A large robed man squeezed his way into the corner of a tiny, low-ceilinged room where 10 of us sat on tatami mats, squeezed around two small tables pushed together to form one. His robust stature combined with the fact that we were sitting on mats made for a strange scene. I was hyper-alert, as you would be walking down a shady street in an unfamiliar neighborhood at night, put on edge by the foreign surroundings. I kept trying to predict what was about to happen, even though this was the environment I was most comfortable in. A restaurant. Strangely, I had to keep reminding myself that in fact I was in a restaurant and we were in fact about to have dinner, because there were very few indications, at least not from the cues that I was used to. The conversation stopped and everyone focused on the silent man.
He began to sing. No, no that's not right. He began to belt out a song with arms flailing, brow furrowed, lips quivering, and eyes focusing on invisible things in the tiny room. Of course, it was in Japanese, and I had no idea what he was saying, but somehow it didn't matter. The fervent emotions were powerful, and they simultaneously transported me farther into a world I didn't understand and set me at ease, by reassuring me that this was real but wildly different.
We had been in the miniature room for 10 minutes but it felt like an hour, and already the experience was unlike anything I had ever had while dining. I eagerly awaited the next oddity, and wondered how I would process this in the end.
It is honestly quite rare for me to be a diner. While most people, perhaps like you, are meeting friends, dates, and colleagues for dinner and drinks at your favorite restaurant, I, of course, am most often working. One of the great ironies of being a chef is you rarely have time to eat, let alone dine. So whenever I am away from Alinea traveling, I have no choice but to become (mostly) normal and eat out. The very act can be inspiring, but eating out in a place where unfamiliarity is normal is especially exciting.
And the oddities came, one right after another. Giant sacks of blowfish semen lying on a bed of soupy bland rice porridge, arrived with the chef in tow. Through a translator he explained that he had placed only three grains of salt in each dish so we could fully understand the nuances of the delicacy. Delicious? No, not even close. Unusual? Certainly.
A whole poached, hollowed-out yuzu came floating in an aromatic broth. It had a mysterious clear film covering the opening where the top had been sliced off. Inside were three seeds from the fruit. No, wait, they were roasted soybeans acting as seeds. We were instructed to eat the entire fruit, including the mock seeds, which would bring us good luck. It was creamy and not in the least bitter. A cleansing, overwhelmingly healthy feeling consumed me as I took it in.
A basketball-sized snowball was placed on the table. Our hostess for the evening, the chef's wife, pulled up the sleeves of her kimono and chiseled the top off the sphere with chopsticks. She instructed us to reach into the hollow dome and remove one of the several clams contained inside. She warned us that they were hot. Of course cooks are accustomed picking up hot things in the kitchen, and how hot could it be if it was sealed in a giant ball of ice?! I reached in and had to juggle the palm-sized clam to rest on my plate, and...it was...in fact...hot. While this was happening I felt a fiery cold on my cheek, I turned and there was the hostess, smiling and pressing the lid she had chipped off the ice sphere onto my face. "For contrast," she said.
At one point, when the lights in the room dimmed to a faint glow to coincide with a course, it became clear to me. Actually, it hit me over the head in the darkness: this is an avenue I need to explore at Alinea. Not poor lighting but the manipulation of the environment. The food was not great, in fact some of it was not even good, but somehow this was working. This chef had succeeded in crafting an experience that was transcending. Imagine if I could choreograph elements of the meal in this manner, and simultaneously serve delicious food. We would be onto something.
At this restaurant they had a clear vision of the experience they wanted to convey. However, the tools that they used to build it were far different than those that most chefs consider, and for that reason they were inspiring to me. Of course, I feel the dinner could have been better if the food had been more to my liking. But in terms of being inspired, maybe it was better that there was a clear separation. Would the effect of manipulating the dining environment been as clear if I had been focused on amazing food? Perhaps not. In this case, the sacrifice was well worth it.
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