Making Food With a Sense of Humor


Photo by Lara Kastner

OYSTER CREAM lychee, horseradish, caviar


We like adding a touch of whimsy to the Alinea experience to make it fun and in some cases thought-provoking. It can also be a useful creative tool in helping us transform ingredients or compose dishes in a playful way, heading the dish in a direction we wouldn't find if we took the process too seriously.

In this dish, we manipulate the textures of most of the ingredients to mimic those of others while maintaining the flavor integrity of each. The concept becomes a fun challenge for us as we decide which ingredients should mirror others and which techniques we'll use to accomplish that.

For example, using a process we learned years ago while trying to turn various liquids into puddings, we steeped briny oysters in cream, strained them out so only the flavor remained, solidified the liquid with agar agar, and then pureed the gel in the blender into a velvety-savory pudding that imitates the popular horseradish cream. Horseradish, an ingredient commonly paired with oysters and caviar, is infused into water, gelled, and chopped into small pieces that roll on the palate like caviar and then melt rapidly, giving sharp, richness-cutting relief to the opulent impersonator.

I enjoy the idea that we focus on the underdog ingredients. Many would spoon a mound of caviar in the bowl and be done with it, letting luxury prevail over thought.

Finally, lychees--to me the conceptual starting point of the entire dish--are simply peeled and their pits removed; the resulting quarter-sized pieces resemble the look and mouthfeel of raw shucked oysters. It was seeing lychees' close aesthetic and textural association with shucked oysters that initiated the impulsive and chain-reacting role reversal of the ingredients. And that role reversal produced, to my mind at least, the most interesting aspect of the dish. It was founded on the idea of psychological processes in relation to humor--not on the latest in gastronomic showmanship.

I also enjoy the idea that we focus on the underdog ingredients. Many would spoon a giant mound of caviar in the bowl and be done with it, letting luxury prevail over thought. In this case the true focal points are the otherwise slick and lean oysters transformed into a rich velvety pudding and the floral lychees acting like raw oysters.

Originally I was not planning to add osetra caviar. From a pure food perspective the dish didn't need it: all the components necessary to make it delicious and compelling were present. But after I continued to think about the dish, how it came to be, and what it represented, I wondered if we could make a point with the addition of some beautiful osetra caviar.

If we added the caviar to the dish for no other reason than trying to prove that even as one of the most recognizable, sought-out, and status-validating foodstuffs known, in this context it is basically inconsequential, then we solidified the concept in earnest. And we made a joke encompassing everything including deliciousness.

As it turns out, the whimsy carries through to the wine pairing. The floral lychees immediately made gewürztraminer seem logical, but in fact that wine proved to give too many of the same tones on the nose. Instead Joe turned to an Alsatian pinot gris, which he claims can echo the floral ripe tropical fruit notes in a subtler manner while matching the zing of the horseradish and briny aspects of the oyster. After we settled on the varietal, it was a matter of finding the right pinot gris to parallel the level of inherent dryness and intensity brought on by the assertive seafood elements and horseradish.

Domaine Weinbach's 2006 Pinot Gris "Cuvee Ste. Catherine" was the ultimate winner.

When you first smell the wine, the nose leads you to sweetness. The perfume of papaya, pineapple, apricot, quince, makes the mind think dessert. I recall repeatedly sticking my nose in the glass, looking at the dish, sticking my nose in the glass, and looking at the dish, thinking: "There is no way this is going to work". After finally taking a sip of the wine it reminded me of when you reach for a glass to take a drink of the soda you had been enjoying, only to find you grabbed a glass that contains water. The misguided expectations set up by one of the senses provide a perplexing reaction as the others realize the truth.

Grant Achatz's eight-part series on wine pairings will run on Mondays and Wednesdays for the next two weeks. Check back for his recommendations for what to serve with caviar, chocolate, and more.

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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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