kottke.org posts about Alinea
Allen Hemberger cooked his way through one of the most complex cookbooks out there, the Alinea cookbook. Aside from the chefs who work in the kitchen there, Hemberger’s probably the only person to have made every single recipe. These recipes aren’t easy; look at the last one he prepared…he even struggled to find the correct ingredients.
Should I be disturbed or thankful that I’ve never been that passionate about anything ever?
For three years, Nick Kokonas’s trio of eating/drinking establishments in Chicago (Next, Alinea, and Aviary) has been using a ticketed reservation system. In this epic piece, Kokonas details why they started using tickets and what the effect has been (emphasis mine):
Our ticket implementation strategy at Alinea was to create a “higher-touch” system than we had previously used at Next. Every customer buying a ticket at Alinea must include a cell phone number where we can reach them. About a week before they dine with us we call every customer to thank them for buying a ticket to Alinea, ask if they have any dietary restrictions or special needs, and generally get a feel for their expectations and whether it is a special occasion. We can, in fact, spend more time (not less) with every single one of our customers because we are only speaking with the customers we know are coming to dine with us. Previously, we answered thousands of calls from people we had to say ‘no’ to. Now we can take far more time to say ‘yes’.
The results on Alinea’s business are staggering. Bottom line EBITDA profits are up 38% from previous average years. No shows of full tables are almost non-existent and while partial no-shows still occur they are only a handful of people per week at most. That allows us to run at a far greater capacity with less food waste and more revenue.
Will be interesting to see if more restaurants adopt this model…I bet a bunch of restaurateurs’ eyes lit up at the 38% increase in profit. But not every restaurant is Alinea and not every restaurateur is a clever former derivatives trader.
Art of the Menu is a new collection of well-designed menus by the folks who bring you Brand New. Two of the most interesting menus I’ve run across are Shopsins’ (the design of which I wrote about several years ago) and Alinea’s (the menu is an infographic).
Life, on the Line is the forthcoming memoir of chef Grant Achatz about his early life, his training at The French Laundry under Thomas Keller, the opening of the reigning Best Restaurant in America, and his diagnosis of a life-and career-threatening illness. Somewhat unusually, the book was jointly written by Achatz and Nick Kokonas, his friend and business partner. The newly launched companion web site has more info, including excerpts.
“Chef, you have Ruth Reichl on line two,” one of the reservationists whispered to me as I peeled asparagus. I walked to the host area and saw the light for line two blinking; I grabbed the handle and pushed the button.
After exchanging greetings she spoke up. I was wildly and unexpectedly nervous.
“Grant, I don’t know if you know this, but every five years Gourmet does a restaurant issue where we rank the fifty best restaurants in the country.” I told her I recall seeing it back in 2001, and remembered that Chez Panisse coming in at number one and the Laundry at three.
“Well, the issue will come out this October, and I wanted to call you personally and tell you that we have chosen Alinea to be on the list.” She paused for dramatic effect. “At number one.”
The new menu at Alinea is 21 courses long and takes about 2.5 hours for a meal according to a Tweet by Alinea chef Grant Achatz. In June, Alinea announced they would only be offering one menu, down from two, though that menu was discussed as 15-16 courses.
Michael Ruhlman has some photos of the Alinea book in the wild. Though possibly biased, he says it’s a beaut.
Grant and his partner Nick Kokonas, along with designer Martin Kastner and his wife, photographer Lara Kastner, wanted to do it on their own and so they have. Kastner, I believe a sculptor by trade, had never designed a book. His wife had never photographed a book, food or otherwise. Grant and Nick had never done a book either. And they were told by numerous publishers (in a nasally dismissive tone, Kokonas suggested) that they just didn’t have the skill or experience to do what they wanted to (“Gray pages?! You can’t do gray pages!” “You can’t sell a book like this at that price.”)
As mentioned in the post, the Alinea book is only $31.50 if you order through Amazon.
A reporter checks out the family meals — the quick meal eaten by the staff of a restaurant before the dinner service starts — at various NYC restaurants.
At considerably more lofty establishments, though, formal family meals take place shortly before lunch or dinner service, giving staff members time to both relax and rev up before their long and arduous shifts. It’s a simple concept, and as I discovered while hopping from one acclaimed New York restaurant to the next, if you’re lucky to work somewhere that serves caramelized, blanched, or poached vegetables, rather than “bloomin’ ” ones, you’re in for a real treat.
I was wondering the other day what the family meal is like at a place like Alinea, where the kitchen doesn’t have a lot of traditional cooking implements. Does everyone just get a spoonful of powdered pork chops and 15 minutes at the pea soup IV drip station at some point during the evening? (via eater)
Update: Family meal at Alinea sounds downright normal:
Family meal was green salad with vinaigrette; baked potatoes with sour cream, chives, bacon, and a bacon and eggs mayo; blanched broccoli; carrot cake with cream cheese frosting; and a huge tub of iced coffee. I also brought a box of assorted Chinese pastry snacks from Richwell Market in Chinatown - including pastry-wrapped thousand-year-old egg.
The New Yorker profiles chef Grant Achatz this week. The piece focuses on his restaurant, Alinea, and the battle with tongue cancer that threatened his life, and worse to Achatz, his career and passion. The loss of his sense of taste had a bright side:
Because his ability to taste has come back over time, Achatz feels that he is understanding the sense in a new way — the way you would if you could see only in black-and-white and, one by one, colors were restored to you. He says, “When I first tasted a vanilla milkshake” — after the end of his treatment — “it tasted very sweet to me, because there’s no salt, no acid. It just tasted sweet. Now, introduce bitter, so now I’m understanding the relationship between sweet and bitter — how they work together and how they balance. And now, as salt comes back, I understand the relationship among the three components.”
In the Diner’s Journal, Pete Wells contrasts Achatz with another chef that the New Yorker recently profiled, Momofuku’s David Chang.
In March, The New Yorker published a profile of a chef who was about to open a restaurant. The chef complained about his health, worried about the future and cursed as if he had slammed his thumb in a car door.
On Monday, the magazine will publish a profile of another chef. Last year a doctor told this chef that he had advanced oral cancer and that unless he had his tongue cut out, he would be dead within a few months. According to The New Yorker, the chef reacted as if he’d just been handed a particularly challenging logic problem.
The point of the contrast is not to marginalize Chang’s problems or his reaction to them but to demonstrate what a different approach Achatz takes to kitchen work than the typical (stereotypical?) Anthony Bourdainity of the restaurant kitchen.
The NYer article includes an online companion, a slideshow of photos of the latest menu items at Alinea and chef Achatz, looking very Seth Bullock.
Four chefs talk about how their kitchens are laid out in this month’s Metropolis. Here’s Dan Barber talking about his role at Blue Hill at Stone Barns:
At the same time, I don’t think the cooks look at me as a real community member. I’m not that cozy paternal figure. I’m always doing different things, and it creates this atmosphere where the cooks are on the balls of their feet. They’re thinking, Where’s he going next, what’s happening next? There’s a little bit of confusion. I think that’s good. It’s hard to articulate, because you think of the kitchen as very organized; and, like I said, the more control you have, the better. But a little bit of chaos creates tension. And that creates energy and passion, and it tends to make you season something the right way or reach for something that would add this, that, or the other thing.
The other chefs are Alice Waters, Grant Achatz, and Wylie Dufresne. The one thing they all talked about is the importance of open sight lines, both between the dining room and kitchen and among the chefs in the kitchen.
Interview with chefs Grant Achatz of Alinea and Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck, mostly about the cookbooks that they’re working on. Achatz is self-publishing the Alinea Book and using the exact recipes from the restaurant:
For us, we felt the most important thing was to express the restaurant in its most accurate fashion, and try to convey to the reader what Alinea and the food are all about. We felt that if we eliminated some of the techniques because they were too difficult, or some of the ingredients because they were too hard to find, then you would be left with something that’s not representative of the restaurant or of the cuisine itself. So our effort was to convey the emotion, the expression, the essence of the restaurant, and also hopefully-if the recipes are written well enough-to dispel the myth that cooking in this style is impossible for somebody who isn’t a professional cook.
He also mentions that the ingredient amounts in the recipes are metric, meaning that a digital scale is required. Maybe they should make the cookbook itself a digital scale…just make the cover a little thicker, throw some sensors in there with a digital display in the lower right hand corner, and there you go!
Good news: Alinea’s Grant Achatz announces that his cancer is in remission. Achatz found out earlier this year that he had cancer of the mouth and instead of the traditional surgery route, he worked with his doctors on a treatment that would allow him to continue to cook, his profession and passion.
Teaser trailer for Alinea’s cookbook, which is due out in Autumn 2008 and will contain 600 recipes. Pre-orders through the site will get signed copies and early access to a companion web site which will contain more recipes, demo videos, and behind the scenes videos. I’m really appreciating the effort these top chefs and restaurants make to open source their recipes and process…it sounds like between the book and web site, one could open a restaurant serving Alinea’s menu. (Whether that restaurant would be successful or not would depend mostly on the 90% of the stuff involved with running a restaurant that doesn’t rely on the ability to read a cookbook.)
Update: Jason Fried says businesses could learn a lot from chefs giving their secrets away.
The nominees for the 2007 Beard Awards were announced this morning. I’m disappointed that Alinea and Grant Achatz aren’t on the list more (Achatz got a lone nomination for best chef in the Great Lakes region) but am happy to see David Chang, Ssam, Thomas Keller, and Wylie Dufresne on the list.
Nice interview with Grant Achatz, owner and chef at Alinea, which many consider to be the best restaurant in America right now.
Megnut’s got the scoop: Gourmet magazine has named Alinea the best restaurant in the US, amazing considering its only been open a little more than a year. “[Grant Achatz] is redefining the American restaurant once again for an entirely new generation. And that — more than his gorgeous, inventive, and delicious food — is what makes Alinea the got-to-go-to restaurant in the country right now.” (I would argue that the food is the real reason to go, but whatever…)
Neat information design on the menu for Alinea. The size, positions, and darkness of the circles on the menu represent the sweetness/tartness, size, and flavor intensity of each course.
Update: Better photo of the menu here.
Photos of the new fall menu at Alinea in Chicago, helmed by chef Grant Achatz. Looks weird, decadent, and delicious. (via afb)