Inspiration for Aspiring Chefs

PB&J from Alinea Restaurant. Photo by Lara Kastner

I have worked in restaurants but never ever in the back of the house. I don’t know that I have the necessary skills it takes to survive working the line, so I have the utmost respect for chefs and restaurateurs. Which is not to say hero-worship–not in the least–but I always find these folks to be full of fascinating stories and interesting conversation fodder. Not to mention the way many feel about food and speak about it with the awe of a child and the passion of an addict.

If you didn’t catch Terri Gross’ Fresh Air interview on Thursday (or you’re not lucky enough to have a local NPR affiliate), it is absolutely worth listening to the 43-minute interview with chef Grant Achatz of Chicago restaurant Alinea. Achatz was on the program to promote his new memoir, Life, on the Line, which is as much about his restaurant as it is about his battle with stage-4 tongue cancer (which includes losing, and eventually regaining, his sense of taste). The book is a lot less savory than other scandalous kitchen rags (a la Anthony Bourdain’s infamous Kitchen Confidential) but if the interview was any indication looks to be an interesting read.

Octopus from Alinea Restaurant. Photo by Lara Kastner

I love that listening to Achatz, you might think at first that you are eavesdropping on a conversation as told by a mad scientist. Achatz is a scholar of the molecular gastronomy movement–cuisine that involves a lot of science and sometimes science fiction in its toolbox. Cooking in this manner might involve using liquid nitrogen or dry ice, inventing equipment that freezes items that aren’t normally frozen (like olive oil lollipops), or, in Achatz’s case, using the powerful olfactory sense to include the smell of an item in its taste. (Achatz uses burning twigs or essences in deflating linen pillowcases to add scents of items to the taste of his dishes).

While this is a level of cuisine that I’m not interested in exploring personally I find the whole thing fascinating. It reminds me of little kids who take things apart only to see how they work by putting them back together. And better still it is nice to listen to someone who conveys so much joy and wonder about what they do professionally. It’s hard not to get caught up in that giddy school boy’s fascination with how he makes and masters his single-bite 23-course meals…

Listen to the interview! (Do it, give in to peer pressure).

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