Varying views on a high-profile cookbook

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I settled back on my couch and cracked the elegant “Alinea,” the gloriously polished, gorgeously photographed cookbook from the Chicago restaurant of the same name – an establishment that’s been called America’s best. I expected an intriguing education and a challenge.
Instead, it was clear before I even hit the essay titled “How to Use This Book” (it didn’t come until page 37) that “Alinea” wasn’t for me: I laughed. Worse, I snickered.

I hadn’t navigated more than a few lines into one typical recipe before tripping over these instructions: “Freeze for three months.” (That was the easy part).

Another recipe – actually, 17 recipes in one – called for juicing fennel, curing foie gras and emulsifing it with soy lecithin, dehydrating and torching onions, and procuring fresh fennel flowers. And that was before we even dealt with the squab that was the dish’s main event.

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I wanted the storyline behind the book’s intricate flavors and creations. (Why did we burn the onions? Why should the candied watermelon cube be placed precisely at the 3 o’clock position on the plate?)

The “Alinea” cookbook is a textbook rather than a storybook, though, one that went beyond reality into… what? I already knew Alinea relied on “post-modern” chemistry in its kitchen, and on wildly original flavors and textures, but this was something else. Studying the brilliantly abundant photos, some abstract arrangement as much as food, all I could think was that the book must be art.

So I called a former colleague, art critic Regina Hackett, and asked her to take a look. We set the coffee-table tome down at a local Subway. She admired the “chic” cover and started paging through. Soon, her engaged interest changed to a scowl.

"Is it art?" I asked.

She judged the stylish, young white men dominating the kitchen and dining room photos, the mannered, almost industrial tones, the food that seemed so cold and distant from its origins, the clever preparations that, for her, brought everything to mind from volcanoes to spit.

"I think it's supremely self-indulgent,” she said. “Pure style. That is not art. Art has some soul in it, even when it's incredibly minimal it has soul."

So I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t connect with the book. But I wanted to lug it one step further, and there I hit “Alinea”’s true niche. It was in the kitchen of Spur, a new Seattle restaurant that has won wild fans with splashy, chemistry-enhanced creations such as a deep-fried Bearnaise sauce.

Co-owners Dana Tough and Brian McCracken didn't need to look at my copy of “Alinea” when I walked in holding it under my arm – they already had their own on Spur’s kitchen bookshelf, cover already gone and pages well-thumbed.

"We jumped on this right when it came out," said Tough.

Did the book speak to them, I asked?  "We find recipes in [the Alinea book], and they inspire us to mess with those and come up with something different," said McCracken.

"What [chef Grant Achatz] is doing here is all revolutionary," Tough said. "It's all trying out new things, and seeing where he can take food.” The book “helps us lowly chefs around the country to come up with other things ourselves."

Even the price – $50, stunningly inexpensive for a book of its production level –was a treat for the young restaurateurs, endowed with more creativity than cash. The price break must have been, Tough thought, “so that chefs could buy it.”

The book’s audience was smaller than I had first pictured, but it was there. The book was more than the lab notebook it seemed to me, or the pretentiousness it broadcast to Regina.  For the two young chefs, it was a heady hit of inspiration, on every page.

Rebekah Denn writes about food at www.eatallaboutit.com and is a regular Monitor blogger.

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