This week, Alinea chef Grant Achatz was the guest on the Food is the New Rock podcast while in Los Angeles for the LA Food & Wine festival. In an entertaining 50 minutes or so (listen here or download it for free on iTunes), Achatz reveals details like his first record (Van Halen 5150), his first concert (Hank Williams, Jr.), and one of his favorite concerts (Joe Satriani and Steve Vai). But Achatz and Food is the New Rock host Zach Brooks also ponder some important culinary topics such as whether food can be considered a form of art, the role of restaurant critics, and whether Thomas Keller listens to music. (Spoiler: Do not ever expect Alinea frozen dinners.) Here now, the highlights of the podcast:
1) On whether Next is the equivalent of a cover band: "In some ways people find that derogatory because would you rather be the Rolling Stones or would you rather cover the Rolling Stones? Well, clearly you'd rather be the Rolling Stones. However, in the culinary world being able to be a 'cover band' gives you a lot more freedom than maybe most people would think. ... It gives us creative freedom to go wherever we want whenever we want."
2) On food as art: "I think it comes down to each individual's definition of what art is. Like you mentioned, a lot of chefs say cooking is a craft, it's not art. And then I've had a lot of people close to me tell me that you can't proclaim yourself an artist. You need other people to proclaim you an artist because otherwise you look like basically an asshole."
3) Why Alinea is what Brooks describes as "the Nine Inch Nails of the food world": "But I feel — and I think a lot of my team feels — that the thing that to me defines art is emotion. ...[W]e intentionally target human emotion in not only our cooking ... We've actually done courses that we knew that people were going to be intimidated by. ... And people will shove that food away. They will refuse it. They won't eat it. But if I serve them that same bite of food, the exact same bite, on a fork or a spoon, they would proclaim it delicious. For me, that means that we're charging emotional triggers within people. And for me that means that it could be art."
4) Achatz also talked about the "dead zone" of his life from culinary school until the year after Alinea's opening in which he missed most of pop culture. Crazy fact: "I barely watched a movie from the year I graduated until like last year."
5) Brooks jokingly asks Achatz whether Thomas Keller played Stone Temple Pilots during prep at The French Laundry: "I'm telling you there was absolutely no music in that kitchen." (But apparently there was a boom box once in the early days of the restaurant.)
6) Does Thomas Keller even like music? Achatz says: "I think he does. I don't know his personal favorites and whatnot. ... You never know what to get the guy for his birthday, right? I remember one year, I think it was probably 1998, I got him a couple of CDs that I was listening to at the time. And one of them was Massive Attack's Mezzanine. I wonder to this day, I've never asked him if he ever even 1) opened the CD or 2) enjoyed it. So I don't know his music taste, but I'd be interested to know."
7) No, Grant Achatz cannot do everything, including play a guitar or percussion: "My hands just don't move that way. I love listening to it and I can do crazy stuff with food and I feel like I have a lot of finesse in my hands, but I just can't pick up a guitar and make my fingers do those chords that way."
8) On there being a time and a place for both music and food: "It has to coincide with where you are mentally. What you want to feel. There's days when I want to get ramped up and I'll listen to Rage Against the Machine, I love it. And then there's days where I'm like, no, I'm going to take it down like 100 notches and listen to somebody else. I feel like that's also a defining point to whether it's art or craft."
9) Achatz also asks Brooks about the importance of hearing bands live versus listening to recordings, and makes the comparison to restaurants. Every restaurant, he argues, is like going to a live concert. But there are certain advantages to records: "Everybody in the world is going to hear that the exact same way every time they queue it up. I wish we could do that. Because then we could hone in on perfection and be like, "That's perfect. Stamp that. Let everyone hear it that way."
10) On the insane demand for a band's signature song: "If you go to Alinea and don't experience the black truffle explosion or the hot potato cold potato, they feel gypped."
11) On the critics: "There's the term restaurant critic. By that title alone, their job is to criticize. However, I will say this. Not all critics enjoy all food. But it is their job to criticize all food. So that, to me, seems a little bit strange. ... I think journalistic integrity in that perspective is it's the critics job and responsibility to pen pieces on restaurants for the readership that he or she has."
12) Achatz also talked a little bit about the celebrities that come into Alinea, such as Barbara Streisand and Justin Timberlake: "Somehow a bunch of teenage girls caught wind that he was there and they came running down the hallway screaming."
13) Grant Achatz's dream celebrity guest? Axl Rose. Though he says it's an "unreasonable" dream because people like Axl Rose "don't eat Alinea food" and might "light the restaurant on fire. Which would be fine."