Kickstarting Alinea

On April the 25, 2014 I backed a Kickstarter called 'The Alinea Project' by Allen Hemberger. The description read as follows:

 The Alinea Project

Hi there; I'm Allen. I've spent the past five years working my way through the Alinea cookbook. I've been documenting my progress in writing and photography along the way. Over the course of the project, I've built precisely-controllable heating chambers for warming chocolate, learned how to import super-fresh fish from the Tsukiji fish market in Japan and washed more dishes than I could possibly keep count of. Every recipe in the book has offered new and unique opportunities for me to deepen my understanding and appreciation of the food I eat, how it is procured and prepared and how it can be used as more than just a source of nourishment, but as an expression of artistic creativity.

This intrigued me. I have always had an interest in cooking, even (in my teens) spend some time in a restaurant kitchen that had a Michelin star at that time, complete with a chef that had a serious alcohol problem. But never anything spectacular. I had never heard of Alinea, never heard of Grant Achatz. Yes, molecular cuisine was (somewhat) familiar, I read some books on flavor pairing and the totally incomprehensible "Sous Vide" by Heiko Antoniewicz. But that was about the extent of it. I used my sous vide basin to cook meat. Maybe with a salad on the side.

So, the idea that one would take up an insanely complex book (which, I am certain now, was never meant to be used as a cook book in the first place) and spend this amount of time to cook through it, was an idea to which I had (and still have) to tip my hat to.

I had no idea whether the resulting book would be any good. Nor did I care. I simply wanted to be part of that journey, if only as a bystander.

I paid my dues, was excited for a day or to, and then gradually forgot about it. As is often the case with Kickstarter project, the deadlines get delayed. And delayed. And delayed again. This is in no way criticizing Allen, I believe it is just the way things go, when people are enthusiastic but lack in business experience.

In August 2014, I ordered the actual Alinea cookbook. I flipped through it. Admittedly, it was rather nice to look at, the photography is rather good, the recipes seem to be straight forwards. But as far as imagining to cook these things myself… no way!

Another six months passed, until early February 2016, the book finally arrived. By that time, I somehow had an image in my mind that it would be a commentary on the original Alinea cookbook. But instead I found a very personal story of a regular guy (although clearly with a very keen sense of aesthetics and a background in design and photography, judging from the sheer production value of the book I received) trying to do something he never had done before and that he was – at the outset – in no way competent to attempt.

I told a friend of mine, Christian, of this book, and a bottle or two of red wine later, we decided, well doing something we were not competent to do, we could do that too.

The first attempt, supposedly one of the easiest recipes, ‘Bacon, Butterscotch, Apple, Thyme’, worked out somewhat ok, except that the Bacon wasn’t right, the Butterscotch took 2 attempts, the Apple failed. But we added the Thyme leaves alright.

The second recipe, THE easiest one, ‘Dry caramel, salt’, was a complete disaster. (I will have separate post about both recipes). But we drudged on, each in our own way, Christian always willing to take shortcuts and substitute, me always trying to do things as perfect as possible, buying yet another rare ingredient or obscure kitchen gadget.

Now it is three years later.

I own a large kitchen (in a rental apartment), an induction stove, an oven that can grill, steam, sous vide, a professional grade sous vide basin and vacuum sealer, a Pacojet, dehydrator, meat slicer and grinder, a juicer, blender, food processor, spray painter, and I have enough sieves and chinois that I could open a medium-scale restaurant. And yes, I am from time to time looking for used rotary evaporator.

I have travelled to the Tokyo fish market and bought Mastic from the bazar in Izmir. I have imported ingredients that might not necessary be legal where I live.

I have had the pleasure and privilege to dine at the Aline Restaurant and get a reference for what I was doing so far and it was not all bad.

But most of all, I have learned an unimaginable amount about cooking. I came to understand that (at least some of) the photos in the Alinea cookbook no not show the recipes described, that the measurements are sometimes gravely incorrect, that food waste apparently is not an issue at all. Beware of the Agar agar. And no matter what, you always strain through a chinois.

I also came to understand that you can not simply follow a recipe as if it were a building manual for a Lego model. You have to try, try again, and again.

And I look at food in a different way. I eat something and try to figure out the components. Why they combine in the way they do. What works, and what doesn’t. What could be done better.

And for at least that last part, my world has forever changed. For the better, I hope, although I clearly see that ignorance can be bliss at times, when I watch friends gush about some dish and I am thinking “The cooking oil is old, the veggies are too soft, the meat clearly not done en sous vide, the sauce does neither have a good flavor profile, nor is the consistency goog – some agar agar, maybe?, and can we – please – get it presented in a way that doesn’t look like somebody puked on the plate”.

So for this, thank you Allen Hemberger. And good luck with the Aviary Cocktail book. Because mixing booze and drinking, I am competent at.