Dinner at Grant Achatz's Alinea in Chicago is either 13 or 26 courses, only occasionally involves a plate or fork, and sometimes requires culinary science equipment like the -50°F AntiGriddle for preparation.
And now, thanks to the molecular gastronomy restaurant's cookbook released last week, any budding food scientist can recreate the Alinea experience at home—that is, with the help of a vacuum-packaging machine, a dehydrator and specialty ingredients like sodium alginate and potassium citrate, among other things. One thing you won't need is measuring cups or teaspoons—instead, ingredients are measured in grams to ensure home experimenters can get restaurant results.
Even if you're less inclined to weigh food out on a digital scale, the $50 tome, distributed by Ten Speed Press and simply titled "Alinea," is just as much art book as avant-garde cooking guide.
"[The book] is versatile enough to be used by many people: from professional chefs who want to expand their boundaries to the person who simply loves the arts and wants to treat it like a coffee table art book," says head chef and co-owner Achatz, who was named this year's Outstanding Chef at the James Beard Awards, the Oscars of the food world. (Achatz will also be speaking at the upcoming Ad Age/Creativity IDEA conference. Creativity subscribers can enter the code IDEA2008 to get a super exclusive discount rate.)
"We tried to reflect the aesthetic of the restaurant on the page. So the tables of contents reflect the menu composition divided into four seasonal menus. Those are logically cohesive menus; we would actually serve them at the restaurant and they would work brilliantly as a dinner."
Having shopped the cookbook concept around last year, Achatz and his business partner, Nick Kokonas, turned down hefty book advances from big publishers to ensure creative control over the product. Book design went to long-time Alinea collaborator Martin Kastner, the principal of design studio Crucial Detail, who's also created many design elements in the restaurant from its logo and menus to the custom service ware.
Kastner says much of the book's design serves as an unobtrusive stage for strong photography with a wide range of color and composition. Lara Kastner, Martin's wife, shot all the dishes in the book. None of the food featured in the book was styled—every dish emerged from the Alinea kitchen during the last two years. There is also a companion web site, alinea-mosaic.com, with supplementary video, images and additional recipes. Users can create profiles, comment in forums and upload photos of their home creations.
Before opening Alinea, when Achatz was still executive chef at Trio in Evanston, Ill. north of Chicago, he emailed Martin Kastner from a design listing without ever having met him. Achatz said he was a chef looking for someone to design new vehicles for food. Kastner, a blacksmith by trade, was crafting home furnishing like chairs and a double-helix staircase at the time. He had limited experience designing traditional service ware, let alone the unusual forms Achatz had in mind, but asked for a test project.
"He wasn't asking for a plate, or knife and fork," Kastner says. "He was asking for new ways of serving food."
Achatz needed a way to serve frozen hibiscus tea in the form of a popsicle. He wanted a stand and Kastner designed a tripod that doubled as a lollipop stick. Three bent wires pivot inside the tea ice ball, so that the contraption can go from a free-standing tripod to a single handle when the diner grasps it.
That was five years ago and Kastner is now part of the creative team that Achatz believes will grow the Alinea brand organically.
"I liked the idea of fully art directing a restaurant," Kastner says. "There are a lot of conventional solutions we can break from because the restaurant is so unconventional."