Last night, a standing-room only crowd packed into the culinary showroom at Evanston’s Now We’re Cookin’ to watch Grant Achatz demo some of the more magical dishes in his Alinea repertoire. The white wine was free-flowing as he demo’d tempura-fried sweet potato pie (similar to the pumpkin pie recipe he and Nick Kokonas filmed for An Alinea Thanksgiving), made exploding yogurt balls (served in Crate & Barrel shot glasses — star chefs, they’re just like us!), and used a volcano vaporizer to make a lavender pillow that was passed around the room. Afterwards, in the Q&A;, Achatz weighed in on all sorts of important matters.
On the culinary turf war between Slow Food and Molecular Gastronomy: “I think it’s a false division. We have a co-op, we use farm-raised Amish vegetables, we have our lamber in Pennsylvania who does his lambs in certain ways and for certain reasons. However, that’s not our … identity, shall we say? In today’s modern times it’s almost a given that you’re focused on sustainability, that you’re focused on artisan products. So incorporating that philosophy with the avant garde, with progressive American - that’s where we stand. I feel for a long, long time — going back to ‘97, ‘96 — for a long time, there was a very clear division. A rivalry if you will. The Alice Waters camp, and the Ferran Adrià camp. If you were practicing modern gastronomy, you were a hater, you were growing everything in a petri dish and test tube, you were putting all those funnky chemicals in there. But that’s not it at all. We love produce too.”
After the jump, Achatz weighs in on why he became a chef, his favorite Chicago restaurants, and how Twitter played him good:
On how Twitter April Fooled him: “I got all freaked out today. I woke up forgetting it was April Fool’s Day, and I’m a Twitterer, and one of the people i follow happens to be a media outlet, and they twitter in that Alice Waters is releasing a line of frozen foods. I had just woken up, and I was like “oh man, that’s bad.” It wasn’t until like an hour and a half later that I was like oh! And it all came together.”
On why he became a chef: That’s one of the things that I complain about now, especially because I’m a father. I was never aware of it at the time, but I’m very aware of it now — while you’re in school, in those formative years, and you’re looking to basically lay the entire roadmap for your entire life, you’re sixteen! Seventeen! How do you know what yourre going to do? There’s no way — you haven’t had enough exposure to the world yet. So you make a knee-jerk reaction, go to a four-year college, go to culinary school, you do whatever you think is right, you do whatever your father did, perhaps. Which is what i did — I grew up with cooking, my grandfather owned a restaurant, my mother and father owned a restaurant. I grew up in that environment, and to me it was second nature, it was very comfortable. I think the only thing that kept me from going a more conventional route, from pursuing architecture or art, was the fact that it was so comfortable for me being in the kitchen, speaking that language, being immersed in that environment. And then once I got to culinary school, it was like fire. I was always intellectually curious and kind of artistic, and I thought that was a great medium for me to express myself, and I kind of took off.”
On his favorite Chicago restaurants: “When I’m in Chicago, I’m very rarely not in the restaurant, so I don’t eat out enough here. But I’ll tell you my favorites of recent times: So, Schwa - I ate there in 2006. The Publican - I had a meal there 6, 7 months ago, really loved it. But you have to understand — If I go to Schwa, of course Michael’s gonna bend over backwards and pull on his beard and bring it. I love all of Paul [Kahan]’s restaurants - Blackbird, Avec, The Publican. I haven’t been to Avenues yet but the chef [Curtis Duffy] was at Alinea for 2 years, and before that with me at Trio for a long time. He took over the Avenues spot for Graham Elliot Bowles — and there’s another place i want to go to - graham elliot. I honestly eat more in New York than I do in Chicago.”
Photos: Helen Rosner