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Friday, November 14, 2008

deploying dinner

Deploying Dinner



First seated course.

“Let’s go,” says Jonathan Benno. “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!”

The guests at Thomas Keller and Grant Achatz’s 20 course dinner at Per Se have been seated after a champagne reception with two passed canapes from each chef. (Keller: salmon cornets and BLT sandwiches with lamb; Achatz: Puffed crisps of idiazabal cheese filled with yeast and pureed brioche and topped with braised mustard seeds; pure white teardrops of yuzu stuffed with smoked salmon and capers). Now the captains are on the floor, asking the guests about allergies and dietary restrictions, which will be mapped on to a grid showing the no-no’s for each position at each table.

“Table Four, P-Four. She can’t have grapefruit.” (P stands for position.)

“P-Five, no pork product, no spicy chiles.”

“Where are the no fennel guests?”

“Table Seven. One guest is no sweet peppers. Ms. Cowin is allergic to peppers.”

This is Dana Cowin, editor of Food & Wine and one of the members of the Fourth Estate in attendance. (Disclosure: I worked for Ms. Cowin at that magazine and later wrote a column there.) Also here tonight is Gael Greene of New York magazine. Not here: Ruth Reichl of Gourmet. “I think she doesn’t like eating multi-course meals any more,” Thomas Keller explains.

Jonathan Benno is a coil of purposeful tension. He stands in a wrestler’s crouch: knees bent, feet apart, head forward. He wants to finish the charts, but the orders are still filtering in. “There’s four managers out there and we can’t get orders?” he says. A server enters the kitchen.

“You get lost?”


“Is that the last order?”

“Should be, chef.”

“Should be? Or is?”

“That’s the last order chef.”

“Thank you. Let’s go.”

Now the first course is being plated. Although this has been billed as a 20-course meal, the first two plates brought to the tables will be flights of four dishes each. This way, eight “courses” will be dispatched in just two trips from the kitchen to the dining room, speeding up a meal that Mr. Keller estimates will last at least three and a half hours.

Mr. Keller’s contributions to this first plate are a sea-urchin soup and then a spoonful of osetra caviar on top of sunchoke puree. From Mr. Achatz: fried strips of tofu skin coated with prawn paste, then a coconut custard on the tip of a vanilla bean.

Mr. Achatz is setting the tofu skins into a service piece called “The Inkwell” that was designed for Alinea. It’s black and does look a bit like an inkwell; the tofu skin stands up like a pen; in the reservoir of the inkwell is an orange miso mayonnaise. Mr. Achatz is trimming the tofu skins with a small pair of scissors, removing stray strands and cleaning up the ends.

“It’s funny, by Alinea standards we’ve been doing this dish a long time. Like, a year-plus,” Mr. Achatz had said a few minutes earlier. He is known for retiring dishes from his menu to make room for new inventions, but tonight, to keep things easy on the kitchen crew, he is serving “classic” dishes. But even the tofu skin dish has changed from the version in the cookbook. That one calls for butterflying the prawns by hand. Now the restaurant purees the tail meat, squeezes the juice from the heads, dehydrating and pulverizing the shells, and binding it all together with transglutaminase, affectionately known in some culinary circles as “meat glue.”

Wrapped around the tofu skin and shrimp is a strip of orange. Originally, Alinea used hand-cut orange rind. Now they make a kind of fruit leather and cut it into ribbons.

“We’re three minutes away from pickup,” Jonathan Benno says.

Eighty-one plates have been set out on two staging tables in the rear kitchen, normally used for meals served in the restaurant’s private dining rooms.

Mr. Benno turns around and sees cups of the sea-urchin soup waiting to be set on the plates.

“What are these soups doing here?” he asks. “We’re not ready yet. These all need to be done over. Pull all these off! I said three minutes!”

The cooks who’d prematurely poured the soup look stricken. But they comply, emptying the cups, cleaning them out, and warming the soup again.

“This is a warm soup,” Mr. Benno says, picking up one of the cups. “Can we get the cups warm, please?”

From the dining room comes the sound of applause. Mr. Keller and Mr. Achatz have just welcomed the guests, the signal for the meal to begin.

“Can we get started with the soup now, please?” Mr. Benno says. The warmed cups get filled with soup again.

Now the seating charts come out. The first course is full of landmines for those with allergies and dietary restrictions, so substitutions need to be made for nearly every table. For those who don’t eat seafood, there is a parsnip vanilla soup instead of the sea urchin. The prawn in Mr. Achatz’s tofu skin will be replaced by cucumber. Post-It notes are attached to the plates with substitutions, to be peeled off as the plate leaves the kitchen. Not until Table Nine do they finally reach a course that can be sent out as is.

Plates for the first table leave the kitchen at 8:20. The substitutions take a long time to work out, and some of the hot food is cooling down. Mr. Keller, looking loose and relaxed, asks if the soup can be warmed up again, please. The last plate leaves the kitchen at 8:43.

Four courses down. Sixteen left. Time to do it again...hmmm


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