“I actually thought that Elizabeth Falkner was going to lead us in a seance” Kim Severson joked as she opened up her discussion with Grant Achatz at the latest StarChefs International Chefs Congress. They were there to discuss Chef Achatz’ s thoughts on “The Sixth Sense” and how it applies to running a successful restaurant, or in Achatz’s case with the incredible success of his newest ventures, Next and The Aviary to go along with Alinea, restaurants.
Severson, a noted food writer and currently the Atlanta Bureau Chief for the New York Times, interviewed Achatz in an engaging manner. When speaking about the senses with Chef Achatz, six or otherwise, the first one that comes to mind given his book, Life, on the Line: A Chef’s Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat and his much publicized fight with tongue cancer is the sense of taste, a sense that Achatz lost during that battle and has subsequently regained. Severson went directly to that. Achatz, who is now “four years cancer free,” was asked how he dealt with the loss of this sense and whether he had to rely on intuition and emotion and what that was like. His response was that he had to start formulating dishes in his head in a different way. “You look at ingredients more like pieces of a puzzle versus something that is identifiable and what comes into the equation is things that normally aren’t necessarily tangible while cooking, like emotion and memory.” He would think of memory “like an ingredient…like a component to a dish.” He would start to think “what does that smell make me think of rather than how does that salt change the flavor of that dish.” With Severson’s prodding, Achatz provided an example of a dish that sprung from the muse of memory. Achatz talked about growing up in Michigan in the mid 1980’s and how they used to rake the leaves and burn them in the fall, something that is not done very often any more. That experience left him with an emotional association of a particular smell from a particular season. He decided to bring the smell of burning oak leaves into a dish by actually procuring oak branches with dead leaves attached and bringing those burnt leaves into the dining room to attach a story to a dish, a “very important component to the experience.”
Severson asked about “tapping into” a person’s “hard-wired” memories, specifically asking Achatz about his “Pancake standard.” Achatz explained that when growing up, his mother’s pancakes became the standard by which all other pancakes were judged. She made them using Bisquick and according to Achatz, objectively they really “were not very good,” but they were still the benchmark for him. Other pancakes may be “culinarily better” but “no matter what happens after that, no other pancakes will ever be as good (to him) as my mother’s pancakes.” His kids, however, have a different standard when it comes to pancakes because when he makes them, Achatz said, “I chef them up,” eliciting laughs from the audience.
Severson expanded her questioning on the idea of taking comfort food like pancakes and making it into “high culinary art.” Achatz felt that this is indeed a common theme for chefs around the world, using this Sixth Sense “as a creative jumping off point.” He used an example from Alinea’s most recent summer menu. They try to be very seasonal at Alinea and one of the great seasonal products in the summer is the tomato. He asked, “If you are going to present a perfectly ripe, perfectly seasoned tomato, then what do we do to the tomato or the experience to make it interesting?” His answer came from a suggestion from Alinea’s Chef de Cuisine, “Why don’t we emulate that feeling of waking up in the morning, walking down to the garden…picking a tomato and literally eating it there in the garden?” Now, the answer was “not about high technique and the manipulation of an ingredient, it was about the experience.” The result was that they had a farmer grow lettuces and herbs and deliver them intact as plants to the restaurant. Once there, they would be transplanted to serving vehicles to resemble “a small garden.” The diner would receive a plate of perfect sliced, peeled and simply seasoned tomatoes along with the plants to accent the tomato and would snip their own fresh, live condiments to accompany that tomato. According to Achatz, “It was incredibly simple for Alinea in terms of what was on the plate…but the complexity of the experience is really what we were tasting.” He added, “We could arrange all of the ingredients around the plate and you could eat it and you would say, oh, this tastes good, this tastes like basil and… really good tomato, but by doing it the way we did…by making you stick your hand…and get the moisture on your fingers and harvest what you are going to eat…made it very rich.” With the exact same ingredients these were “two completely different dishes.” It was a dish that according to Achatz became “very interactive and very playful.”
Severson shifted the conversation to Next and its upcoming theme of “Childhood.” Achatz said that the theme is not a new one. Even somthing such as Thomas Keller’s famous “cornet” is an obvious reference to an ice cream cone. “The idea isn’t really new, per se,” he said referencing Alinea’s own take on “peanut butter and jelly” from its opening menu, “but we want to create an entire menu that as a creative starting point would look at growing up…when, as a child all your flavor memories are built.” They won’t serve Kraft mac and cheese, “but as a creative starting point, we are going to look at mac and cheese and go, ok, but what is mac and cheese and how do we uphold the authenticity of mac and cheese as an experience and the feeling of eating it, but make it more Alinea-fied?” Achatz described another planned dish to be served on an oversized plate and based around a constructed stick figure of a child fishing. He said, “When you start thinking about what it is like to be a child…conjuring memories of drawing and painting…so now we are going to reflect that in our food….we are trying to tap into what it is like to be a kid.”
Severson asked if diners want chefs to be “in their psyche in that way?” and Achatz responded, “I think so…not all the time…sometimes you just want a really good hamburger…but now… with the emphasis being so much on entertaining…it becomes really important to tell a story….in most cases.”
The conversation took yet another turn as Severson introduced “the democratization of dining” and the collapse of the relationship between chef and diner, equating it to the “democratization of information in the digital age.” She described a collapse in service and formality and asked how the Sixth Sense plays into that, and if there would be a resurgence of service, describing the current state as “the anti-service period.” Achatz described a dinner that he had just had at Eleven Madison Park, noting that many of the dishes were served by chefs ands that this is happening at other restaurants including Alinea, noma and more. The fact that the chefs “are able to articulate a certain aspect about a dish” plays into the resurgence of enhanced service. He also went on to verbalize some thoughts about thinking of service personnel “almost like actors” having toyed with the idea of “dressing waiters in different garb when they come out.” He expanded his thoughts with a short discourse on the possibilities of color, asking, “If somebody was to deliver a tomato course…and they were dressed in all red, would it make the tomato taste better?” He also asked about the role of sound, bringing up Heston Blumenthal’s famous seafood course served with an ipod and ear buds playing sounds from the sea.
With their conversation over, Chef Achatz fielded questions from the audience, answering one question about how his sense of taste and understanding of flavor has evolved over the course of his odyssey, saying, “I think I perceive flavor in the same way that I did…but I would say flat out, that I really enjoy bitter flavors more… now I understand the way flavors layer and balance each other more…so I am more apt to use bitter to balance sweet and bitter to balance salinity than I was before.”
As always, Chef Grant Achatz was well spoken, interesting and inspirational. The audience listened to the conversation with rapt attention. Kim Severson did an excellent job directing the conversation and probing with humor, compassion and skill.