The Alinea Cookbook: Reviewed

Right: the gigantic book. Left: our filthy coffee mug.

First, a bit of crankiness: The postmark on our copy of Alinea is dated September 30. And we insisted to the mail room that we were expecting a VERY LARGE, VERY IMPORTANT package and they were all No, No Helen There Is Nothing Here, WE SWEAR. But now it’s here, and it has such a nice, comforting heft and Proustian fresh-paste smell that we’re mildly mollified — just pretend you’re reading this review two weeks ago. The first presidential debate is still fresh in your mind, Farmerie 58 just announced its existence, and you still firmly believe that The Publican will be opening in a few days.

The big thing about Alinea is that it’s, well, big. This is not a throw-it-in-your-bag-for-some-light-reading cookbook — it’s the sort of hefty, presence-announcing thing that the word “tome” was invented to describe. It clocks in at the weight of, approximately, a newborn, and has dimensions that renders it a little bookshelf-unwieldy. That’s okay, though, because this is the kind of book that coffee tables were made to display: eminently browsable, plenty beautiful, intellectual enough to impress your guests.

A seasonal table of contents: Spring.

The saga behind this book is well-documented — Achatz et al eschewed the conventional path of cookbook publishing, choosing instead to design and market the book entirely on their own, and using their publisher, Ten Speed, more as a distributer and production liaison. It shows: This cookbook, designed by a team that includes Crucial Detail, makers of Alinea’s one-off serving devies, looks unlike any other we’ve seen. There are idiosyncratic photo layouts, multicolored text, and — most notably — pages that are a shade of middling cool gray.

The organization is also pure Alinea. Like an awards dinner, the introductions are endless: Before even touching on a recipe, we read through essays from Michael Ruhlman, Jeffrey Steingarten, Mark McClusky, Michael Nagrant, Grant Achatz, and Nick Kokonas. Nick’s note is titled “How to Use this Book,” and contains what is, to us, a very important line: “Alinea is a kitchen based on precision, and the recipes often read more like a book on baking than a book on cooking.” Avid home cooks will know exactly what that means: This isn’t a book — nor is Alinea a kitchen — about improvisation, about throwing in a little of this, a little of that. Like baking, which is at its heart simply kitchen chemistry, the hundreds of recipes in this volume are daunting because of the attention they require (mini-step after mini-step), not because they call on any particular technique or skill that’s above the level of the average home chef.

The equipment list (from Acetate sheets to Volcano vaporizer) and the ingredient list (from agar agar to xanthan gum) are daunting, and so is the introduction to centerpieces (they should be interactive) and menu construction (an annotated version of Alinea’s famous spine of dots), but at this point we decided less to read this as a cookbook than as an artifact of the restaurant’s innovation and importance, and all of a sudden it became much less scary than it could have been.

Instructions for assembly.

Of course, then, there are the recipes. Organized around seasonal menus — spring through winter — they are presented as plated dishes, each containing its own set of subrecipes. As Nick suggests in his introduction, the individual subrecipes here can be extracted and used on their own, or recombined, or integrated into your standard cooking repertoire (the pickled asparagus, for example, which is a subrecipe of White Asparagus: Chorizo, Black Trumpets, Orange, calls for water, salt, sugar, and white wine vinegar: nothing we don’t already have in our pantry — except asparagus). After the subrecipes, each dish includes detailed plating and service instructions, from “froth tonka bean liquid” to “leave finished Maytag-coated sponges on antigriddle… fill syringe with walnut milk.”

The note on which we want to conclude this review — or description, really, because we aren’t convinced that our opinion on this book actually matters, because this is the kind of book that defies review, more cultural artifact than kitchen how-to — is the same note on which the book itself concludes. It’s a list of contributors that reads more as a concise version of how the book we’re holding in our hands came to be: Why do an Alinea book? And the answer that Grant and Nick come up with is something that should be emblazoned on the cover of this book: “sometimes the answers come in the doing, not the talking.” We can tell you all day what this book looks like, or how it’s organized, or how clearly the recipes read, or how illuminating Steingarten and Nagrant’s essays are, but ultimately this is the kind of book that’s worth holding in your own hands, and seeing for yourself.

The interior is pretty.

Yet another interior shot — note the breathtaking photography.

The minimalist cover: It took us a little bit to realize that was silverware..

Alinea []
Alinea [MenuPages]
Alinea [Official Site]

We would like to note, for the record, that in the contributors blurb on Michael Nagrant, it is noted that “Michael was so prolific that some of the essays [he wrote for the book] will appear only online in the Alinea Mosaic.” Have we used the phrase “ludicrously prolific” before? We think we have.


The Alinea Cookbook: Reviewed