How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Science Food

Michael Nagrant / 09.17.08

for Marco Pierre White

A sip of liquid soul: caramel corn at Alinea.
(pic courtesy of Lara Kastner and Alinea)

The phrase, “Molecular Gastronomy” is a meaningless construct. From, the roasting of lamb schwarma at a kebab shack to the baking of a soufflé at a temple of haute cuisine, most cooking is molecular. Frying an egg in a cast iron skillet southern grandmother style is molecular gastronomy. Heating a raw egg breaks the molecular bonds of proteins in the yolk, allowing these proteins to unfold so they can bond with other surrounding proteins until the runny yolk becomes solid.

People use the phrase, not for its essential truth, but because they like the syllabic consonance, the sonorous “r’s” rolling into each other. They also use the phrase because it taps a part of basic humanity, our fear of new concepts. In the culinary world, this is nothing new. It’s part of the same cycle that initially vilified cooks like the Troisgros brothers and their Nouveau cuisine or Charlie Trotter, who was once considered a reckless fusionist. Today, these same folks prey on a good deal of the population’s horrid memories of bare survival in high school chemistry or biology by dubbing what a current generation of cooks do as “science food” because it makes great copy.

While fearmongering sells and fascinates, it also inspires knee jerk reactions, a hunkering down, and sometimes an outright rejection of logic. Chef Grant Achatz of Alinea actually calls what he does postmodern cooking. When I’d first heard that, I thought the problem with some of postmodernism is that it often reinforces or mimics the alienation of the world, leaving us more cold and unsettled than we were before. Food at its worse has always been basic sustenance, and at its best, comfort and amusement for the soul. Combining postmodernism with culinary technique, it seemed to me, threatened these connections.

Looking at this so called science-like culinary movement through the prism of others, I’d thought even if the goal of post-modern cooking was to amuse or inspire, it ended up alienating. I’d thought that the proponents of this movement were going too far. When I first heard about transglutaminase, aka “meat glue”, I postulated that you could theoretically make a 21st century turducken by bonding a piece of quail to a piece of turkey to create a “quirkey.”

I was not alone. Others branded Achatz’s cooking as novel gimmickry. Some of these critics rebelled, holding up the pristine beauty of a sun dappled heirloom tomato or a candied striped beet as the alternative. They argued that at old school stalwarts like Chez Panisse, chefs don’t get in the way of nature and seasonality, they showcase it. And against this standard, Alinea and Achatz’s cooking was even sometimes dubbed soulless. Like me, though, many of these critics had never eaten the food or spoken with the chef. I think maybe, all they needed to do was eat at Alinea once to discover the truth

After my first dinner at Alinea, I knew that given an unlimited supply of money, I wanted to come back every night, so I wouldn’t miss a move. I was almost willing to give up eating at other restaurants because of the potential for innovation in every bite on every night. The innovation was only partially responsible for my fervor. The real reason I fell in love with Achatz’s cuisine, was the way it stirred my emotion and redefined the idea of certain ingredients for me.

I remember a dish of trout roe with pineapple foam square, coriander cream, and cucumber gel. I haven’t had the salty buttery trout roe since my first meal at Alinea three years ago, but the individual grains still pop like buttery bubbles in my brain. Instead of serving the usual boric acid adulterated Beluga or Osetra caviar which has been sitting in a tin for who knows how long, the trout eggs in this preparation, pure briny glistening orange orbs, were five days removed from the fish, cured only in sea salt and water.

In this dish I recognized that while Chef Achatz was truly an original, he also believed in the lessons of the past. For me, the combo of sweet, savory, creamy, and salty conjured very closely Thomas Keller’s Oysters and Pearls, a dish from Achatz’s French Laundry sous-chef days. The importance of pure flavor and finesse was also articulated in a single coriander seed, the most intensely spicy and floral coriander I ever had. This was as close to the land as it got, the discrimination to find a seed and roe of such quality meant that flavor, the farmer and the fisherman, were just as, if not more important, in the cuisine at Alinea as they were at local/sustainable farm to table style restaurants.

If anything, farm to table restaurants didn’t go far enough. I didn’t grow up on a farm or even in a particularly food conscious family. I had no idea what an heirloom tomato was or that there were fixed seasons for certain ingredients until my early twenties. I did grow up in southeastern Michigan, where every fall was punctuated by family trips to Blake’s cider mill in Armada. I remember dipping cinnamon cake donuts into the nutmeg spiced fresh apple cider while chloryphyll receded from the trees, leaving a burnished canopy of bronze, orange and yellow leaves.

When I first had Achatz’s dish of tempura battered pheasant, cider gelee, and shallot skewered on a branch of burning oak leaves, the smoldering leaves with their ashy orange glowing embers brought all that back. Not only that, but I could recall smells that weren’t even in the room, like the omnipresent petrochemical funk from the flame retardant rubber Batman costume I wore trick or treating in 1983 (Adam West gray and blue, not black codpiece and rubber nipple style Michael Keaton). At Alinea, they didn’t just evoke the idea of a season through ingredients, for which I had no frame of reference, but they evoked real and personal memories of seasons past.

Even when I thought Alinea failed at stirring my emotions, they had really succeeded. In one dish, Dover sole pieces were served with cauliflower, banana spears, and dehydrated brown butter, caper, parsley, and lemon powders. The piece of fish was fresh and cooked on point, but I didn’t love the dish. Though the powders were clearly more intense in flavor, I felt like I’d rather have real parsley and lemon because I preferred the original textures.

The neat trick of the dish though was that you’d take the moist piece of sole and dredge it in the powders to pick up flavor. It was unmistakably a savory adult version of Fun Dip candy. I grew up half a block from a 7-11, and much to the chagrin of my parents, a good deal of my allowance was spent on Atomic Fire Balls, sports cards, Everlasting Gobstoppers, Peppermint Patties, and entirely too much tongue staining Fun Dip.

I thought about many of these ideas in 2005 when I first dined at Alinea. At that time I was an e-commerce/web design manager, with no notion or even a goal of being a food writer. Today, working on the Alinea cookbook, pulling back the curtain so to speak, I was concerned that the kitchen techniques would lose their soul touching punch. That didn’t happen.

Though I grew up in Michigan, I always joke that you’ll have to pry Chicago from my cold dead hands. There are many reasons, but most of my love for the city has been culled because of particular moments, listening to breathy jazz and blown-out bop at the Green Mill or the hazy Hendrix blues riffing of Melvin Taylor at Rosa’s Lounge. I love inhaling the waft of jalapeno and masa at our late night taquerias, or walking through the underbelly of the Fulton Market corridor, watching the last of the meatpackers and fishmongers clutching with sinewy hands to the “Hog Butcher to the World” moniker.

One of my favorite Chicago traditions is waiting in the long lines at Garrett’s popcorn on Michigan Avenue for a fresh batch of caramel corn in the middle of winter. Many people, especially food writers, make fun of this ritual as a tourist occupation, but it’s a staple of my city dwelling. When you walk out into a frigid December night with your treasure, hot freshly popped corn bathed in butter and real caramel, steam rises from the waxy bag holding this tasty treat and the whole thing becomes a portable space heater for greedy hands. One night while watching the cooks work at Alinea, sous chef Jeff Pikus brought me a new bite, a shooter of “caramel popcorn”. One sip conjured the wax bag, my sticky hands dripping with caramel, and the glinting lights on the Magnificent Mile.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Many visiting cooks have seen the soul and the classic roots that run through Alinea. Precisely because of their use of new techniques and “science”, Alinea has been a magnet for interns, stages, and recent culinary school grads. Young cooks ready to take over the world or add to their growing arsenal of techniques enter the kitchen juiced up, ready to glean every new idea. And yet, while there’s plenty of opportunity for learning new things, some of these cooks end up disappointed. Achatz says, “We get stages in here who plan to spend a week, and by the second day, they leave.”

It’s not because there are smoking test tubes running through centrifuges and goggled chefs shooting lasers at one another. There aren’t. It’s not because these cooks can’t relate to some weird chemical reaction. Rather, things are too familiar. The prep at Alinea, like separating thousands of seeds from fruity pulp, or making hundreds of cuts to achieve a 1/8” brunoise of butter for the Hot potato dish, is more culinary school than culinary school itself. The veal stock roiling away on the backburner comes from the French Laundry recipe. The pasta dough recipe for Black Truffle explosion is from an Italian grandmother, and rolled by hand every day from flour and egg. There are no chemicals involved, just the dexterity of the hand, and the soul of the chef.

Anthony Marty, a graphic designer, and a frequent Alinea diner, once told me certain foods were redefined for him by eating at Alinea. For example, if he ate bacon at a diner or in a “normal” preparation, he said he was almost disappointed that he wasn’t eating the bacon coiled in butterscotch with ribbon-like shreds of apple leather, a confetti of thyme, Australian Murray River sea salt and pepper, that he’d been served at Alinea. Achatz’s version was so good, that it became the standard for what Marty thought bacon should be.

I understood this. One night I had some guava foam at Alinea, an emulsification of aerated guava juice and gelatin, topped with a sprinkle of lime zest. The intense guava burst, the unfamiliar cloud-like form, and the sour pucker intensified by the zest in this dish was the only way I ever wanted to experience guava again. Hand squeezed juice wasn’t nearly as flavorful or delightful enough. Achatz cooking not only stirred memories, but it redefined previous memories and established a new baseline idea of ingredients. Sometimes he had to use science to do it, but, damn, if there wasn’t a whole lot of soul involved too.

A note: I spent some time in the Alinea kitchen and restaurant last Fall and Winter in order to produce essays for the forthcoming cookbook and companion website. I wrote this piece to synthesize my experiences observing, tasting, and interviewing the folks involved with the Alinea experience. While it wasn’t written with Marco Pierre White’s recent commentary about long form tasting menus in mind, I feel this essay is an appopriate response addressing the “naturalness” White feels such menus and dining experiences lack.