New Fusion: Making Old Modern

By Grant Achatz
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Photo courtesy of Martin Kastner/Crucial Detail


While the food we create at Alinea falls clearly on the contemporary side, we never forget the importance of classic cookery. My culinary foundation was formed by the education I received at the Culinary Institute of America, and further established at my four years at the French Laundry. Some of my fondest food memories, both on the preparation and consumption sides, involve very classic preparations.

My friend Eric Ziebold (today the chef of Citizen in Washington, D.C.) and I would often challenge each other to mental and physical duels in the French Laundry kitchen. Races to tourne all varieties of vegetables, truss boned-rolled-tied lamb loins (and then measure the consistent distance between the strings), and trivia games based on ingredients in Georges Auguste Escoffier's recipes would often help us stay motivated through the busy prep days.

Many of our dishes at Alinea are based on these very techniques, flavor combinations or menu progressions established years ago by the great cooks of France. These known concepts are good starting points for creativity and pose interesting challenges when we try to modernize and improve upon the ideas. When working with a classic, the challenge is to honor aspects of the original dish while making it indicative of the chef's personal style.

But sometimes the original dish can be used to make a statement. Instead of featuring an updated, re-worked classic on Alinea's opening menu, we included a dish executed verbatim from Escoffier's Le Guide Culinaire: number 3970, "Fonds d'Artichauts Cussy," page 478.

Is it a moment of gastronomic time travel? Where is the theatrical line?

As media coverage built anticipation in the months of the restaurant's pre-opening period, I agonized over the menu. Yes, service and design had to be tight. But the menu was the guide by which the first guests of the restaurant--the media, the front of house staff, and the cooks--would perceive Alinea. The hype surrounding the restaurant was swirling and much of the talk was about how "molecular gastronomy" restaurants barely cooked anything, abandoned all sense of tradition, and served food that lacked soul. (Keep in mind that this was in 2005, and the worlds of popular gastronomy and popular culture have come a long way in terms of the acceptance and understanding of progressive cooking and its intentions.)

The Escoffier dish was meant to make a statement. In Michael Ruhlman's Reach of a Chef, he asks me why I put the dish on the menu:

"Foie gras, truffles, and artichoke--it's perfect for us," Grant says. "...It's more than a hundred years old and it's new. And," he grins, "it's a personal F-U to all of those people who say, 'Ah those guys just work with foam over there.' We know how to work with foie gras, we know how to turn a lot of baby artichokes."

Four years have passed and I have certainly grown up a bit. Frankly, I am embarrassed to read that quote I gave Michael, and admit it was overly defensive--no doubt a result of trying to stand up for what I believed in while taking some hits. That being said, the point of this example is that the inclusion of a dish on a menu can have significance beyond its taste.

Recalling the opening menu and the Escoffier artichoke dish makes me think about the concept of fusion cuisine. Popularized in the 1970s, and given a negative connotation in the '90s, it is a genre of cooking that involves blending elements of various culinary ingredients and techniques.

When we think of fusion, something like "Japanese-Peruvian" usually comes to mind. But in the case of the artichoke dish, the fusion isn't about two cuisines; it's about two time periods. I'm excited to revisit this idea, and I've started to extrapolate the theme of "period dining:"

Can the juxtaposition of modern and classic preparations within the same menu elevate each by giving a clearer perspective of evolution? Or does it show how little cooking has really changed?

Can it fulfill different emotional aspects through the contrasts?

Will people even notice?

Is it a moment of gastronomic time travel?

What if we go to an antique store and purchase ornate silver flatware and gilded plates to present these dated creations? Is presenting these concepts on the service ware true to their period any different than designing special serve ware to accentuate the modern cuisine of the present?

How far should we take this approach? Can we adorn the table with items that establish the sense of era, like candlesticks, or serve the wine pairing in cut lead crystal stemware?

Where is the theatrical line?

To help illustrate the juxtaposition between classic and contemporary preparations, in the photo above, we have inserted a traditional roasted rack of lamb on a simple serving plate in the midst of a tabletop of modern concepts currently served at Alinea. While it is not our intention to serve a group of dishes together as shown here, we felt it was the best way to convey the striking contrast and thereby help elicit the emotional response that may be experienced while eating at Alinea.

We have recently added another dish straight from Escoffier's "Supremes de Pigeonneaux Saint Clair" that will appear as course 19 in our 27-course tour. I'm headed to the antique store tomorrow to look for inspiration...

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2009/04/new-fusion-making-old-modern/13020/