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Grant Achatz: The Culinary Wizard Shares His Secrets

Grant Achatz: The Culinary Wizard Shares His Secrets

Inside the Alinea kitchen (photo from flickr user biskuit)

Susan Taylor | Chicago Tribune

Grant Achatz shook up the culinary world in 2006 when his Chicago restaurant, Alinea, was named “our nation’s best restaurant” by Gourmet magazine. Since then, the practitioner of “molecular gastronomy” has earned kudos across the country, including the coveted Outstanding Chef Award from the James Beard Foundation last year.

Last week Achatz wowed an overflow crowd at Now We’re Cookin’ in Evanston, where he explained the thought processes that define his creations and signed copies of his new cookbook, “Alinea.”

To help diners use all their senses in enjoying food, Achatz pairs familiar flavors with unexpected sensory experiences.

He showed the audience how he deconstructs the elements of sweet potato pie into brown sugar, sweet potato puree, Bourbon and cinnamon so that he can reconstruct the full spectrum of flavors and aromas of the original—but placed on a burning cinnamon stick. He explained that the Bourbon, sweet potato puree and brown sugar were liquid at one point until set with either agar, gelatin or pectin. He used a cinnamon stick as an “aromatic handle” for a cube of each component, coated the combination with tempura batter and fried it.

The result was a crisp morsel, filled with liquid created by the heat from frying, which burst with the essence of sweet potato pie.

As the smoldering scent of cinnamon wafted its way around the room, members of the audience jumped at the chance to consume one of the “sweet potato pies.”

Years ago, while working at The French Laundry in Napa Valley, Calif., Achatz discovered that cooking can “be a medium for self-expression—an art form that could trigger emotions. … So often, fine dining is stripped of emotion, is pretentious and too formal. It’s anti-everything I wanted,” he said.

Instead, he delves into food memories, where complex emotions reside. He is especially adept at using aroma, which can be a powerful memory trigger. He channels “aromas like a typical chef uses an ingredient,” to create something delicious that also has an element of whimsy, surprise, comfort and sometimes even intimidation.