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Some miscellaneous impressions from last Sunday's discussion at Steppenwolf between Grant Achatz and Michael Ruhlman:
The audience was a who's who of foodigentsia that by all appearances left the kitchens of Chicago empty (Look, there's Michael Carlson! Wait, isn't that Elaine Sikorski?) -- or at the very least left the Internet unmanned.
Much of the discussion tromped over ground familiar to anyone with more than a passing acquaintance with the Alinea Story: Achatz's childhood washing dishes in his folks' Michigan restaurant; his formative years at the French Laundry, which taught him everything there was to know and then some about classical technique; the epiphany sparked by a five-day stage at Ferran Adria's El Bulli -- and the apparently amiable, but painful, rift it caused between him and French Laundry chef Thomas Keller. Eating at El Bulli, he explained, provoked an emotional reaction stronger than anything he'd ever experienced. Sitting with Keller through a 37-course meal ("Thirty-seven courses! You guys think I'm bad.") he struggled to control his excitement, not wanting to disrespect his mentor. When he got back to Yountville, he said, "I was running around making hot gelatin and trying to melt sugar all over everything, and Thomas was like, 'Whoa -- this is the French Laundry,' and I realized I couldn't cook there anymore."
If there was a theme to the conversation, it was this idea of structuring a meal to generate a particular reaction. Achatz sees himself as a conductor, leading diners up and down an emotional scale from anticipation to excitement to bafflement, accomplishment, and pleasure. He, like many of his peers, hates the term "molecular gastronomy." "It's not about science," he said of his cooking, "it's about emotion."
There were a few surprises. Achatz's disavowal of "molecular gastronomy" may have grabbed headlines (and for a thorough dissection of what exactly he meant by that, see Ruhlman's own postgame analysis). But Achatz -- who turned down Iron Chef America and has so far steered clear of celebrity cheffitude (though he is working on a book) -- shocked everyone, including his interlocutor, when he admitted he'd still kinda like to do TV. "If we decided to do a TV show," he argued, "I think we'd do a pretty darn good TV show."
When asked if he'd like to go the Robuchon route and open another Alinea in New York -- or LA, or Tokyo -- Achatz, who admits that he only recently realized he didn't have to be in the kitchen all the time, was less than enthusiastic. While he didn't dismiss the idea out of hand, he seemed adamant that, if he were to branch out, he'd like his next project to be something very different.
Still, he didn't seem to be in too much of a hurry to go anywhere else. He's working in a city of innovators, he said, and "the next five years are going to be superinteresting in Chicago."