Behind the world’s most expensive dessert

Written by By Jeevan Vasagar, CNN There’s a lot going on in the kitchen of Grant Achatz’s Chicago restaurant Alinea . The high ceilings, the sharp angles, the tall billowing curtains — and the…

Behind the world's most expensive dessert

Written by By Jeevan Vasagar, CNN

There’s a lot going on in the kitchen of Grant Achatz’s Chicago restaurant Alinea . The high ceilings, the sharp angles, the tall billowing curtains — and the desserts. But the eponymous Achatz, the chef, has been quiet.

“He’s kind of just indulging in another branch of his work that we don’t see outside the restaurant,” said Alinea’s pastry chef Emily Simonton in the first episode of “Your Best Shot,” a new show from CNN Food and CNN Style.

Born in Chicago, the son of homemakers, he turned his family’s kitchen into a crucible for creativity. “He would often serve with his mum a 4-week-old dinner. I remember it was a lamb neck that had been flown all the way from Russia,” said Alex Andelman, who co-wrote a biography on Achatz published last year.

After stints at Boston’s French Laundry and in Sydney where he conceptualized the Australian experience at the Little Sparrow, he arrived in Chicago in 1996. Alinea opened in 2003.

Deep in thought

“The nature of Alinea is deep in thought with methodical precision,” said Andelman, who was also an alumnus of the restaurant. At the peak of Alinea’s popularity, Achatz built a restaurant nearby and a hotel.

Spice Cake pictured inside a trolley. Credit: Emily Simonton/CNN

But the conversations were focused on that, and how best to meet demand. “There wasn’t a lot of street food,” said Simonton. “Achatz didn’t really want to share space.” The restaurant is still bare on the outside and inside, white and pristine.

When changing Alinea’s menu, he doesn’t allow his chefs to contribute their own work. “It’s for them to dictate what they want to do as a chef, he said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen.”

“But I think that’s one of the things that makes it interesting,” said Andelman. “He’s letting them develop their own concepts.”

While he always had a “loose” idea of what he wanted to do and where he wanted to lead, a year ago, he announced he was retiring, leaving both the kitchen and the restaurant in the hands of his lieutenants and proteges.

Enjoy the loss

He said to join Achatz in retirement was to “enjoy a loss,” and he said he didn’t want to “dwell on what’s gone on the last 15 years or so”. But he also went on to say that food in the age of smartphones and instant gratification needs to be art and craft.

“We’re taking our special knowledge and our special skill set and bringing it to a bigger picture, you know? I want it to be kind of like a finger painting. It’s not just a frying pan and a pot. We’re pulling elements from a bunch of different things.”

Alina Raghavan, Alinea’s head pastry chef and Alinea’s culture director, is one of the few who has remained in the kitchen. Raghavan works with the group’s wine and spirits educator Michael Olstein, sharing other people’s cooking techniques and updating Achatz’s recipes, mostly from the Western world.

What’s trending right now includes something very Achatz.

“I’ve just launched strawberry peach chiffon.” It’s something he’s been working on. “We’re trying to make the world like a melting pot.”

“The people are having a great time and are really excited to have something new and to try out something that’s a first of its kind,” she said.

“Alinea is not just ice cream and desserts and chocolate. It’s a whole experience.”

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