anyway).

On one volley of feedback emails, though, something completely insane happened. Nick finished an email with “I’m including Grant here, so he can see our progress”.

Grant Achatz.

I felt my eyes widen on reading that one morning, and I froze. “Oh. Um. I…uh…” This was decidedly not the way I ever expected to breach the point of first contact with Chef Achatz. It rendered me completely speechless. This is like waiting in a mile-long line to meet the Dalai Lama and him suddenly coming up alongside of you and saying “Hi, did you drop this pen?”

Not wanting to get distracted from the task at hand, I tried my best to remain professional. Getting all googly at this point would serve nothing, and I wanted to do a good job for these guys. So I kept on track, continuing the feedback process with Nick and Martin without making a big deal about the fact that Grant Achatz was included in on the conversation. I wrote in a few posts back about how I wouldn’t really know what to say to Chef Achatz if given the chance anyway; I was paranoid about coming off as a creepy fanboy. And honestly, I’ve been on the other end of it, having spoken a few times at my university to excited students (and parents, and random people off the street) and having some of them veer into the creepy zone. But I also think the ‘too cool for school’ nonchalance does a disservice to things; being excited is awesome, and knowing someone is excited about you doing your thing is possibly one of the most rewarding things in life. So striking the right balance was paramount.

A few days before I moved from New Zealand, I found myself emotionally and physically exhausted from packing and saying goodbyes. Late one night I knew I was in just the right frame of mind to try writing Achatz directly, without overthinking myself and without getting too emotionally-invested in writing ‘the right thing’. So I did.

I told him how rewarding and satisfying this project has been (after introducing myself properly), and how special an opportunity I felt this particular one was. It’s not every day a person gets to contribute to the efforts of someone s/he admires, and not just by washing dishes. I ended simply with “Thank you.”

My last night in New Zealand, Chef Achatz responded:

Hi Allen:

Hope your move went well.

Thank you for the kind words and I appreciate you helping us with this project. It is certainly an exciting one.

Off to London for the top 50 restaurant awards. When I return we will be about ready to launch the trailer and announce the new places. I think you will enjoy them very much the next time you are in Chicago.

Thanks again for all your help.


But I’m digressing. There was still work to be done, so work I did. I moved back to the US, continuing work late into the night even after arriving directly from NZ into South Bend, where I gave a series of lectures to students about life as a visual effects artist (which is always great fun when I do it every year or so). I was exhausted and jetlagged, but still needed to press on to meet the impending deadline of May 4, Alinea’s 5th birthday. Perhaps thankfully, I got an email from Nick several days before this, telling me we needed to finish things up early before he left on a business trip. Though I was already operating at top speed, I felt thankful for this because the weekend before the 4th I had plans to go to the Kentucky Derby with my sister, and knew I would be in no condition to be doing any level of artistic work in the midst of that.

So, on April 30th I delivered the last frames of my shots of Hong Kong in the future; flying air traffic, transforming buildings…everything you want from a futuristic city.  Martin and Nick were both graciously thankful, as was I; how many people get to tell a story like this in their lives?! And today, Next is being announced to the world. Check out the FAQ. That’s MY name in there!

Ok, back to the kitchen for me.

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