Art Food: Thoughts on “Spinning Plates”

February 13, 2013

Alinea My green thing!

“What is that?” you ask. Art? Food? At Alinea in Chicago, the distinction is blurry.

This weekend I saw a Santa Barbara Film Festival featured documentary called “Spinning Plates.” It chronicled three restaurants, a comfort food restaurant in Balltown, Iowa, a Mexican restaurant in Tuscon, and Alinea, in Chicago.

The juxtaposition of strikingly different restaurants provokes a meditation on the theme of subsistence and extravagance. But for now, I just want to focus on the chef at the high end restaurant, Alinea. I was drawn to this chef, Grant Achatz, because he had the confidence to try things with food that no one has ever tried.

The whole theater burst in to delighted laughter as he took us through the process of capturing the aroma of a pine forest. He grinds pine needles through a special device that collects the scent in a plastic bag. He then punctures the bag with several small holes. Then, he puts the bag inside a white pillow. The guests’ plates of food are set on these pillows so that as they eat the subtle aroma of a pine forest fills the room.

We laughed in sheer delight at his playfulness. It was like watching a child in a sand box.

His aesthetic is inspired by the paintings of Joan Miro:


Alinea Miro Public Domain








There was also a cutlery sculpture, each level containing a different flavor experience. (I can’t find a photo in the public domain). You can look here.

A darker feature of the documentary was Achatz’s unabashed obsession with his restaurant achieving a three star ranking in the highly prestigious Michelin restaurant guide. During this quest for three stars, Grant Achatz gets tongue cancer, an irony not overlooked by The New Yorker in a May 2008 profile called “A Man of Taste”. After nearly despairing of finding doctors whose first recourse wasn’t cutting off his tongue, Achatz is saved by creative doctors who are willing to take risks in medicine the way he does with gastronomy.

After Achatz recovers from his cancer, his wife pleads with him to take care of himself and get more sleep–because she and his two sons want him around. But he goes back to sixteen hour work days, saying something like: “I don’t know if it will kill me, or help me achieve my wildest dreams, but I don’t care. I have to do it.”

This reminds me of a wonderfully troubling scene in a French novel by Alexander Huysman called Against Nature. The main character, an aesthete given to the extravagant pursuit of sensory experience, buys an expensive exotic tortoise. He decides that the animal matches the living room rug so well that he keeps it there. One day, he realizes the turtle isn’t moving anymore. It is dead.

What’s the difference between grace and prodigality? Is there one? In the creative excesses of Grant Achatz, I see the wonderful excessive gift of Mary of Bethany who poured out vial of perfume worth a year’s wages on Jesus’ feet. But I also see potential for the excess of the younger son, leaving his father’s house to waste his inheritance on wild living.

Perhaps I ought to aim the question differently. What marks the standard for creative success in the gastronomy world? And what marks the standard for creative success in the kingdom of God? Does the question lie in intention? What happens when one’s heart’s desire to be set on Michelin stars? Or even on creative breakthrough? Or ought our creativity point beyond itself to a deeper beauty? Yet, Hans Urs Van Balthasar writes that all beauty points us to the mystery of the divine.

Yet, tongue cancer. And $210 a plate.

I love Grant Achatz’s creativity. But what if it kills him?


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