The Problem of Free Will Comes to Alinea

In a recent post for his blog on The Atlantic’s Food Channel, Grant Achatz discussed how he discourages “free will” in his diners, preferring to control all aspects of an Alinea guest’s experience to maximum culinary and artistic effect. To heighten the lack of control diners have during the majority of the meal, Achatz has recently started playing with the idea of introducing discrete areas in which choice is involved — specificially, by allowing the table to select various adjectives from a card, from which the kitchen will produce a dish that the diners have “chosen.”

Economist-about-town Tyler Cowen takes Achatz’s intellectualization of choice in the dining room to a new academic plane, saying “I am interested in the issue of the efficient delegation of choice. So very often the theatrical presentation of “the feeling of being in control” conflicts with the efficient delegation of choice. If I ran a restaurant I would be embarassed by this practice, not proud of it.

Ah, but Cowen is wrongy-wrong-wrong wrong:

The thing is, the subjective sensory experience of a meal at a restaurant like Alinea is not something that should measured on any scale by its efficiency (in fact, when we think of “efficiency in the kitchen” our mind is flung the opposite direction, to packaged-sausage monstrosities concocted by the Rachael Rays and Sandra Lees of the world).

It could be argued (and hey, watch us do it) that the decision to dine at Alinea is where the choice in this transaction occurs. Take the long-lead reservation time, the need for a credit card deposit, and the high price point for even the most inexpensive menu option, and it’s highly unlikely that anyone sits down for dinner unaware of what they’re getting into. And, given that, we don’t imagine that many of the restaurant’s hundred or so covers a night feel resentment at having their ability to make decisions taken away from them for a few hours. Along similar lines, we don’t show up at the theater and ask a playwright to rejigger the script just because we’re in the mood for comedy that night instead of drama — but Cowen seems to think we ought to have that right.

Perhaps most importantly, though, we suspect there’s something to be said for the fact that what you’re paying for at Alinea isn’t just nourishment and some table rent — it’s the very experience of giving over your “free will” to Achatz and his team. For those hours, you’re living in Grant’s world: tasting what he wants you to taste, smelling what he wants you to smell, feeling what he wants you to feel. As we’ve said before, visiting Alinea isn’t dinner — it’s art. If Cowen wants to make his own dinner decisions, we know a different restaurant that would be happy to have him.

Making Dining Complicated [Marginal Revolution]
Experiential Dining: Japan to America [Achatz/TAF]
[Photo: xmatt/Flickr]

The Problem of Free Will Comes to Alinea