You don’t have to ask Michael Cirino, the pornstached proprietor of the NYC-based underground dinner group A Razor, A Shiny Knife (ARASK), to drop trou to know he’s got a big set of balls. All you had to do was show up last weekend and experience his 21-course, 8-hour Chicago re-enactment of the Mentor-Protégé dinners Thomas Keller and Grant Achatz held earlier this year to celebrate the publication of their respective cookbooks, Under Pressure and Alinea.
How else could you explain the audacity of five cooks in a humble downtown high-rise kitchen recreating a dinner that originally required almost 40 cooks and a kitchen tricked out like a custom-built Ferrari? Not only that, but those five cooks had never eaten at Alinea, had only seen these dishes in cookbooks or online, and were taking direction from Cirino, who was working from an impromptu two-day stage at Alinea last week.
While 21 courses is daunting enough, some—like “spice cake, persimmon, rum”—required 17 different recipes and 103 ingredients according to the Alinea cookbook. Though they’d been prepping for almost a week (starting last Sunday in Cirino’s Brooklyn kitchen), when I arrived at 3:30pm the afternoon of the first dinner, the current task list taped to the kitchen cabinets still ran three pages long and there were only three hours until guests arrived at 6:30. Frankly, I didn’t think they could pull it off, especially given where they were by late afternoon: A $90 bottle of sauternes intended for dessert service had been mistakenly cooked into a fumet. Lamb parts were being “sous-vided” in a plastic grocery bag–lined bucket on the kitchen floor, and Castano (the chef de cuisine of the operation), sans his usual Cryovac machine, was trying to compress lamb parts together with a roll of saran wrap. A bathroom had been transformed into a walk-in-cooler by virtue of an open window and the sub-zero Chicago night. Expensive infrared thermometers and plates plunked to the floor like icicles from Loop high-rises. A plastic-bodied coffeemaker melted against a hot toaster oven.
It also seemed as though everyone on the crew had spent their lives looking to be somewhere else. Lawyer/pastry chef/venture capitalist Mayur Subbaro told me “I pretty much try to avoid practicing law as much as possible” while he struggled with an overactive broiler on course four: salmon roe, coconut and coriander impaled on a vanilla bean. Cook Akiko Moorman had just given notice at David Chang’s noodle palace Momofuku and was hoping to devote more time to becoming a food writer. Brian Sullivan, resident bread baker and sous vide specialist, was looking to parlay his industrial designer education into becoming the next Martin Kastner, Alinea’s serviceware designer. Cirino, who works as a professional contract negotiator, had never cooked professionally but said, “Growing up in my family, we always cooked, but the dinner was never as important as the process.” Then, as he weighed off some powdered thickening agent for course ten—Achatz’s wild striped bass topped with a chamomile ginger blanket girded by celery and shellfish— he commented, “There’s something inherently more interesting about things measured by the gram than by the pound.”
There’s a sentiment Hunter S. Thompson would love, and no doubt he’d dig this pirate effort, but they weren’t cooking for him. ARASK would have to satisfy the appetites of a woman who’d cried twice during a recent meal at Guy Savoy, a couple of uber-foodie Australian ex-pats, a Red Hen bread baker, and, ironically, one the newest sous chefs from Alinea.
Since this meal was priced at $300 (the Achatz-Keller dinners were $1,500) the ARASK crew technically only had to deliver about 20% of the original experience to be successful. On food alone, they easily delivered at 70% of the original (which I attended), rounding out the other 30% with a unique experience you wouldn’t find in any dining room in the city, not even at the shoestring storefront, a.k.a. Schwa.
Only two dishes—“pumpkin soup with sea urchin sabayon” and “chestnut, quince, chocolate and baked potato” completely missed the mark of the originals. Keller’s soup was silky and had no doubt been run through a strainer forty times while his sea urchin mousse packed incomparable briny, creamy, airy funk. The ARASK crew’s version was underseasoned and rustically thick. For the other dish, the earthiness of Achatz’s melted chocolate and potato ice cream echoed each other perfectly, while the elements of the ARASK version never quite melded.
ARASK’s cornet of salmon, “Hot Potato, Cold Potato,” rose-raspberry transparency and a Concord grape shooter with yogurt and mint were all pitch-perfect examples of the originals. (ARASK’s “Hot Potato, Cold Potato” even featured doppelganger molded wax serving bowls fashioned by Sullivan.) While its lemon-sphere garnish had frozen unexpectedly and never made it to the plate, the deconstruction of lamb was otherwise cooked spot-on and served with an aromatic tableside centerpiece that wafted toasted coffee and fennel seed perfume. Castano gave an impromptu Black Truffle Explosion pasta-making lesson in between courses, and his efforts yielded a respectable version whose only failure was a slightly tougher skin than the Alinea effort.
ARASK even made improvements on some dishes. A whiskey shooter of Johnnie Walker served with the last course of tempura-fried sweet potato, brown sugar and bourbon gelee was as good a pairing as Alinea super-sommelier Joe Catterson’s original Han’s Nittnaus ‘Pinorama” Trockenbeerenauslese. Keller’s “calotte de boeuf”—a medium-rare flank of sous vide cooked beef—was reinterpreted and scented with black truffle by this crew.
Keller’s oft repeated cooking philosophy is “It’s all about finesse.” For ARASK, “It’s all about fun.” Prior to dessert, there was an impromptu hip-hop dance party where half the staff and guests got up and shook their booties to Young Jeezy, Biggie Smalls and Lil’ Wayne.
Once the dinner was over, just short of 3am, an exhausted Cirino slumped in a folding chair while Castano lazed in a couch nearby. The two of them looked like a couple of Blues Brothers, except this time, the familiar Jake and Elwood refrain was: There’s a full bottle of Johnnie Walker Gold, a half pack of leftover dehydrated bacon, its 3:30am, and the Lil’ Wayne is bumpin’…hit it.
This article first appeared in a different form in Time Out Chicago.