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.
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.