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One Day at Alinea

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All I wanted was a picture of me in a chef coat in front of Alinea. Possibly planking. I took the train into town, then a surpassingly long taxi ride to Alinea. The taxi driver dumped me in front of an ugly building, and skidded off. I stood there, chef coat in hand, staring up from the sidewalk at the ugly, small dark facade, thinking, “This can’t be it.” There was no fancy LED sign, no neat entrance, just a dark un-swept corridor with a carpet littered with leaves and trash, with two doors at the end. I looked down at that carpet and reconsidered the planking idea.

This image didn’t meld with my mind’s iconography of ‘Alinea’. I expected the outside of Alinea to be an embodiment of their hopelessly chic cookbook cover. Not daunted, I walked around the block, thinking “maybe the BACK is the front – tricky bastards”. I walked into a back service ally lined with trashcans, chain link fences, and gravel. Not promising. I found the back of the restaurant, with a walk-in, a LN2 dispenser the size of a Mini turned upright, and a small Weber charcoal grill, smoking away with a box of un-husked corn sitting next to it. Huh. I was standing there, counting my Alinea photo trip as a total loss, when all of a sudden a kid my age walked out the back door, looking wide-eyed and harried. “Is this Alinea?” I called out to him. “Yeah!” he called back to me, running around the corner, “You here to Stage?” I looked at him curiously, “That would be cool, but I just wanted to get a picture in front of the restaurant…but it was really ugly…I wasn’t sure I was in the right place. Do you guys need a stage?” He shrugged and said, “Let me talk to my chef” and ran back inside. I stood there with my hands shaking. What the hell was I getting myself into? The only time I used tweezers was to remove splinters. I wasn’t even wearing socks….or a bra. My knives were safely at the house, hidden away from my aunt’s curious children. The back door swung open again, and Christian Bale walked out.

Well, it wasn’t really Christian Bale. It was Alinea Sous Chef Matt Chasseur. And he looked like a much handsomer version of Christian Bale. Long strait nose, slicked back hair, high cheekbones, and a demeanor that radiated a teutonic intensity that scared the shit out of me. He agreed that I could stage if I got some black pants. And non-skid shoes. He mentioned, intensely, that the day was already underway.

After he went back inside, I took off at a sprint, running harder than I had in my adult life. The first woman I saw on the street I cornered, and demanded to know where the nearest clothing store was – she directed me to a Forever 21, 3 blocks up. I kept running, not heeding traffic signals, zig-zagging through intersections, until I got to the store, bought some pants, and shoes. Then I ran my ass back, all the while on the phone, calling everyone I knew, to tell them, breathlessly “OH MY FUCKING GOD I’M GOING TO STAGE AT ALINEA! I’M A FUCKING KITCHEN CINDERELLA GOING TO THE BALL BABY!!”

When I got back to Alinea, I ran into a blonde kid, who took one look at my black chef coat and told me to go change into a white one. I went downstairs and could only find a HUGE white one. The basement smelled horrible, like strawberry air freshener – sickeningly, pungently sweet. I got the hell out of there and headed upstairs. I swung open the kitchen door and was amazed. My first thought wasn’t “oh, the door to the best kitchen in the nation is open to me” but rather “Oh shit look at all that carpeting.”…for indeed, there was A LOT of BLACK carpet at Alinea. And it looked really clean. Then the kitchen door slammed behind me and everyone turned to look at me, like I had just thrown a beer bottle or said a swear word. The blonde guy ran up to me again, and told me to report to the chef, or in his words “The scary-looking guy over there with the hair.”

I went over to “the scary guy” and thanked him again for having me, and asked who he wanted me to follow. He spent most of that time glaring at my shoes (converse style sneakers, best I could find in 3 blocks), which were obviously not non-skid, and obviously bugged the HELL out of him, but he told me to follow the guy who found me outside, Johnny, who worked the explosions station.

I walked over to Johnny, and asked what I could help him with. Johnny was a bundle of crackling energy. He had long, wavy brown hair, and soft eyes. He was skinnier than even me. I felt pretty bad that I would be making his night more difficult. Johnny instructed me on how to take truffle half circles or half spheres and form them into globes, working quickly to keep them from melting in the hot kitchen and my warm hands. The truffle balls smelled gross. Like nail polish remover and truffle. Both smells I don’t enjoy individually, but together, were pungent and not something I would put in my mouth.

But what do I know. As I formed little gel balls, I got a chance to look around the kitchen. The kitchen was huge. There were pot wash stations at either end of the line, and a separate room for washing the dining room plates and glasses. There were two sides to the line, with long prep tables running down either side, coolers underneath, a long, wide carpeted walkway down the center. Behind the work areas were cooking areas, with induction burners, dehydrators, upright coolers, a small range, hood, etc. Little shelves for storage. On the left side were large windows to let in light during the day. Over the workstation were bright lights for accuracy.

The table I was working on was a rolling prep table, which was a little precarious. As I worked, a handsome blonde guy came up and started seeding what looked like juniper berries with a pair of long tweezers. Next to him was a guy using a pasta roller to roll out orange sheets of pasta with odd black stripes. The Chef was wrestling with a vitamix at the top of the line, which was making its happy efficient vitamix noises. A blonde girl at the top of the line was burning something. It smelled horrible – there was no hood over her burner. No one was telling her that it was burning… Actually no one was talking to one another. At all. Or laughing. It was utterly silent except from the wrrrrrrrl of industrious machinery, the sloshing of the dish machine, and the gentle click of juniper-boy’s tweezers. Then the quiet was punctuated by the Chef barking at the blonde girl to take her burnt what-ever-it-was outside because he couldn’t stand the smell.

My first mistake was opening a cooler door. When I closed it, I made noise. An Alinea rule is that when you open a cooler door, it has to make no perceptible noise when you close it. Or else. Or else everyone in the kitchen will glare at you like your cell phone just went off, or you just dropped a dollop of anthrax onto the anti-griddle. Christ.

Johnny chided me, “At Alinea, we work fast, and we work quiet.” I’m used to working fast, but I’m a noisy little fucker. I click my tongs, sing to myself, slam cooler doors, joke with waiters, dance around, practice round-house kicks, perform elaborate drum solos with tasting spoons….it took a conscious effort to shut the hell up. To not make ‘explosion station’ jokes. Not to ask a billion questions. Not to slam doors. Not to hum. To refrain from adding sound effects when using tweezers.

Suddenly I was scarred shitless by the sound of a vacuum. Yep. A fucking vacuum. One of the line cooks fired up an industrial vacuum and ran it over the black carpeting, while another ran ahead with a broom to make sure all the scraps got sucked up. Every 20 minutes they ran the vacuum to keep the carpeting spotless. The blue-collar kitchen tweaker in me wanted to jump up and down with joy.

After I finished I making gel balls, Johnny and I made a bunch of meez for a veggie salad. Peeling cucumbers, carrots, stuff you would do in any restaurant, but here it was more complicated. Make cucumber ‘scrolls’, infinitely fine onion and pepper julian, strings of carrots to be marinated then made into little cocoons using tweezers. Using LN2 to freeze tomato gapacho-y stuff, then break the shit out of it with the butt end of an isi, so you had tomato-y ice. Freezing goat cheese. Setting out different varieties of heirloom tomatoes – big yellows and reds, small purples, yellows, red, green, etc. – laying all that out on flat metal trays, the kind surgeons would use in the operating room to hold their instruments.

Then suddenly everyone started screaming about 5 MINUTES! And staring vexedly at the clock, like we were on “Top Chef” or something. And everyone put away what they were working on, and we started cleaning. Not like, wiping down our stations cleaning, but a head-to-toe kitchen clean. Like, someone even climbed up and Windex’d the windows. All the dishes, pots and pans got scrubbed and put away, and the kitchen was put into a health inspection state of order. There was even a specific way of wiping down the stations. Instead of my languid feminine arcs, I was told to take the towel and clean in a stiff front to back motion – the Alinea way.

Then staff meal was set up. Big trays of grilled flank steak, corn on the cob, arugula salad with melon, and white rice, with water or iced coffee to drink. Everyone sat in chairs pulled up to the workstations to eat. I sat across from a chef stage’ing from Manhattan, a younger guy externing from Madrid, and a waiter with a lunch box containing a very healthy looking meat-free lunch. Leaning back on my little chair, I tried to get a peek at the dining room, but I didn’t have on my glasses, and all I could see was murky ambiance, and white soft curtains back lit with colorful lights. The waiters looked hip and young. One had a huge afro that looked effortless but at the same time well kept. I wouldn’t want it anywhere near my food. Everyone ate quickly and we soon cleaned up. Apparently there was some free time after lunch to be had, but I didn’t see anyone opting for that, we just set up our stations, finished our meez, and for me, this meant a trip to the smelly basement to find supplies. The Alinea basement is big and like most restaurant basements. There is a bathroom, wastebasket overflowing with paper towels. A big ice machine next to baskets for dirty towels, coats, and aprons, respectively. A little room with a computer where a red-faced man sits typing, glowering at anyone who makes too much noise coming down the stairs. The obligatory smelly locker room, where I left my purse with 300$ in it, ipod and various other valuables, and nothing was stolen, a testament to the character of the place. Further on are shelves with dry goods, a back nook, with a locked cage containing aprons and clean towels, which can be pried out through the bars by any smart line cook with tiny fingers, and a need. Still further back is a crawl space with still more ingredients, extra equipment, pots, etc, that can be reached by a stepladder. Watch your head.

Before service started chef Matt cornered me and essentially told me I looked horrible. He asked why I was wearing a large chef coat, etc. so I had to run down to the basement, armed with the newfound knowledge of where the extra small chef coats were, grabbed a new apron, and then, annoyed for being called dowdy by Christian Bale, stole a bunch of towels from the cage for me and Johnny with the help of the nice blonde guy. I peeked further down the basement and saw that some of the other stage’s were having to clean out the crawlspace and organize. I was really happy I hadn’t gotten tapped for that. Feeling fresh, and not frumpy, and armed with crisp white towels (the ammo of line cooks in every restaurant from fine dining to fast casual) I headed back up to start service. Of course, when I got back up Johnny had to correct how I hung my towels on my apron, under the string, not over – the Alinea way.

Service started with a table ordering. A server ran back to the expo to tell him how many people. 3. The expo would yell out “ordering 3”, and then every one would scream “ORDERING 3” all militant like. Then they begin firing the courses in order, in a domino effect. One triggering the next, down the line, so you knew yours was coming up, because the one ahead of you was getting ready to go. But if a “pairing official” (can’t remember the exact term) or wine pairing went with it, then you had to wait for the wines to be poured. This system could also get kind of messed up if someone didn’t have their shit together, then it was like when you built a domino chain, and one didn’t fall….like the great chocolate plate catastrophe of the night. In which the chef discovered the chocolate plate was a hot mess, and spent the night plating it, and essentially supervising all of the meez being re-prepped. His rage was scary and awe inspiring. We had our own disaster, when plating our dish, to Johnny’s exact specifications, only to discover the chef wanted it plated waaay differently. I could only stand there, trying to project “innocent bystander”.

The salad plate went something like this: 5 spoons of gazpacho (chilled on ice), one quarter of yellow heirloom big tomato, one quarter heirloom red tomato. One tiny green tomato. One tiny purple tomato. One tiny red tomato. One tiny yellow tomato. One other red tomato. (all seasoned with salt, pepper, EVOO, and Vin. that order), the cucumber scroll, and tiny carrot cocoon, then the frozen goat cheese, frozen tomato gaz., dehydrated crouton, and sea salt. It was accompanied by a herb garden center piece. The chef would run out the door periodically and reemerge carrying these uprooted bunches of plants- soil still attached, on slate slabs. He would then meticulously spray the plants with Salt and Pepper water in little hair dresser sprayers, until the plants were soaked and dew-like. This was a pretty simple plate actually compared to the rest.

Apart from the salad, we had to make frozen flower things. To make these I had to go get Ln2. Which they assumed I’d be capable doing. Little bit scared of Ln2 actually- but I didn’t really admit that at the time. They gave me a jug and said, “Go outside to the cage and fill it up. You’ll know when it’s full.” So I went out to the giant Ln2 bomb, and stuck the hose in the jug, turned the wheel to the left, and suddenly the air around me filled with white gas. I stood there, thinking Dr. Strangelove-y thoughts, engulfed in a cold cloud. I stopped before I “knew” it was full, because what if it overflowed onto the street? Did it just dissipate? Or would it just lay there, a potential steaming frozen tripping hazard for a few hours? I lugged the jug back inside – taking care to NOT let the door slam behind me.

We poured the Ln2 into foam coolers, and put foam lids on them. The cooks at Alinea are fearless of Ln2. I was using tweezers to grab things out of it. They just reached their hands into it, chiding me with “As long as your hands arn’t wet or damp, it can’t hurt you.” Essentially saying “Wow, you won’t stick your hand into the subzero smoking vat of gaseous liquid. Pussy.” – The Alinea Way. To make the flowers, you immersed metal circles into the gas, chilling them, then took them out, sprayed them with yuzu juice, for a really long time. The yuzu juice was in these sprayers like your hair stylist would use to wet down your hair, which was pretty ineffective. The sprayers would get clogged often with the sticky juice, and had to be soaked to fix. A smart alternative would be one of those paint sprayers that they sell at home depot. Once the metal was covered in the juice, it looked frost covered, almost fractal-like. You eat them with a spoon I’m assuming. Putting your tongue to the frozen metal would have resulted in a Christmas story scene that would have been awesome to witness.

On the station there was also made a ravioli out of that truffle orb that I made earlier which would ‘explode’ in your mouth. It was topped with a little wilted lettuce, some black truffle, truffle sauce, and parm. Once service started I didn’t get many chances to wander around the line. It wasn’t that busy, they were doing less than a hundred covers, but it was scary. People were getting barked at right and left for plating, rims, etc. I didn’t want to be anywhere near the kill zone. On a trip up to the dish pit I saw a roe dish that was breathtakingly beautiful. The eggs were brilliantly orange against white, and yellow. It was Faberge intricate. It stood there, glittering and brilliant under the bright overhead lights. I stood there looking in awe, and then Chef stared at me, and I dug off.

Another time, sweeping down the carpets, I got to see the dishes up the line, and did more staring than sweeping. A row of vials lay out on delicately folded napkins, filled with tiny colorful sparkling flowers. I stopped dead. Vials. Clear glass tubes. Filled with clear liquid and flowers. It was the weirdest thing I had ever seen in a kitchen.

Another plate was white and had tiny playful Gauguin colored cubes laid out on it. There were little flag posts that held the ‘pasta’ I had seen being rolled out earlier. Orange stripped with black, or white with greens. When it was ordered, they would say “2 flags, or 4 flags, and sometimes 6 FLAGS,” which I thought was funny. I wondered how you ate a flag…further down was the chocolate plate. Which had a small glass standing on it, and the plate itself had a cartography to it. Hills, valleys, and plateaus.

Another plate across the line was totally out of place. While other plates and bowls were modern and futuristic, this one was made out of porcelain, with a gilded edge, it looked almost Russian. Something you would see in the Hermitage museum, part of the royal families china collection or something. The meat dish on it was beautiful and modern, but the plate itself was antiquated and opulent. There was another dish that involved wrapping sea weed(?) around pieces of drift wood. Another dish was truly odd. It was plated on varnished wood, almost like an award, or plaque, covered in a frosted glass top.

The components of the dish were small, from tiny globes, to squares, to a dish of tomato seed/ fog egg looking things, to a spoon full of something. Everyone was plating with tweezers, which they kept securely tucked into the front of their chef coats. They used them the way most chef’s use tongs – to dip things into sauce, to put things on plates, to grab bits of meez component. I guess when you’re operating on the scale Alinea is, tweezers make a lot more sense. It was a lot easier to work clean with them as well. They were hard to get used to though, as they don’t open very far, and are pointy and sharp. They made the fact that I used tongs feel archaic, even caveman-like.

The waiters wore dark pants and mandarin collared black jackets, and looked very smart. They carried out the food on huge black leather lined trays, edged in embossed silver, that looked very heavy. There weren’t any chicks carrying those trays that I saw. They weren’t very happy either. They all wore stone cold expressions, and took the plates without explanations of delight. I would have been pretty happy if someone handed me a tray full of yuzu snow cones, but these guys were non-plussed.

So what was Alinea like?

1. Clean. We cleaned at least 4 times during the 9 to 10 hours that I was there. Four big all out cleans, and numerous smaller cleans. Add that on to constant line sweeps, and vacuuming every 20 minutes. Everyone’s station was spotless, and if it was less than perfect, the chef was sure to sweep over and scold you, and fix it. It was conducive to working clean, having such a clean environment. Everything was shiny, no ‘kitchen grime’ anywhere. All the equipment – the coolers, the bottom shelf on the prep table, the bottom of the pots and pans, the bottoms of the hotel pans, the backs of the equipment, the shelves under the line, the windows – everything was clean. This was a kitchen in which any surface was clean enough to eat off of. Which is not true of most restaurant kitchens, sadly.

2. Intense. It’s a broad word, but Alinea was intense. No one talked or chatted. No one smiled. People ran to the dish pit. There was an air of almost panic during prep, and palatable tension. People’s prep tasks were relatively small, and they struggled to complete them. Consequences for substandard products were severe.

3. Young. I’ve never seen a kitchen with so many young people in it. It was like The Kitchen of Youth or something. It was weird not working with 30-50 year olds. I wonder what it would be like to work with people with young ideas about food everyday…

4. Hard. On a stage, you’re practically guaranteed to look like a fucking moron. At Alinea, it’s hopelessly inevitable. In lieu of another Alinea cookbook they should write The Alinea Way: How to Do Everything in The Kitchen, from wiping your station, to washing a pot, to folding a towel. The vastness of Alinea ways of doing things was pretty astounding to me. I was there for a night, and I re-learned how to at least 20 things. Simple things. From closing a door, to wiping a plate. Because they have their own way. And it’s very practical and efficient. You look like an idiot to them for not knowing it, or not knowing where the broom is. Or that the whisks are hanging on the side of the cooler. It’s all the humiliation of a regular stage, doubled because it’s Alinea. The stakes are higher, people are strung three times tighter, you look five times stupider, and mistakes are a million times more unacceptable.

5. Not For the Fluffy. The line at Alinea is tiny. Even for me, and I’m used to tiny lines. Excel in tiny lines. But here, an open cooler door was not just an obstacle, it was a barricade. Moving down the line was an obstacle course of squeezing and maneuvering. Needless to say, there were no large people. And the waif-ly cooks seemed to have a real advantage when scampering through the crowded aisles.

6. Crowded. For serving less than a hundred covers, there were a TON of people in that kitchen. Seven on my side of the line, more on the other. Plus the Chef and his junior sous. I haven’t seen that many people on a line since I worked in a kitchen putting out 2,000 covers a night. Johnny guessed we would do about 80.

7. Hopelessly Amazing. In The Great Gatsby, Gatsby stands out at the end of the dock every night, staring through the fog at a green light, thats a forever far away. Most of the time on my stage, I felt really Gatsby-ish. Like I was staring through a thick fog of at this kitchen. This way of life. Coming to work, and getting to execute a dish flawlessly, again and again. Their kitchen kept spotlessly clean. Alinea’s food is not the kind of food I want to cook, or even particularly eat. But Alinea is the environment I would happily work for free in. To have mentors who would accept nothing but perfection from me. To have all the time, and resources to keep my kitchen clean, and be encouraged and helped to do so. To work in an environment where people just wanted to make beautiful food, without compromise. It’s so far away from where I am now. The people at Alinea just come to work, and have all the tools they need to execute beautiful food. They aren’t compromised by their environment, or their peers. They simply get to focus on the food – which is what they are allowed to do – all day long. It was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. Better than the pyramids, the great wall, giant sea turtles. This quiet, temple of cuisine, where people whisper, and iconographies are created on plates.

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