Tableside Service 2.0: Beyond Guacamole

I kind of wondered where Grant Achatz had been--no one who contributes to the Food Channel really has a life unless it's registered here, of course.

Being Grant, he had whipped off a meticulously produced and technologically sophisticated book proposal for a memoir of his experience with tongue cancer; we'll be keeping it with his other posts, and reading it will only make you impatient to see more.

He'd also been reinventing the plate, and the whole concept of tableside service. Any visitor to Alinea is welcome in the kitchen, which is open to the ground floor of the restaurant but also separated by a hallway. You ask permission. You observe quietly. You're careful about talking to anyone less you disrupt the hushed, operating-room-like concentration.

Now the chefs come to you, to show you what they're doing--but in a way that goes way, way beyond mixing egg yolk and pounding anchovies for a Caesar salad or mashing avocado for guacamole in a stone mortar. Achatz and his closest collaborators wanted to bring the kitchen action to the table, literally, and, being who they are, spent years and months figuring out the right material to do it on.

They've come up with a method so odd and complicated in practice yet easy and simple in concept--a flexible sheet like a placemat that becomes a canvas they work on right in front of you--that I asked for a slideshow, which Achatz narrates in what our producer, Eleanor Barkhorn, calls his "movie star" voice.

I still don't quite get how it works in practice, and am still not over my surprise that this most conceptual and precise of cooks is letting guests, in essence, become fellow cooks for a course or two. But I know it's what a lot of curious diners ache to be, especially when they're on those kitchen visits--the equivalent of involuntarily starting to do steps while watching Fred Astaire. And that now Alinea will be even harder to get into.

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Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." More

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." Julia Child once said, "I think he's a very good food writer. He really does his homework. As a reporter and a writer he takes his work very seriously." Kummer's 1990 Atlantic series about coffee was heralded by foodies and the general public alike. The response to his recommendations about coffees and coffee-makers was typical--suppliers scrambled to meet the demand. As Giorgio Deluca, co-founder of New York's epicurean grocery Dean & Deluca, says: "I can tell when Corby's pieces hit; the phone doesn't stop ringing." His book, The Joy of Coffee, based on his Atlantic series, was heralded by The New York Times as "the most definitive and engagingly written book on the subject to date." In nominating his work for a National Magazine Award (for which he became a finalist), the editors wrote: "Kummer treats food as if its preparation were something of a life sport: an activity to be pursued regularly and healthfully by knowledgeable people who demand quality." Kummer's book The Pleasures of Slow Food celebrates local artisans who raise and prepare the foods of their regions with the love and expertise that come only with generations of practice. Kummer was restaurant critic of New York Magazine in 1995 and 1996 and since 1997 has served as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He is also a frequent food commentator on television and radio. He was educated at Yale, immediately after which he came to The Atlantic. He is the recipient of five James Beard Journalism Awards, including the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.

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