The point of taking Alinea to New York last month and bringing Eleven Madison Park to Chicago this week was never just to give diners a chance to try something from out of town — after all, those who can afford $495 a plate can, and surely often have, traveled to the other city to eat. In the kitchen, it quickly became clear that for Grant Achatz and Daniel Humm it was about letting your staff see how another restaurant of your caliber operates. Even to the hyperfocused and impeccable Alinea kitchen, EMP brought ideas of how to approach service at a new level of precision.
It started with nearly an hour of scrubbing down every surface and then taping down white linens throughout the kitchen — an act that even chef Humm participated in, and that he said he considers to set the tone for the entire time of service — an act that defines what EMP is for the next several hours. Yet service is far from uptight; Humm is sociable, moving about, tasting, and talking. The approach is totally focused and regimented, yet it seems understanding, and utterly hospitable. At one point they called out “We have a solo diner for one hour,” and our photographer Huge Galdones wondered who could be dropping into this meal for just an hour — Mayor Emanuel? Michelle Obama? It took him a minute to realize that they intended to serve him, course by course in the correct order, as they would any other diner.
With only about a dozen EMP team members for front and back of the house, the team worked quickly to train Alinea team members to do things their way and to feel that they were at EMP in New York, which they did to such a painstaking extent that they even built a bar in one of the dining rooms, since EMP has a bar (and more important, has the feel of a room with a bar in it) and Alinea does not. Though the key role of expediter was taken by one of his staff — Next chef Rene DeLeon — Grant Achatz mostly held back, observing and occasionally speaking softly with Humm.
One example of the differences: many fine restaurants have a practice of “patching,” which is covering up any spill on the tablecloth with a napkin. EMP tends not to patch except in extreme cases, their philosophy being that the guest should feel that it’s okay to relax and occasionally spill something about. So even as they lay down white tablecloths (which they don’t normally use), Alinea staff had to restrain the impulse to patch as white tablecloth restaurants often do— all in the name of somebody else’s philosophy of perfection for its guests.
See what it’s like when two great restaurants come together in our man Huge Galdones’s slideshow, straight ahead.