In Situ is Corey Lee’s new restaurant in the recently refurbished SFMOMA. Like the museum does with art, In Situ brings culinary masterpieces from chefs around the world and presents them to guests. The current menu, which provides the name of the chef and the date the dish was first made in the style of the info cards next to artworks, includes Shrimp Grits from the now-closed WD-50 (Wylie Dufresne, 2013), Spicy Pork Sausage Rice Cakes from Ssam Bar (David Chang, 2007), Meyer Lemon Ice Cream and Sherbet from Chez Panisse (Alice Waters, 1980), and Wood Sorrel & Sheep Milk’s Yogurt from Noma (René Redzepi, 2005).
This sort of thing is not exactly without precedent. From the very beginning of Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas’ Next, one of the ideas was to present the menu from the French Laundry from Achatz’s first day on the job there in October 1996 (which is happening this fall) and the Chicago restaurant has already featured menus with dishes from El Bulli and Trio (Achatz’s first restaurant as head chef). Ssam Bar used to have cocktails from other places (Milk and Honey, Death & Co., etc.) on their beverage menu, properly credited. But as Pete Wells explains in his positive NY Times review, In Situ takes the concept further:
Would any chef have dreamed of building a restaurant like this 25 years ago? Would anyone have gone there? In Situ probably requires a steady supply of customers who care about restaurants in Lima and Copenhagen enough to have seen some of these dishes in cookbooks or at least in the Instagram accounts of the chefs in question. Mr. Lee depends on, and caters to, a class of eaters who pay attention to the global restaurant scene the way certain art hounds follow the goings on in Basel, Miami Beach and Venice.
One thing In Situ proves, just by existing, is that certain chefs are now cultural figures in a sense that once applied only to practitioners of what used to be called high culture: literature, concert music, avant-garde painting. A Redzepi dish can be visited in an art museum in 2016, and nobody finds this very strange.
What In Situ is doing also underscores how context and the renown of an artist can affect our perception of what is creative appropriation versus theft or plagiarism. That In Situ is helmed by one of the best chefs in the US and affiliated with a world-class museum matters. The similar work of an unknown chef might not get the same treatment, as Robin Wickens found out in 2006, when he presented dishes from WD-50 and Alinea on the menu at his Australian restaurant:
That’s what happened three months ago on the eGullet.com Web site. Sam Mason, a pastry chef at WD-50 in New York, set off an international dust-up when he posted a link to the Web site of Interlude, a restaurant in Melbourne, Australia, and asked: “Is it me or are some of these dishes strikingly similar to a few American restaurants?” Interlude’s site showed photos of such unusual fare as noodles made of shrimp and a glass tube full of eucalyptus jelly and yogurt, dishes pioneered at WD-50 and Chicago’s Alinea, respectively. Interlude’s chef, Robin Wickens, had worked for a week at Alinea as a stagiere, or unpaid intern, and had dined at WD-50 while visiting the U.S.
EGullet’s administrators then juxtaposed Interlude’s images to nearly identical ones from WD-50 and Alinea. Within a few days, restaurateurs and chefs from around the country and dozens of eGullet members added to the thread, many branding Mr. Wickens a plagiarist.
Mortified, Mr. Wickens says he removed the dishes from his menu and his site, and sent letters to the chefs whose work he’d copied explaining that he only wanted to utilize what he’d learned on his travels. “I never tried to claim them as my own,” says Mr. Wickens, who says he told many patrons that the dishes had originated at the American restaurants.
I wish I had San Francisco travel plans…In Situ is the first new restaurant I’ve been excited about visiting in ages (for obvious reasons). Soon, hopefully.
The central attraction of the ground floor level is a huge mega-menu that lists every item from every McDonald’s in the world, because this McDonald’s serves ALL of them. There would probably have to be touch screen gadgets to help you navigate the menu. There would have to be whole screens just dedicated to the soda possibilities. A concierge would offer suggestions. Celebrities on the iPad menus would have their own “meals” combining favorites from home (“Manu Ginobili says ‘Try the medialunas!’”) with different stuff for a unique combination ONLY available at McWorld. You could get the India-specific Chicken Mexican Wrap (“A traditional Mexican soft flat bread that envelops crispy golden brown chicken encrusted with a Mexican Cajun coating, and a salad mix of iceberg lettuce, carrot, red cabbage and celery, served with eggless mayonnaise, tangy Mexican Salsa sauce and cheddar cheese.” Wherever possible, the menu items’ descriptions should reflect local English style). Maybe a bowl of Malaysian McDonald’s Chicken Porridge or The McArabia Grilled Kofta, available in Pakistan and parts of the Middle East. You should watch this McArabia ad for the Middle Eastern-flavored remix of the “I’m Lovin’ It” song if for nothing else.
And I loved his take on fast food as molecular gastronomy:
How much difference really is there between McDonald’s super-processed food and molecular gastronomy? I used to know this guy who was a great chef, like his restaurant was in the Relais & Châteaux association and everything, and he’d always talk about how there were intense flavors in McDonald’s food that he didn’t know how to make. I’ve often thought that a lot of what makes crazy restaurant food taste crazy is the solemn appreciation you lend to it. If you put a Cheeto on a big white plate in a formal restaurant and serve it with chopsticks and say something like “It is a cornmeal quenelle, extruded at a high speed, and so the extrusion heats the cornmeal ‘polenta’ and flash-cooks it, trapping air and giving it a crispy texture with a striking lightness. It is then dusted with an ‘umami powder’ glutamate and evaporated-dairy-solids blend.” People would go just nuts for that. I mean even a Coca-Cola is a pretty crazy taste.
I love both mass-produced processed foods and the cooking of chefs like Grant Achatz & Ferran Adrià. Why is the former so maligned while the latter gets accolades when they’re the same thing? (And simultaneously not the same thing at all, but you get my gist.) Cheetos are amazing. Oscar Meyer bologna is amazing. Hot Potato Cold Potato is amazing. Quarter Pounders with Cheese are amazing. Adrià’s olives are amazing. Coca-Cola is amazing. (Warhol: ” A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking.”) WD50’s Everything Bagel is amazing. Cheerios are amazing. All have unique flavors that don’t exist in nature — you’ve got to take food apart and put it back together in a different way to find those new tastes.
Chef Dave is really inspired by a children’s book right now, and our next menu can be entirely built on that. Or we can be an exact replica of another time and place. One menu might be from my memory: My first day at The French Laundry. It comes down to trying to be expressive. You can be expressive with a plate of food, or with the whole concept of a restaurant.
Another menu we’re planning is El Bulli. One course from each year from 1983 to 2003. I’d work with Ferran [Adria] to choose the dishes that he feels are his most significant; I’d need to get him on board with that.
That El Bulli menu? Fucking crazytown. And this is the third or fourth time I’ve heard about the “first day at The French Laundry” menu and every single time my mouth starts watering and my hand reaches for my wallet. (via @kathrynyu)
The two of them — the spare, driven artist and the comfortable, fluid patron — evoke a modern Michelangelo and Medici, bonded by mutual trust and now locked into a very public artistic endeavor. With Next, Mr. Achatz is operating at a level of creative and financial freedom enjoyed by very few artists and only a handful of chefs in history.
And this line got me more excited than I should admit:
A menu might be designed around a single day — say, the Napa Valley on Oct. 28, 1996, the day Mr. Achatz started work at the French Laundry, where he remained until 2001.
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.”
Grant Achatz, Nick Kokonas, and his team are opening a restaurant called Next:
No reservations…you have to buy tickets, like for a play or a ballgame.
Your tickets will be fully inclusive of all charges, including service. Ticket price will depend on which seating you buy — Saturday at 8 PM will be more expensive than Wednesday at 9:30 PM. This will allow us to offer an amazing experience at a very reasonable price. We will also offer an annual subscription to all four menus at a discount with preferred seating.
The menu changes four times a year and each menu will be influenced by a particular place and time (Paris 1912, Hong Kong 2036). A Mad Men-era NYC menu please?
Chef Keller looked down at the magazine and spoke softly: Read this tonight when you go home. His food really sounds interesting, and right up your alley. I think you should go stage there this summer….I will arrange it for you.
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 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.
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.
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!
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.)
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…)