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Cooking Alinea, Eating Pizza

The Reader and Decider Chicago conduct a joint experiment in molecular gastronomy

By Julia Thiel and Emily Withrow (Decider Chicago)

November 20, 2008

Also see our slide show and video.

The Recipe

Pheasant, shallot, cider, burning oak leaves

The Idea

Grant Achatz has about 25 chefs working with him in the Alinea kitchen on any given night—and his new cookbook proves it. We’d been looking through Alinea for weeks, trying to find recipes from the upscale house of molecular gastronomy that didn’t require insanely specialized ingredients, prohibitively expensive equipment, or 15 different subrecipes. There weren’t many: the biggest laughs at the book launch party followed Achatz’s suggestion that we’d all try the recipes at home. But we wanted to try it at home, and the book was supposed to be a guide.

So we figured we’d try something together. We’d have a better shot with two people in the kitchen, and at the launch we’d watched Achatz himself demonstrate how to make “pheasant, shallot, cider, burning oak leaves.” Sort of. The shopping had been done ahead of time, the pheasant cooked, the shallots roasted, the cider gel set—the way Achatz made it look, creating golden tempura-coated chunks impaled on smoldering oak branches was easy. You stack the neatly cut cubes on an oak skewer while a sous chef prepares the tempura batter and heats the oil for frying. Hell, Achatz even had time to reminisce about the burning fall leaves of his childhood, the ones that inspired the recipe but got him in trouble with his general manager when ashes sullied the Alinea dining room. We could totally do this.

Ingredients of the Gods

After a 40-minute phone conversation about ingredients (What are gray shallots? Where do you buy pheasant or agar? Where do oak trees grow in the city?) each of us took responsibility for about half of them, dividing up the more ambitious sounding ones. Some turned out to be deceptively simple: Julia visited a butcher and a health-food store searching vainly for pheasant breast and agar (a solidifying agent, also called agar agar) before finding both at Whole Foods. Gray shallots, however, were another matter. The Internet might be full of pages praising the gray variety’s merits, but we had to settle for the run-of-the-mill kind.

Even oak branches proved elusive. The oak trees we found—or at least those we identified as such, in the dark, from vague memories of high school biology—had no branches low enough for us to reach. We ended up wandering around Rogers Park with scissors until Emily spotted a branch she deemed sufficiently “skewerish.” Her husband would hoist her up, Julia would pass up the scissors, and the branch would be ours. (Achatz gets his oak twigs from a florist. Amateur!)

The Equipment

•Standard knives, bowls, spoons, pans? Check.

•High-speed blender? No. The high-speed model Achatz recommends run about $400, so we went with Emily’s KitchenAid blender.

•Thermal circulator? Yeah, right. Designed to keep water temperature exact and constant, they cost nearly $1,000. A pot, stove, and candy thermometer was the best we could do. Our pheasant might be overcooked, but it would still be pheasant.

•Chinois? Nope. How about cheesecloth? Our gel might not be satiny, but it would still be gel.

•Vacuum sealer? No. We chose to rely on brute force to push all of the air out of the bag before sealing it with a 70s-era sealer donated by Julia’s parents.

•Digital scale? OK. The measurements in the cookbook are by weight instead of volume, making it crucial to have a digital scale. We didn’t, so Emily bought one for $50 that weighs to the nearest gram.

•Squid service pieces? Um . . . no. The stainless-steel pieces Alinea uses to serve this dish are, like the rest of the serviceware, designed exclusively for the restaurant by Crucial Detail (PDF), a design studio that moved from San Diego to Chicago four years ago at Achatz’s behest. They have metal prongs that hold the food upright and are available for $35 apiece. Corks and copper wire would have to do.

The Plan

As its name suggests, the recipe has four major elements: pheasant, shallot, cider, and burning oak leaves. We figured we’d spend our first hour preparing the cider gel, which had to set for two hours, and roasting the shallots, which needed to stay in the oven for an hour. Then we’d gather the leaves, create the skewers, cook the pheasant, and prepare the tempura batter and oil for frying. After assembling the components on the skewers and frying them, we’d set our leaves on fire and enjoy the fried fruits of our labor—all eight bites.

The Results

See our slide show and video.

Who says you need expensive equipment? In the end, our cider gel didn’t set up right, our roasted shallots were too soft, and our tempura batter was a thick paste. But the pheasant was perfect despite the absence of a vacuum sealer and a thermal circulator. And we eventually managed to thin the tempura batter enough that we could dip our skewers in it without losing cider gel and shallots in the muck (although we had to add twice the water the recipe called for). True, Emily’s husband did compare our first attempt to a chicken nugget. But later ones, where the tempura batter wasn’t so overwhelmingly thick and the shallots and cider gel stayed on the skewer instead of getting lost in the batter, turned out much better. Not half bad, in fact.

Shopping time: 3 hours

Cooking and cleaning time: 7 hours

Cost of ingredients: $60

Cost of equipment: $80

In the November issue of Chicago, Achatz says of the cookbook: “The recipes are not hard. I challenge anyone to find a recipe in that book that is more complicated than your basic scratch chocolate cake.”

Achatz, consider that challenge met. We make a damn good chocolate cake.

Lessons Learned

To find out why we hit so many snags along the way, we checked out Mosaic, a Web site for users of Alinea. Among the videos, dramatic images, and sample recipes is a forum for questions from would-be Alinea cooks. Many are of the where-the-hell-do-I-find-this or why-didn’t-that-work variety. Achatz and his business partner, Nick Kokonas, respond to some questions themselves, as do other Alinea chefs, so it’s a great resource. A lot of the users appear be professional chefs (they even swap tips on recipes that aren’t in the book, such as “foie gras ice cream with liquid sable”)—casual cooks seem few and far between.

One person responded to our what-went-wrong post, where we asked about our problems with the too-soft gel and shallots and too-thick tempura batter. He didn’t have any insight on whether the temperature of the sparkling water made a difference in the consistency of the batter. But he said that in his experience, agar flakes are much weaker than powder. The book didn’t specify; we bought flakes. He also suggested there might be errors in the recipe. He suspected he’d found several himself; of the nine recipes he’d attempted, only three came out as they should have. The rest, he thought, had mistakes in ratios.

We’d seen a few other mentions of mistakes on the site, and Kokonas confirms that they’ve found four or five errors in the book so far. But he says many of the problems people have had with the recipes are caused by basic mistakes in technique—like not blending long enough, which was the suggestion he offered for why our gel didn’t set up enough (although we blended the mixture for a full five minutes).

Subsequent e-mails with Achatz elicited the same response; he said the agar flakes should have worked fine but probably require longer blending time than agar powder, which the restaurant uses. (He also mentioned that the Postmodern Pantry, a part of the Mosaic site that provides information on the “magical white powders” required for many of the recipes, will begin selling those ingredients in small, inexpensive packages within the next month.) As for our other mishaps, he noted that regular shallots may roast faster than the gray variety because the gray ones tend to be bigger, but the gloppy consistency of our tempura batter was a mystery to him.

So we hadn’t discovered errors in the recipe after all, though we might have found some in our technique. The legitimate mistakes that others have found will soon be posted in a Mosaic forum and will be corrected in the third edition of the book, due out in February (the second edition, already sold out, has been printed but not shipped).

Our Advice

Go to the restaurant and pay for a meal. The $145 tasting menu, at 14 courses, is a bargain compared with the time and energy this took. Seriously.

When Achatz signed our books, he wrote, “See you at Alinea!” You win, Achatz. We’re making reservations.

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