So You Think You Can Cook? America’s Top Chef is Hiring

Michael Nagrant / 06.03.09

Want to cook with Julia Child? You can’t, because, God rest her beautiful, French gourmet–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: “Alinea is looking for cooks. If you or anyone you know is interested please email”

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 résumés over the years, Achatz turned for the first time to the burgeoning social-networking medium Twitter, he says, for its instant focus and reach. “I 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.”

Achatz says he has already received 363 résumés. He whittled down the field with the same scrupulousness that’s made Alinea a must-dine destination. “A few of them explained [in a cover letter] how focused they were on attention to detail and then go on to murder the language,” he says. One applicant spelled résumé as resumemay—an “immediate out,” Achatz says. An “immediate in” was a candidate endorsed by Albert Adrià, 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, “ferret 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.”

Achatz gives the candidates who don’t fail or quit an Iron Chef–like assignment: Make a component of the night’s staff meal with a specific set of ingredients, directions and a strict deadline. “This 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.”

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.“People 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,” Achatz says, adding that his restaurant’s kitchen probably has more in common with the “command-and-response protocol” of the military than academia.

“Once people see what it is really like to work at Alinea,” he says, “two things happen: They are either raptured by passion and focus, or they run the other way.”

This article first appeared in Time Out Chicago in a different form.