Sky Full of Bacon

My 46 Minutes at Alinea

46 minutes, the counter on my viewfinder said.

That’s how much footage I shot at Alinea one Sunday afternoon, watching Grant Achatz and Craig Schoettler (soon to be the head guy of Aviary) make a cocktail using a weird Indonesian nut for the Reader’s new series of chef challenges (which if you haven’t seen yet, you can see here).

46 minutes and I was exhausted. Keeping up, mentally and physically, with Achatz’s kitchen wears you down quickly.

The first thing I saw was the kitchen. Square and, it felt, neatly divided by a group of exactly equidistant counter spaces running the length of the room. It’s the most perfectly geometric place I’ve seen since a visit to the Air Force Academy a decade or so ago.

And every few feet along the invisible grid of the room, there was someone in chef whites cleaning furiously— perhaps 20 of them in all. It was like a shot in an old Disney cartoon of elves working, where the whole frame is filled with evenly paced, purposeful motion. Here’s a short, inartful assembly of outtakes from the Reader video which convey this initial impression:

A few moments later Achatz greeted us and took us on a tour of the restaurant— or rather, a tour of the Alinea experience as orchestrated by him. You enter through a hallway of bordello-red lighting with forced perspective that makes it hard to know exactly where you go— a kind of mental palate cleanser from the street outside, Achatz told us. Just as you’re feeling lost, the doors open— there’s a motion detector on your side to time this moment exactly— and you face the stairway which ascends between the three dining rooms.

“It’s kind of a parallel to the cuisine,” Achatz said, cryptically. Leaving us to ponder the Carollian question, how is a staircase like a plate of roast pheasant?

One way, apparently, is that it’s meant to break with the formality of the traditional fine dining experience and to make it more homey. “Like if you guys were coming over to my house, I’d open the door, welcome you, ‘come on in,’ rather than being that barrier between you and I,” he said. “That kind of physical barrier, to me, was always a little bit snooty and formal. So I wanted to eliminate that.”

Another puzzle to contemplate: three-Michelin-star, fabulously expensive Alinea as a break with all that’s too hoity-toity in dining. Alinea as an extension of Achatz’ den, pass the chips and guac please. Yet it starts to make sense to you because it so obviously makes sense to him. I’ve never seen a chef so at home in his restaurant, not in the way that a commanding officer is at home on his battleship, but in a free and playful way.

Achatz explains that he wishes he could repaint the walls a new color every night. Instead, he has LED lights which can change colors to cast a different atmosphere on different visits.

As intense and intent as the work in the kitchen is— and this was several hours before service— there’s a feel there not so much of a laboratory, which is the clichéd comparison based on the technology present, as of a kind of artistic workshop, an atelier (there, I just named Achatz’ next restaurant) where fine objects are being wrought by skilled craftsmen.

Part of the reason for this is that, unlike almost any other working kitchen, Alinea has windows. Very nice windows, actually, which let in not only a cool blue winter light but offered, this day, a spare view of a bare winter tree and the brick two-flat next door. It’s an urbanite’s idea of a view, wouldn’t impress the folks at Courtright’s, but there’s no question that something that simple gives the work in the kitchen an entirely different feel. It honors the work, tells it that it’s valued and deserves to be carried out in a pleasantly natural atmosphere.  

A chef friend who saw the video zeroed in on this immediately: “First thing I noticed is that there are windows in the Alinea kitchen. I feel a little less sorry for those cooks now. Hehehe.”

A few moments later Achatz and Craig Schoettler launched into the dish— and for the next 20 minutes or so I scrambled to keep up with them as they made it. Part of this was that there were two of them; I was constantly having to anticipate which of them would be where my camera should be. But it was also that they moved as fast as their minds, and I had to keep up. We were barely halfway through the shoot for our first chef challenge before Achatz was deconstructing the very idea behind it, breaking it into pieces to see if something more interesting might be made out of the same parts:

And then our time was up; dinner was less than two hours away. After some pleasantries, we were back on the street, out the other end of his forced perspective telescope. The gray world outside seemed dull and clumsy next to the gleaming white vision of cooperative artistry happening on the other side of that nondescript door. Next to my 46 minutes inside the mind of Alinea.

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