It's an hour before the evening's first customers will arrive at Eleven Madison Park. The regular dining room music has been turned off for service, and Grant Achatz, a chef whose restaurants are 800 miles away, walks through the dining room with a large steel bowl filled with dark cinnamon sticks balanced at his waist. Achatz crouches over a lineup of pumpkins at the entrance and arranges the cinnamon into the top compartment of a thin, rectangular metal box. He lights a dozen small votive lamps and arranges them into the space beneath the tray. Immediately, the cool air is pumping with spice smells. "It takes an incredible amount of trust to do this," says Daniel Humm, watching from the side. "I don't know if there's even another chef or team we could do this with."
This, as you probably know, is Alinea's temporary residence at Eleven Madison Park. Last November, Humm and Achatz decided Alinea would bring its kitchen and floor staff to Eleven Madison Park for five days in the early fall, and then they'd switch. The chefs and their business partners gave the culinary supergroup a name, 21st Century Limited. They filmed a promo video and sold out a small amount of fixed-price tickets within in a matter of days. The first half of the experiment, with its five nights of wafting cinnamon, started on Wednesday.
"We asked ourselves if we were too busy to even try, and we realized we are always going to be working on many things," says Daniel Humm, the chef who opened the NoMad earlier this year and finished overhauling most every aspect of Eleven Madison Park just a few weeks ago. "Now," he says, smiling, "is the perfect time for this."
Humm and partner Will Guidara, who runs front-of-house at both restaurants, were on their Eleven Madison Park book tour last November when they first teamed up with Achatz and his business partner Nick Kokonas for a one-off hors d'oeuvres and cocktail party at Aviary. Even this event was a logistical challenge for teams from both restaurants. "But as soon as it was over," says Guidara, "we started asking each other how we could do it more often. We're really all such great friends."
Tonight, Eleven Madison Park's white roses and precision topiary have been replaced by hay bales and a few hundred pounds of oak and maple leaves trucked in from Michigan, the state where Achatz was born. "The trees change color sooner there," says Kokonas, who adds he bought two rakes from the Home Depot down the street for easy cleanup but wishes he could have rented a gas-powered blower to clear out the dining room, suburban-dad-style, after service.
Around the same time the 21st Century Limited ticket sales went live, Achatz's team set up a password-protected blog containing ingredient diagrams, menu progressions, and even video demonstrations of the restaurant's plating techniques. This was set up and circulated to Eleven Madison's cooks. Achatz decided to include some of the dishes that made Alinea famous in its early days, swooping, wiry constructions that made it seem like a crispy piece of bacon had gotten caught and fried in some overhead lines.
Eleven Madison sent kitchen blueprints, measurements, and technical specs like the base height and diameters of the dining room tables. Alinea sent an advance team to take hundreds of photos and measured the traveling times between the salamanders and blast chillers, for example. It was like something from a bank-heist movie. "We cased the joint," Achatz says.
That was just the beginning of the advance prep that went into the project. Another example: Because they couldn't bring Alinea's artwork, but still wanted to evoke its décor, Achatz devised a way for the tablecloths to be peeled away mid-meal to reveal an acrylic on canvas painting that also matched the color schematic of a corn-and-huitlacoche course that would be served at the same time. Cooks took lessons from the artist Thomas Masters and would come into work on their days off to paint the tablecloths, the same way they'd paint a plate with sauces. That's twenty or so food components for that one course, a custom glass plate, hours of art instruction, a lot of the cooks' free time, and 30 or so limited-edition tablecloths. All for a salad that may take four minutes to eat.
A few cooks drove a 45-foot-long U-Haul for two days filled with enough appliances and custom serving pieces to feed 23 courses to 80 people a night for five nights in a row. "Everything that was Alinea we packed up," says Achatz. That includes the restaurant's chef de cusine, Matt Chasseur, and sous chef Simon Davies. Rene De Leon, the sous chef at Next who had worked as Alinea's expeditor, was asked "to come out of retirement" and work the pass for the 21st Century Limited's New York leg. Most of the staff flew into JFK, and Will Guidara booked the team a block of rooms at the NoMad hotel.
Their first night together, Guidara treated both teams to dozens of pizzas from Grimaldi's, Lombardi's, and Artichoke Basille's to cap off Tuesday's sixteen-hour training session. When a run-through finished at 2:30 a.m. the next night, it was Nick Kokonas's turn. "Bring up enough Champagne and glasses, and let's all have a toast," he said. A line cook told Kokonas they weren't allowed to drink at work. "Ah, but tonight you are," Kokonas said. "It's our restaurant for a week."
We spent a night in the kitchen seeing exactly how it all came together. Check out our slideshow, straight ahead.