Monday, December 15, 2008

Just Asking… Alinea Chef Grant Achatz

The molecular gastronomy maestro talks about cooking with Thomas Keller, the downside of celebrity-chef status and his favorite cheap comfort foods

Situated in an unassuming building on the outskirts of downtown Chicago, Alinea has become a culinary mecca for world gastronomes. The American den of molecular gastronomy boasts a $225, 25-course menu that can last upwards of three hours, and awards such as Best Restaurant by Gourmet magazine.

At the center of the hype is chef Grant Achatz, who was diagnosed with tongue cancer in July 2007 and went into remission last December. Over the past year, Mr. Achatz, 34 years old, has put the return of his taste buds, which he temporarily lost to radiation and chemotherapy, to good work. In October, he released his first cookbook, "Alinea," a 416-page molecular gastronomy guide, filled with vivid photographs and recipes. And he just wrapped a three-date cross-country cooking tour with Thomas Keller, whom he studied under at Mr. Keller's renowned French Laundry in Napa.

The Wall Street Journal Online spoke with Mr. Achatz, who won the James Beard Foundation's Outstanding Chef award this year, about the making of his book, his hesitations to expand and how the economy has affected his business.

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Coup de Gras After working both coasts, a fashion plate French chef tailors his dream fish restaurant in the Midwest's Carnivore City.

You cook like you look." So chef Laurent Gras informed his partner, Richard Melman of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, as they prepared to open Chicago's L2O this May. Exactly. With his spiky hair and custom designed stretch denim chef's jacket narrowly fitted in gray and white pinstripes, this lithe, handsome Frenchman is clearly more Armani than abbondanza. The polar opposite of a Molto Mario, Gras meticulously plates perfectly cut sashimi and tiny freeze-dried raspberries using a tweezer. No steaming platters here.

A corollary might be that you also cook like your kitchen looks. Philippe Starck pendant lamps illuminate the work counters covered with black silicone mats. Nonskid floor tiles could easily be mistaken for slate. Neatly labeled rows of clear plastic Oxo containers displaying spices inspire closet envy of Carrie Bradshaw magnitude. Chic, calm, modern, restrained, perfectly ordered. "It's very comfortable to work here. There's less stress. You're not so tired," Gras says. "When the staff feels comfortable, the diner feels more comfortable."

Gras' personal passion, the sashimi station, headlines the kitchen, and it's there where he stands to expedite. From that vantage point, a clear sightline runs through the entire length of the kitchen. He can see every station, every cook. And he can keep an eagle eye on the fish. This son of the Mediterranean, who grew up in Antibes, confirms that he has "a very strong interest in fish."

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