Thomas Keller's - "Galette" Hudson Valley Moulard Duck Foie Gras, Italian Pistachio "Financier," Compressed Red Sensation Pear and Garden Mache
Driving through the brittle cold, we wove our way from our small sandwich haven to the bowels of Chicago to a brilliant little high end market that was our key dispensary for mousse de foie gras and a couple of other little baubles that we might be needing for our evenings adventure.
Parking was not an option so as Kathryn made her way through the market I ran through the evening in my head. When we first embarked on this quest I had been in contact with the owner of Alinea about photos, flavors and what have you. In exchange for some much needed advice he asked if he could reserve to seats at one of our meals to give away in a raffle to an employee at their holiday party. I had forgotten about this until the day I showed up for my stage and was introduced to sous chef Andrew Graves. Quiet and incredibly professional, it was a few moments into my trailing of him that he let me know that he was the one who won the seats and he was really looking forward to seeing how we interpreted their food.
Over the 24 hours I spent working at Alinea in two days, I came to respect Andrew an enormous amount. As the shallow winter daylight slipped away, the reality of serving one of the Alinea chefs, who is responsible for the original dinners, created a tight knot around my midsection. Would there be enough salt, would the potatoes be hot enough, would we be able to serve our meal or would I seek his support and interaction? Clearing decisions by him, making him taste, poke, prod and not just relax and enjoy his evening?
The door burst open with a crisp bite of cold and the elegant aroma of the hot beverage Kathryn carried along with the sundry in a much smaller bag than I would have imagined. Still lost in thought I was mildly silent as the lake chased along our right side in varied tones of frigid blue. I was stuck in contemplation over the other guest for the evening whose opinion I was extremely interested in hearing.
Black Truffle Explosion Process
His name is Michael Nagrant, and he was asked by Grant Achatz to write one of the forward sections of his groundbreaking cookbook. The specific section he wrote was about the “Black Truffle Explosion,” one of the dishes we would be serving that night and one of the most unique and ingeniously simple pasta applications I had every encountered.
He was also in attendance at the meal served at Alinea just one month before, but instead of being in the kitchen, he was a guest – able to savor the same courses we would be serving. Unlike Mr. Graves, he wasn’t preparing he was eating and over the course of the series of recreations we served he would be the only person that ate both the initial meal and our interpretations.
As we fought for parking, a few miles north of the city, just inches away from Lake Shore Drive, my phone exploded in a cacophony of delayed messages. It had been trapped in the netherworld, designed by Apple and AT&T to remind us of how much we loved our beautiful telecommunication devices and how terribly useful they were. It seemed although our guests were not set to arrive for a few hours Mr. Nagrant had come by early to get dirty and participate in the exact portion of the Alinea meal that he had originally missed.
Arms full the elevator broke us into a pile of giggling and warm deliciousness. Something sweet was toasting into a caramel and its burnt candied notes were fighting with baking of yeast and simmering vegetables to see which would assail our senses first and most thoroughly.
Without many moments for pleasantries, I stumbled into the kitchen, with a warm hello from everyone and the handful of premature guests who were happily working their way through the mis en place for the night. Michael was grinning wide with a camera in hand and keen eye for capturing the ridiculousness that was evolving.
Daniel, was also full of gregariousness while he walked me around the kitchen and letting me know where we were in our preparations and list of issues we would have to creatively solve before service. Our $200 dollar Sauterne had found its way into our shellfish fumé, ruining both, our refrigerator (laundry room) had now taken to directly reflecting the outside temperature and was hovering around -10C, turning it into a freezer and crystallizing a few of the more delicate gels that would have to be replaced and worrying us all that a second flood was imminent from a frozen pipe, and someone had dropped caramel ice cream all over the floor in what was a tragic yet magically entertaining explosion.
Nothing was too dire and as it seemed Daniel had managed to create interesting and appropriate solutions to all of the problems at hand. I set forth into a flurry of movement preparing the front of house and getting the platting and staging areas ready for the never-ending pile of food that would be served over the next four hours.
Then without real drama or tragedy we served twenty-five courses of some of the most technically difficult food in the world. With a warm group of extremely interested guests, after each course the room was alive with help. Plating, preparing and story telling were danced around and embraced. The hours poured past and the wine was drained from every bottle we had access to, with a slight turn to the syrupy and charred bourbon that was replacing the delicate fruit of the sauterne.
Not being a man of subtle stature after a long evening of cookery and drinking, I confronted our two distinguished guests in their drunken and sated state. Mr. Graves had entered a state of relaxed conversation but was beyond reserved with his words and was quickly overpowered by Mr. Nagrant’s firm opinions and statements. With a stereo just feet behind me struggling to accomplish the herculean task of providing dance party beat from speakers measured in millimeters, he cleared his throat and made sure I knew that he was impressed. In his opinion, if we had been able to recreate 20% of the flavors, textures and concepts behind the dishes then we would have at least have provided an equal level of value, but he was very proud to announce that our meal had been executed to 80% of the original. With a few misses that he described as diametric interpretations of the ingredients or preparations, which were good but nothing like the original.
Savory to Sweet Course - Raspberry and Rose I Bacon, Apple and Thyme
He then walked me through the event from the tableside at Alinea, describing the majesty and pomp that created the elegant air of perfection at the meal, juxtaposing that to the open kitchen and participatory nature of our meal. With a struggle in his voice he informed me that he could not figure out which experience he enjoyed more. It was with this amazing compliment that I let Paper Planes over take me and dance along with the rest of the crowd, rejoicing in their accomplishment of either serving or eating that night’s meal.
Our team with the chef's at Alinea