Experiential Dining: Japan to America

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Photo by Heather Sperling

Alinea is not a restaurant that encourages free will. In fact, we take most of it away for the evening to ensure the guests experience the restaurant as we intend. The most obvious example of this level of control is the menu. In most restaurants, this document's purpose is to outline options for the diner to custom-create the experience they desire for the evening. A choose-your-own adventure, if you will. But we want you to experience the adventure we have created, so we offer two progressions of 12 and 27 courses in length, with no choices to be made.

The dictation doesn't stop with the menu format. Clearly, if we are so adamant about what you should eat, then certainly we have to determine how the courses are sequenced, encourage guests to eat things in a certain order and from a specific orientation, with a specific paired beverage and using specially designed utensils, in a manipulated environment. We have to carefully choose language to describe the food about to be consumed, and even engulf the guests with selected smells to evoke emotion reactions that enhance the overall experience and solidify the vision.

"Wait," you're thinking. "This isn't dining! This sounds more like a psychology experiment. Clockwork Orange perhaps?"

Admittedly, it can sound a bit absurd on paper.

So why do we do all this?

The truth lies in the experience. It is rare that in today's world we give ourselves completely to someone's idea, and I think this surrender of choice can provide some exciting and rewarding results. We have a very specific vision for the overall experience Alinea should provide. In order to see that realized by our guests, we need to make sure that all of the elements are in place to support the vision. We need to control the experience fully.

Part board game, part gastronomic language exercise, this idea provides a fun, entertaining, engaging way for guests to control their destiny for a single course.

A few months ago, I started asking myself: is there a way to integrate choice into the menu while staying in control? Could it ultimately give us even more control, because the act inherently creates a new feeling and reaction? The idea I started bouncing around was essentially an "a la carte moment" in the midst of the tasting menu experience, which has previously been all about acquiescence and surrender. The aim is to give the diner a sense of freedom and control, which is a break in rhythm of the meal.

I was lucky enough to dine at the famous Kitcho restaurant in Kyoto while in Japan recently. This was my first foray into traditional kaiseki dining, and the experience was one of the best of my life. Rather then give you the play-by-play for the entire evening I want to focus on one course in particular that connected the contemporary and traditional dots for me. Midway through the meal, Andoni Luis Aduriz and I were given wooden mallets (not your typical eating utensil). The hostess explained that for the next course a large clay pot would be placed in the center of the long table. Andoni and I were to lead the group in a chant before using our mallets to break the clay and reveal the food inside. It was a fun, engaging activity that certainly elevated the tempo of the meal. The curiosity and excitement of the group peaked as they all participated in the experience vicariously.

Once the damage was done, the portions of fish, wrapped in layers of paper, a bamboo mat, and aromatic leaves, were removed from the destroyed vessel and served to the guest. I couldn't help but relate the event to a game of some sort. Sitting there eating the fish, I recalled the thoughts I had had months earlier involving the introduction of a similar concept to the meal at Alinea. After returning home from the trip I decided to pursue the idea aggressively, no doubt because of the enjoyment I experienced from being on the receiving end of this idea.

To help us achieve this we have developed the adjective concept. Part board game, part gastronomic language exercise, this idea provides a fun, entertaining, engaging way for guests to control their destiny for a single course.

Each guest at a table gets a card with four rows of six words. The rows are defined by characteristics. In the example below, from left to right: Row one is flavor, two is texture, three is emotionally driven, and four is temperature. As a group, the diners have to select one word from each category or row. Once the group has made a decision, they turn in their choices to the waiter. The waiter hands the choices to the kitchen, where we create a dish based on the guests' four choices. Soon after, the result of their choice--their exercise in limited free will--is served. Or will be.

Presented by

Grant Achatz is chef and owner of Chicago's Alinea. He grew up in the restaurant industry, literally, with restaurateurs as parents and grandparents. More

Born in Michigan in 1974, Grant Achatz grew up in the restaurant industry, literally, with his parents and grandparents being restaurateurs. Naturally curious and always driven, he could be found in the kitchen by his twelfth birthday and over the coming years spent most of his free time there, learning and developing the very skills that would allow him to become one of the foremost innovators in the field. Early on he realized he wanted to become a chef, and upon graduating from high school, he immediately enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America. Excelling at the CIA, Achatz graduated and ascended the culinary ladder at several prestigious restaurants, including the acclaimed French Laundry in Napa Valley. Achatz worked closely with owner Thomas Keller, and thrived in his highly creative, dedicated environment. After two years, he became Keller's Sous Chef. In a decisive move to broaden his knowledge and experience, Achatz accepted a position as Assistant Winemaker at La Jota Vineyards after four years at The French Laundry. Then in 2001, he returned to the Midwest when he accepted the Executive Chef position at the four-star Trio in Evanston, Illinois. Achatz flourished at Trio, garnering accolades including being named the James Beard Foundation's 2003 Rising Star Chef in America and one of ten "Best New Chefs in America" by Food & Wine in 2002. Under Achatz's lead, Trio received four stars from the Chicago Tribune and Chicago magazine and was honored with five stars from the celebrated Mobil Travel Guide in 2004. Known worldwide in culinary circles as one of the leaders in progressive cuisine, Achatz realized a lifelong dream by opening Alinea in Chicago in May 2005. From day one, Achatz and Alinea received extraordinary attention and unprecedented accolades. The Chicago Tribune and Chicago magazine both awarded the restaurant four stars within months of opening, and the James Beard Foundation nominated Alinea as the Best New Restaurant in America within a year. In September 2005, The New York Times identified Achatz as the "next great American chef." In October a year later, Alinea received the coveted Five Diamond Award from AAA, and Ruth Reichl of Gourmet magazine declared Alinea the "Best Restaurant in America," an honor bestowed only once every five years. Under Achatz's leadership, Alinea continues to receive worldwide attention for its hypermodern, emotional approach to dining. In both 2007 and 2008, Alinea was named one of "The S. Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants" published by Restaurant magazine, and Achatz himself received the James Beard Foundation Outstanding Chef in America award, the culinary equivalent of an Oscar, in 2008. Achatz has appeared on the Today show, CBS Sunday Morning, the Food Network, the Discovery Channel, and PBS, and has been featured in dozens of periodicals across the US and the globe including countries as far away as Sweden, Finland, Great Britain, Spain, Italy, the Philippines, and France.

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