A relentlessly experimental chef needs to know what he's doing, a friend who had worked at the Fat Duck was telling me last night at a soothingly familiar Italian supper (even if in very sleek surroundings and with jarring lashings of butter dressing the pasta). The Fat Duck, of course, is one of the international landmarks of pushing-the-boundaries cooking. I'll try to get him to recount here some of his stories of what he watched Heston Blumenthal, the former enfant-terrible chef and owner, put into his dishes in merry and defiant ignorance (my words, not his! and to be fair, Blumenthal has showed in his books that he too has a healthy love and understanding of classic Italian food, whatever he makes at his restaurant).
I responded with an account of how Grant Achatz is the opposite of that, with his rigorous training and experience at the French Laundry, and the concern for flavor that always comes through above the theatrics and ceremony at his Alinea. I didn't dream, though, that I'd learn as much about the thought that goes behind creating that experience, and the attention to every kind of diner, neophyte and seen-it-all professional, Achatz puts into his every plan. Today's post shows that and more, and I'm viewing his series like the reader of a Dickens serial novel, never knowing what's coming next--as, even better, Achatz doesn't know himself.
For exoticism of the kind everyone approves of and travels to find, Maggie Schmitt takes us to breakfast in Tangier, where the familiar mixes with the un- in a natural, time-evolved juxtaposition any Achatz-inspired chef can point to whenever sniffy purists like my friend and me last night start scolding. And then Carol Ann Sayle reminds us in her always-smart, down-to-earth way what's necessary to get anything onto the table: rain.