The Alinea Experience
Updated: Feb 10
For the better part of the last decade, I’ve been chasing an experience at Alinea in Chicago. My combined years working in the restaurant industry and living in San Francisco, we’re looking at half of my life. I’m a ‘foodie.’ The last restaurant I was a part of gave me the privilege of working with an Executive Chef who came from the French Laundry. An impressionable experience that forever changed the way I viewed dining as I had not experienced such an intense commitment to perfecting the culinary arts in every aspect. The food. The service. The wine. All of it. I love it.
Perhaps it was around ten years ago, I happened to catch an episode of Oprah that featured Grant Achatz telling the world his story. The summarized version is a rising star in the culinary world quickly became one of the top chefs in the world after being trained at the French Laundry. Within a week of opening his first restaurant, Alinea, he earned his first Michelin star only to have his world nearly come crashing down with a diagnosis of throat cancer. If you haven’t had the chance to catch the episode from Netflix’s Chef’s Table series on Alinea, do yourself the favor. You will be blown away by the story, perseverance, creativity, teamwork, leadership, passion - you name it, it has it all.
Life worked itself out and put me in a position to experience Alinea for the first time on March 3rd. Traveling for work has its perks, though I paid for dinner, not BetterWorks. Not even watching Alinea’s episode on Chef’s Table well over five times, could have prepared me for the experience. And I knew what to expect. I knew I was going to be surprised. Yet I was caught off guard and left with a feeling of pure wonderment at every turn. Half way through the experience, I was ready to submit an application to be a dishwasher, busboy, waiter, whatever I could. By the end, I was inspired by the attention to detail, creativity, commitment to chasing perfection and decided I was going to be a chef when I grow up.
When you arrive, you are shielded from the slightest glimpse of what you are about to experience by an isolated lobby. When the table is ready, you are escorted to the dining room where you begin to get an idea on what you are about to experience from the faces of others already a few courses in. Once you are seated, the conversation immediately becomes the large bowl of oranges acting as the centerpiece of the table with a few of them perfectly sliced. A perfect citrus aroma radiating from the table begins to awaken your sense of smell as you prepare for the first courses. Off the top of my head, I couldn’t even begin to tell you exactly what it was except that it was perfectly presented in the wedge of a lime joined by some other stuff, with some other stuff, topped with fresh trout roe. The saltiness balanced with fresh citrus doing a masterful job waking you up and immediately wondering, “What’s next?”
The show was just getting started. Dry iced was then poured into the centerpiece of oranges to be served with some crazy, artfully recreated orange filled with some kind of refreshing citrus juice in the center to go with some Australian crab I had never heard of bathing in a heavenly coconut curry like sauce. Once the course was finished, the orange centerpiece was replaced with a much smaller bowl that appeared to filled with salt. Only it was lit on fire to form a campfire at the table. Wild. The next course was served, it was amazing but also seemed like it was second place to your imagination wondering, “what the hell is going to happen with this campfire?”
Right before the table side campfire was put out by a bundle of juniper bush, you were served a plate of rocks. A plate of beautifully polished black rocks that included two ‘rocks,’ with an olive flavored shell filled with an artichoke puree that perfectly balanced out the olive flavor.
As you finish the best rocks you’ve ever eaten, your attention shifts back to the smoldering juniper bush to discover the next course is some kind of veal donut perfectly camouflaged on top of the juniper bush. At this point you are fully engulfed with the experience and just ready for whatever comes next. And some great things come next…
After a couple of smaller courses, the entire dining room is interrupted by the staff for a ‘special surprise.’ One by one, every table gets up to be escorted Into the kitchen for the next course along with a cocktail made from an insane looking old school cocktail shaker - one of 30 that exist in the world. While in the kitchen for this next course, your attention quickly diverts to watching the team execute on an amazing experience led by Grant and Executive Chef Mike Begale. I’ve met a fair share of celebrities in my day from professional athletes, actors & actresses, leaders in business and I had not experienced the feeling of being ’star struck’ until I stood in the kitchen just steps away from Grant hovering over the dishes about to leave the kitchen with a laser-like focus.
Returning to the table, the element of surprise continues. With a pair of tongs, the waiter pulls a perfectly cooked potato from the ‘campfire’ and begins to construct a bowl of chowder. The next course is delivered next with a red-hot coal roasting a piece of squab joined by a vanilla bean shaped and flavored piece of beef. In preparation for dessert, an aerated piece of goat cheese is paired with a cleansing pineapple shiso shot.
While the primary dessert course was nothing short of amazing, the ‘Nostalgia’ course, a green apple flavored fruit rollup like balloon is delivered to close the evening. Like a balloon, you cannot help but leave floating from a dining experience that leaves every sense in the clouds long after the last course is served.