Want to cook with Julia Child? You can’t, because, God rest her beautiful, French gourmetâ€“cooking soul, she’s dead. But maybe the next closest thing (and seemingly as unlikely) would be holding down the kitchen line alongside the No. 1 chef in America (according to Gourmet magazine and the James Beard Foundation), Alinea’s Grant Achatz.
On May 22, the gastronomic sorcerer known for his tech-inspired cuisine tossed off the following tweet: â€œAlinea is looking for cooks. If you or anyone you know is interested please email firstname.lastname@example.org.â€
This is the culinary equivalent of the 2005 White Sox holding an open tryout for the fifth starting-pitcher spot (although with pitcher Gavin Floyd’s miserable record, that approach might do the hapless South Side squad a world of good).
Though he’s amassed a deep file of rÃ©sumÃ©s over the years, Achatz turned for the first time to the burgeoning social-networking medium Twitter, he says, for its instant focus and reach. â€œI have over 4,000 followers, most of which are in the industry in some fashion. The tweet was re-tweeted over 50 times. If you do the math, the call for cooks was broadcast to over 20,000 people, likely all of which are the most viable potential applicants.â€
Achatz says he has already received 363 rÃ©sumÃ©s. He whittled down the field with the same scrupulousness that’s made Alinea a must-dine destination. â€œA few of them explained [in a cover letter] how focused they were on attention to detail and then go on to murder the language,â€ he says. One applicant spelled rÃ©sumÃ© as resumemayâ€”an â€œimmediate out,â€ Achatz says. An â€œimmediate inâ€ was a candidate endorsed by Albert AdriÃ , co-owner of renowned Spanish restaurant El Bulli.
The 47 lucky applicants moving on to round two will undergo a two-day trial at Alinea, performing tedious, albeit essential tasks: de-stemming rosemary (leaf by little leaf) during prep, for instance, or using tweezers throughout the dinner service to place a micro-herb on a plate as a final garnish. These chores, Achatz says, â€œferret out right away the cooks that have the misconception that Alinea is some mystical-futuristic kitchen enveloped in a fog of creativity on a daily basis.â€
Achatz gives the candidates who don’t fail or quit an Iron Chefâ€“like assignment: Make a component of the night’s staff meal with a specific set of ingredients, directions and a strict deadline. â€œThis is simple food compared to normal Alinea fare, but if they can produce something seasoned well, cooked properly, in a timely fashion and under orderly standards, it is likely they will be a good cook in any environment.â€
In a kitchen where each spoon points in the same direction, the floor gets vacuumed every half hour and the way you set down your work towel undergoes intense scrutiny, some obsessive-compulsive chief surgeons might fail to hit the mark. Which is why dewy-eyed, recession-hit career changers need not apply.â€œPeople think Alinea is this calm, almost academic-style workplace, where each cook is nurtured and guided on the latest techniques in modern gastronomy. Alinea is not a graduate school for cooking in that way,â€ Achatz says, adding that his restaurant’s kitchen probably has more in common with the â€œcommand-and-response protocolâ€ of the military than academia.
â€œOnce people see what it is really like to work at Alinea,â€ he says, â€œtwo things happen: They are either raptured by passion and focus, or they run the other way.â€
This article first appeared in Time Out Chicago in a different form.