MPQ&A: Carol Blymire Of ‘Alinea At Home’

In January 2007, Carol Blymire launched French Laundry at Home, her award-winning blog in which she attempts — and succeeds at — cooking every single recipe in The French Laundry Cookbook armed with little more than her normally-equipped home kitchen, a scathing sense of humor, a formidably stacked iPod playlist, and a small army of neighborhood kids to serve as sous chefs and official tasters.

Believe us when we tell you that we know the French Laundry Cookbook intimately, and Carol’s undertaking blew us — and thousands upon thousands of other loyal readers — out of the water. The complexity of the recipes! The intensity of the instructions! The obscurity of the ingredients! Now, almost two years after beginning, she’s approaching the end of her mission.

…And starting a brand-new one. Soon (very soon!) Carol will be launching Alinea at Home, in which she’ll blog her journey through every single recipe in the forthcoming cookbook Alinea (Ten Speed Press), based on the menu of Chicago’s uncountable-number-of-awards-winning restaurant, Alinea, helmed by James Beard Award-winning chef Grant Achatz. Alinea is poised to be a groundbreaking cookbook in every way: From their industry-bucking publishing model to the book’s interactive companion website, the ink-and-paper Alinea experience looks like it will be as unique as the reservations-and-silverware version.

To say we are jealous of Carol would be a gross understatement. To say we are beside ourself with excitement to have sat down via email for a Q&A; with her would be fairly accurate.

MP: Tackling Alinea after completing The French Laundry feels like a natural progression: Grant Achatz trained under Thomas Keller before striking out on his own. Now you’re intimately acquainted with the techniques and recipes of both chefs — can you see (or taste!) Keller’s influence in Achatz’s cooking?
CB: I definitely see an influence in the playfulness, nuanced nods, and the touchstones to that with which we’re already familiar. As we’ve read now for years, Chef Keller is known for creating dishes that remind him of childhood or other memories, and Grant does the same thing. Just like Keller’s “Coffee & Doughnuts” reminds me of my uncle’s bakery, at Alinea, Grant did a dish based on Chinese takeout — a sheet of gelled Guinness, peanuts, peanut puree, a sous vide short rib, broccoli, and so on… and it reminded me of my freshman year in college and all the Chinese food one of my now best friends and I ordered as we got to know one another those first few weeks. It’s something I hope and think many chefs and cooks feel in some way — that food in any form is evocative and such a primary connection between themselves and the customer.

I also think a major Keller influence is apparent in Grant’s ability to originate and create while staying true to the brand and the business mission — no matter what the industry, any good boss finds the traits and skills inherent in an employee and nurtures them to grow the organization, and then the employee. Sometimes, that means the employee moves on, but that’s a good thing because is means those influences evolve and help shape another organization and its employees. When Grant is in his late 40s and 50s, I’m going to be really curious to see who he has influenced and how or what that person is cooking.

Read the complete interview — the origin story, the critical importance of Thomas Dolby, the restaurants on Carol’s must-visit list, and a lot more — after the jump!

MP: So much of the Alinea experience seems to rely on the innovative presentation: Crucial Detail’s service implements, test tubes, precise plating. Is it scary to try to replicate that at home? Are you going to try? Make the neighbor kids eat morels off of spring-mounted skewers?
CB: You know, before I went to Alinea for dinner in July, I was prepared to roll my eyes at the presentation because I can be a bitchy cynic and I’m not necessarily the most earnest, fawning food writer you’d ever meet. I knew there were some truly original presentations (like sucking foie mousse, fig puree and coffee-flavored tapioca through a tube) and I was really hoping it just wasn’t for show. It’s not. It’s so not.

Here’s what I think: when you go out to dinner in most restaurants, you order from the menu, the server plunks the plate down, and you dig in, knife and fork doing your dirty work, and you chew and swallow, and go on with whatever conversation it was you were having. What I really love about the presentation of every single course at Alinea is that nothing is repeated throughout your dinner there — every serving and service “utensil” is unique. It makes you stop in your tracks and pay attention to what you’re eating. It makes you pause and think about the flavors on your tongue. It makes you think about what you might’ve had before in your life that’s even a little bit like it. But above all, it makes you appreciate the thought and the work that went into it.

So, will I buy every single service piece on the Crucial Detail web site? No. Will I spend some time at kitchen stores and even the hardware store trying to figure out how to make it work on my own? You bet. Because finding a way to make my guests stop in their tracks and suspend the day-to-day noise in all our brains for just a few minutes while we take a bite or have a taste of something new is really important to me, and the plating and service of these dishes helps create that environment.

As for the neighbor kids, they’re not only excited to try this food, they’re also lining up to be my assistants, which will certainly add a fun element to the project. They have been looking at the book every couple of days, and as they turn every page they get more and more quiet and say, “whooooaaaaa” in deep reverence, which is pretty damn cool when you consider they’re 9 and 11 years old. Take that, J.K. Rowling.

MP: But we’re getting ahead of ourselves! Let’s go back to the beginning: How did the whole Alinea At Home thing come into being?
CB: Michael Ruhlman told me a while ago he was working with Grant [Achatz] and Nick [Kokonas, Alinea’s business manager] on the Alinea cookbook, and my reply was, “Oh, wow. Maybe I’ll cook my way through that book next… ha ha HA, I crack myself up!!” to which he replied something about me needing to seek mental-health counseling. I pre-ordered the book last year, and then once I saw the Alinea Mosaic site, then ate at Alinea in July, I was hooked. I knew I had to do this book next. I mentioned to Grant when I met him in July that I wanted to cook my way through his book and blog it, and he was so gracious to send me an early copy. I haven’t been able to put it down. I just hope I can do it justice.

MP: You haven’t posted on Alinea at Home yet, except sort of a teaser of what’s to come. Any idea what recipes you’re going to attack first? Is there a plan of action?
CB: The book is laid out seasonally, so I’ll stick with my original instincts and do it the same way I did French Laundry at Home and cook in the order of what’s in season here in the mid-Atlantic (Carol is based outside of Washington, D.C. –Ed). There’ll be some ingredients I’ll have to have shipped in, I’m sure, but my goal is to stay as seasonally relevant as possible.

Right now, I’m in the process of doing some budgets, spreadsheets, and lists to chart out the first few months to get things up and running. I really hope to be able to do every single dish as it is in the book, but I’m prepared to have a plan B in some cases where I’ll have to figure out another way to execute the dish but stay true to the flavor profiles. I’ve already got my fishmonger on the lookout for sea urchin in October, so that’ll be one of the first dishes. That, and the bacon with apple, butterscotch and thyme, because it was one of the most memorable dishes I had when I ate at Alinea, so it seems right to start with it.

MP: Do you think you’ll have a different soundtrack for cooking Alinea than you did for French Laundry? What songs or albums should any Alinea fan absolutely listen to while fantasizing about eating/cooking their food?
CB: I usually choose my music based on the mood I’m in before I even start cooking, so I imagine that’ll still stick. And, as most of my readers know, I tend to stay trapped in the 70s and 80s with a few newer bands sprinkled in for good measure. But who knows? My readers are always suggesting great new music, so maybe the Alinea at Home readers will have some awesome bands for me to listen to while I make these dishes. When I told a friend of mine I was doing this project, he started leaving Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me with Science” on my voicemail every few days, so perhaps that’ll have to be my theme song.

MP: On to more general matters! After spending so much time cooking at home, but also eating in such amazing restaurants, we’re wondering: Would you rather have a terrific restaurant meal or a terrific home-cooked meal?
CB: I know I can’t say “both,” so I’m gonna go with the home-cooked meal, unless of course that person just got a box set of Sandra Lee or Paula Deen cookbooks, in which case *ahemcoughcough*I think I’m coming down with a cold *hackcough* and I’ll have to take a (permanent) raincheck. I’m really picky about restaurant food these days — I wish I could afford to eat in some of my favorite places (Per Se, Central Michel Richard, Komi, BlackSalt) every night, but that’s not an option. And, sushi and ethnic takeout does get tiresome after awhile. So, if I can have a home-cooked meal, great conversation, good wine, and a game of RockBand afterward, I’m set.

MP: Do you read cooking and restaurant blogs? What food blogs are on your must-read list?
CB: Now that my day job is busier than ever, and I’m wrapping up French Laundry at Home and starting two (yes, you heard me, TWO new blogs), I have less time to read blogs and food web sites than I used to. The ones I check nearly every day are: Ruhlman, 101 Cookbooks, Simply Recipes, David Lebovitz, and Smitten Kitchen. There are so many others I love… I just wish I had more time to read them more often. I used to think, “Oh, I need a sick day so I don’t have to work and I can catch up on my reading,” but when I feel like crap, I usually just end up watching a Golden Girls marathon on Lifetime or vintage episodes of Melrose Place, so yeah… I’m behind on my online reading. If there was a way to automatically covert all those blogs and blog posts into podcasts so I could listen to them in the car on my way to meetings, I’d be a happy camper.

MP: Are there any restaurants you’re dying to eat a meal at that you haven’t been to yet? Any you’ve been to that deserve a special mention? Anyone who really ought to have a cookbook, who doesn’t?
CB: There are two restaurants on the to-do list for 2009: Manresa and Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Those two aside, I’d like to go back to Chicago and spend some more time exploring the restaurants there, because my time there in July was too short. I’m also planning to go back to The French Laundry and Per Se.

There are two chefs heading up small restaurants I love that haven’t yet gotten major national recognition, but I feel like it’s on the way — and that’s Lucas Manteca at Sea Salt (Stone Harbor, NJ) and Andy Little at The Sheppard Mansion (Hanover, PA). Lucas runs a seasonal place at the beach, and the food is unlike nothing you’ve ever had in a beach town… or anywhere for that matter. He’s from Argentina, has cooked all over the world — including a stage at The Fat Duck and one with Dan Barber — and I think he’s one of the best chefs out there. Andy Little returned to his hometown in Hanover, PA after working at Inn at Little Washington, to helm a small kitchen in an historic inn and he’s doing some really delicious stuff with local ingredients.

As for who should have a cookbook that doesn’t already, I’d honestly rather read something from someone running a small family-owned farm or independent food business, like a cheesemaker or fishmonger. Sadly, those seem to be the folks that are too busy to be able to write a book. As for chefs and cookbooks, I’d rather see some of them move in a direction similar to what [Le Bernardin chef] Eric Ripert is doing with his new site, Avec Eric. I love cookbooks, but the home cook’s learning opportunities are endless when it comes to doing things online, and I think having a living, breathing, interactive repository of a chef’s or restaurant’s dishes and thoughts on food would be incredibly educational and beneficial. I’m looking at you Gabrielle Hamilton, April Bloomfield, and Judy Rodgers.

MP: So that second blog you mentioned! It’s called “Saturday Night at Home,” and it’s all about being confident in yourself as a home cook, taking on big challenges, doing hard-core cooking in a soft-core kitchen. What can we expect?
CB: Maybe Ruhlman was right, and I do need an intervention. While I’m cooking my way through the Alinea cookbook and blogging about it, I’m also going to do Saturday Night at Home, on which I’ll share my own recipes I’ve developed over the years, as well as other aspects of creating a really wonderful dinner in your own home on a Saturday night for friends and family. Both of my new blogs will go live sometime in October.

I got the idea for the Saturday Night at Home blog when I was thinking back on French Laundry at Home and how much I learned and grew skills-wise, and also how much I enjoyed having my friends over on Saturday nights to taste those dishes. I don’t know about you, but I love going out to restaurants Monday through Thursday, but on the weekends I want to stay close to home; and with food and fuel costs always on the rise, I think people are looking for ways to entertain at home but not resort to carryout or casseroles.

One of the things I hear most from my readers is how much French Laundry at Home empowered and emboldened them to try new things in the kitchen. It’s so heartening and I love hearing that, because it did the same thing for me! So, I thought it would be fun to do a blog that helps other home cooks figure out how to do creative, challenging food at home and, most importantly, have fun doing it. It might be tackling a dish from Michel Richard’s Happy in the Kitchen, making something inspired by the flavor profile in a Ferran Adria dish, or it might be making your own cheese or sausage — anything that takes you out of your comfort zone, reconnects you with your kitchen, and puts a smile on your friends’ and family’s faces as they take their first bite.

I’m excited about Alinea at Home because it’s taking me galaxies outside my comfort zone, which inevitably means hilarity will ensue and that my skills and understanding about food are going to grow exponentially. But, I’m also really looking forward to Saturday Night at Home because it’s the first time I’ll be putting my own recipes and ideas out there, and I’m excited about all the interactivity it could generate with readers as they share their ideas, as well.

Alinea At Home [Official Site]
Alinea [MenuPages]
Alinea [Official Site]

[Photo via Alinea At Home

MPQ&A: Carol Blymire Of ‘Alinea At Home’