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What Grant Achatz and Alinea Have to Teach about Eating at Home

On Monday night I attended a discussion with Grant Achatz, a young chef best known for elaborate experiments in molecular gastronomy, and Nick Kokonas, his business partner in the Chicago restaurant Alinea. The two, who recently wrote a memoir, “Life, on the Line,” about Achatz’s career and his battle with cancer, spoke with Amanda Hesser, of Food52, at the Institute of Culinary Education, in midtown Manhattan.

I was struck by how much of what they said about haute cuisine applied to the life of the stay-at-stove dad.

They serve a 24-course menu of small bites at Alinea. Customers get just a taste. “We make people want,” Achatz said.

Isn’t that exactly what parents are after? To get their kids to want to take one more bite?

Achatz grew up cooking at his father’s diner, in rural Michigan, and he said that the high-tech food he makes these days—which has included things like applewood ice cream on the end of a wire—is very similar to the mashed potatoes and gravy of his youth. They are both, he said, about “delicious food that evokes emotion.”

Isn’t that like cooking at home? We want to make things that make our kids happy.

Achatz added that in “the case of the diner, the emotion might have been comfort, whereas at Alinea it might be intimidation or humor.”

This may seem to complicate things slightly from the stay-at-stove dad perspective, but I assure you there is a lot of fear involved in feeding a family. Kids are often terrified of new dishes, and I’m afraid they won’t like what I make.  Humor is always a welcome relief.

At Alinea, they serve dessert in a radically different way. Apparently, a silicone covering is put on the tabletop and the chefs spread the ingredients out as if they are painting an abstract picture. The dessert is eaten off the table.

I don’t know about you, but my kids can have a hard time keeping the food on their plates. Now I can tell them that eating off the table is proper four-star restaurant behavior. What great idea!

Achatz says that they do things this way at Alinea to “change dining from the simple monotonous process of shoveling food into the mouth.” And who wouldn’t want to accomplish that at home with their children?

Achatz’s approach to dining is to be kept in mind by parents who need to feed their children. He said that in planning dishes he likes to ask himself “What can we do that’s really silly, to ultimately have some fun?” Now, that’s the best advice.

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