Tableside Service 2.0: Beyond Guacamole

By Corby Kummer

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.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2009/06/tableside-service-20-beyond-guacamole/18911/