Reviewer says
Alinea, Grant Achatz | 2008 | US

reviewed by Daniel Chan

Alinea
by Grant Achatz
Publisher: Ten Speed Press, Country: US
ISBN: 9781580089289, Year: 2008
This review is the personal opinion of the reviewer.

Overview

Along with Heston Blumenthal’s “The Big Fat Duck Cookbook” and Ferran Adria’s “A Day at elBulli”, Grant Achatz’s “Alinea” was one of three highly anticipated books on molecular gastronomy released in 2008. The merits of molecular gastronomy have been argued in many forums and over countless dinners. While Blumenthal’s book provides a strong case that there is substance behind the hype, Achatz’s book may provide ammunition for those who don’t support the culinary revolutionaries. The recipes in the book are visually stunning and the techniques can leave you in wide eyed awe, but there is a gaping hole in that there are too few words from Achatz about his creations. It is also noticeable that the most satisfying writing in the book was by other contributors. It is these weaknesses that left me disappointed in the Alinea cookbook. Remove the essays, especially the one by Jeffrey Steingarten, and you may feel that the emperor has no clothes.

Full review

Structure of the book

The book starts with six essays, written by Michael Ruhlman, Jeffrey Steingarten, Mark McCluskey, Michael Nagrant, Grant Achatz, and Nick Kokonas. The recipes are then presented in four complete degustation menus, one for each season. An index follows, and Alinea finishes with notes on each contributor.

About the author

Grant Achatz is the owner/chef of Chicago’s Alinea. He studied at the Culinary Institute of America, before working at The French Laundry and Trio. Besides his achievements in the kitchen, Achatz is an enthusiastic user of the internet to promote his work. The development of the restaurant and book were tracked on the eGullet website, the Alinea Mosaic website was set up as an accompaniment to the book, and Achatz is a regular user of twitter. “Alinea” is his first book.

How is this book interesting/special/new/useful?

The first section of the book contains a series of essays. It starts with Michael Ruhlman’s essay “Toward Creativity”. Ruhlman writes about the development of Achatz as a chef, the hype surrounding Alinea, and finally, the chef’s impulse to create. He clearly reveres Achatz’s achievements.

The second essay, by Jeffrey Steingarten, describes dinner at Alinea. While Ruhlman seems to have a man-crush on Achatz, Steingarten writes with a more detached eye, but also with more warmth and humour. One line summarises Achatz’s obsession with food, his eye for detail, and the potential absurdity of Alinea’s food, “All Grant does is tweeze. Tweezing must be truly important to Grant”. He shares his anxieties about dining at Alinea, worried if he’ll understand the food, concerned how comfortable he’ll feel in the restaurant, and wondering if they will give him salt if he asks for it. With self-deprecating humour, he admits that he didn’t know how to pronounce Achatz. Later, he expresses his fear over the first dish, served on the end of a long, thin, steel wire. As the essay progresses, his fears turn to an embracing of Achatz’s vision. Steingarten had three dinners at Alinea, and not unexpectedly, he finishes with some glowing words about the experience. This piece is the most impressive and entertaining part of the book.

The next essay is by Mark McClusky and is titled “Postmodern Pantry”. McClusky explains and defends the use of new ingredients and technology in cooking. An important point is made that these new methods won’t succeed unless you have an extremely good grounding in cooking. He compares the successful use of a food starch called Ultra-Tex 3 at Alinea to his unsuccessful trials in his own kitchen. Next is a tour of what chemicals you will find in your own kitchen, emphasizing the point that chemical modification of food is an everyday occurrence. McCluskey finishes with his views on Alinea’s food, commenting that, “Alinea’s food doesn’t evoke, it provokes. It’s not comfort food that looks to the past; it’s challenging food that looks to the future.”

Michael Nagrant’s “Black Truffle Explosion” is a fascinating essay on how this dish was created. It covers the inspiration for the dish, how it was developed, the problems that arose and how they were solved.

We then move onto Grant Achatz with his essay, “Where It Comes From”. He writes about how he creates new dishes and the methods he uses to stimulate his creativity. There are eleven basic creative methods, and two of them have further variations. He uses his dishes to explain how the techniques are used in practice. His anecdotes , insights, and the associations drawn between different foods provides a much needed window into Achatz’s mind. This essay provides the reader with a far greater understanding of Achatz and his food than all the recipes in the book.

Nick Kokonas’s essay has the self-explanatory title, “How To Use This Book”. Kokonas encourages the readers to experiment with the recipes. He gives an example of how he modified an Alinea dish for preparation at home. Pertinently, he comments that “Alinea is a kitchen based on precision, and the recipes often read more like a book on baking than a book on cooking”. There are two pages explaining the equipment used, with suggestions on alternatives if the restaurant equipment isn’t viable. Next is a two page glossary of ingredients, followed by a short and pointless essay titled “Centerpiece”, and then a very interesting explanation about how the Alinea menu is constructed. Finally, there is a short discussion about the Alinea Mosaic, a website companion to the book.

The rest of the book is devoted to the recipes. There are four full “Tour” menus. Spring has 26 courses, Summer, Winter, and Autumn all have 27 courses. Alinea’s dishes comprise of a number of components. These components have their ingredients and methods listed, with final assembly instructions at the end. All recipes are as they are done at Alinea.

The rest of the book is devoted to the recipes. There are four full “Tour” menus. Spring has 26 courses, Summer, Winter, and Autumn all have 27 courses. Alinea’s dishes comprise of a number of components, each with their ingredients and methods listed, and final assembly instructions at the end. All recipes are as they are done at Alinea. Professionals and foodies will be in awe and inspired by the techniques and presentation of the dishes. The recipe “Rhubarb in Seven Different Textures” encapsulates the technical skill of the Alinea chefs: as well as presenting the rhubarb in seven different forms, they are also pairing it with seven different flavours. The dish “Wild Bass, Mushrooms, Red Wine, Several Embellishments” has a visual beauty reminiscent of Michel Bras’s signature “Gargouillou of Young Vegetables”. Any restaurant that presents a dessert like “Liquid Chocolate, Chicory, Dandelion, Banana” will quickly create a devoted following.

What problems/flaws are there?

The primary reason for any cookbook are the recipes, and in that regard, Alinea is generous. But the better cookbooks go beyond a mere listing of ingredients and method, and provide a context for the recipes. Traditionally, context has not been vital because most readers had an understanding of how a recipe should behave. However, when a new field of food is being introduced to the public, then the importance of providing background information is increased. As thorough as the recipes are, they are almost rendered meaningless to the vast majority of readers. Unless they have dined at the restaurant, there will be a significant disconnect between their own eating experiences and what they see on the page. Sure, the pictures make the food looks tempting, but how will it taste? What textures are there? If we were to make the dish, how close did we get to what Alinea do? What adjustments need to be made? This is the major drawback of this book. Apart from the ones mentioned in Achatz’s essay, there is no explanation on how the dishes should taste. Adding to the frustration, there is nothing from Achatz on what inspired him to create each dish. When they discuss the Alinea Mosaic website, they make the point that they deliberately said little about the ingredients and dishes to leave the readers to make their own interpretations. But I feel that this is misguided as without an idea of how the textures, tastes, and smells should work, there are not enough personal sensory signals to interpret. Their approach was risky and I feel that it didn’t work. The reader is left with a disappointing feeling that Achatz could have said a lot more.

Who might enjoy/use this book most?

Cooking professionals will get the most use out of this book as they will find plenty of ideas in the recipes. Those who have dined at Alinea will find this a good memento of their visit, and cookbook collectors may want to add this to their bookshelves. But beyond that, I can’t recommend this book to the general public. The best parts of the book are the essays, but they take up less than 50 pages of the 400. The value just isn’t there.

This is an original review for The Gastronomer’s Bookshelf.
Main rating: 3. Recommended – some flaws
Visual appeal: Okay
Suitability as a gift: If the person is really interested
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4 Comments

  1. Posted 22 Jul 2009 at 13:16 | Permalink

    Interesting review. As someone who studies and aspires to the molecular gastronomy movement, I loved the book. You’re absolutely right that the recipes require some knowledge of the techniques and ingredients, but if you have that, then the world is yours. My only disappointment was knowing that by the time the book hit my hands, the techniques were already old hat.

  2. Posted 22 Jul 2009 at 14:46 | Permalink

    Gfron1, thank you for taking the time to post your comments .

    I have no doubt that cooking professionals and those who have a passion for molecular gastronomy will love the book.

    But for those without that depth of knowledge or who want to get a grip on moleculary gastronomy, there are better options (notably the Big Fat Duck Cookbook).

  3. Posted 22 Jul 2009 at 15:25 | Permalink

    The good news about those thinking of buying the Fat Duck Cookbook is that Bloomsbury is coming out this October with a smaller-format version of The Big Fat Duck Cookbook (called just The Fat Duck Cookbook) which costs nearly a fourth of the original.

  4. Posted 07 Oct 2009 at 03:42 | Permalink

    I feel compelled to offer a follow up comment to my previous one. I have now had this book since its original release, and I have used it countless times for full recipes and partial components. In all I have made well over 100 recipes from the book. I am shooting at abotu 60% success. I believe I have the experience and skill set, and I am buying the exact ingredients listed in the book yet far too many recipes don’t work out. I’ll accept that it could be errors on my part, but my guess is that the precision required for MG cooking requires that you have the exact ingredient, stove, pot, etc that they use in the Alinea kitchen to ensure success. To me that makes the book more one of inspiration and base recipe resource than a highly useful one. I still love it, and I would need to see that blog that worked its way through to know about their success level, but I now highly caution people before buying this book.

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