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Alinea Project is one man’s attempt to recreate a restaurant’s culinary brilliance

When Allen Hemberger first ate at Chicago’s Alinea, he, like the majority of people who have dined at the Michelin three-starred restaurant, was blown away by the creativity on display from Chef Grant Achatz and his immensely talented culinary team. But when he picked up the Alinea cookbook – released by the restaurant through Ten Speed Press, in 2008 – Hemberger found himself in the minority of people who actually attempted some of the insane recipes within, rather than simply looking at the notably pretty pictures.

Hemberger got the brilliant idea early on to try to document his attempt at the recipes, which he called The Alinea Project. Alinea is more culinary laboratory than a restaurant, well-known for its molecular gastronomy and beautiful plating. Alinea Project chronicles the trial-and-error, the successes, and everything in between, along with notes about some of the things Hemberger learned along the way. He had the (even better) idea to publish the content of his blog – and much more – earlier this year (with the help of a successful Kickstarter campaign) in a hardbound book format carrying the same name.

We recently spoke with Hemberger, to learn more about his experiences of trying to recreate one of the world’s most impressive menus, in his home kitchen, and why photography plays an integral role in the experiment and how the book came about.

DT: How did you first hear about Alinea?

“Whoa, it doesn’t even look like food. I can’t really wrap my head around what’s going on here.”

Allen Hemberger: I had two friends, a long time ago, shortly before Alinea opened [in 2005]. They were from Chicago. I was living in New Zealand at the time. [My friends] had gone home for Christmas and decided to eat dinner at this crazy new place they heard had just opened. So they came back to New Zealand after their Christmas vacation and said, “You’re not going to believe this. This place is crazy.” And they were telling me about it. At the time, I was in a long-distance relationship with a girl living in New York. So we decided, “Let’s meet in Chicago and go on a date.” I remember this restaurant and was like, “Do you want to try this out?” That was our first exposure to it.

What were your first impressions?

It was ridiculous. We had the most basic of understandings of what this place was about. My friends had shown me the website, and I was like, “Whoa, it doesn’t even look like food. I can’t really wrap my head around what’s going on here,” but it was very pretty, and I thought that was kind of cool. The meal itself – I’m kind of a nerd, by trade, so I was like, “How are they doing these things?” One dish came out with this perfectly square thing of sauce on it. So I was like, “How did they do that? Do they have some sort of crazy tool back there? How did they make this into a sphere? How did they do this? How did they do that? How are they doing this stuff?” I’d never quite seen anything like it before.

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So, we have to imagine, by the time the restaurant’s cookbook came out you were chomping at the bit to see how they did some of these things.

Definitely. I came back from New Zealand after the meal, trying to read a little bit about this. I didn’t really know the name of the style of cooking, but I found a book. A friend of mine said, “There’s this restaurant in Spain that does similar stuff. You should check out this stuff.” And I finally got a copy of one of the El Bulli cookbooks. And I was like, “Yeah, this seems kind of the same.” It’s all in Spanish, so it’s impenetrable to learn how to do any of this stuff. So I chalked it up to, “OK, I can’t quite figure this out.”

So when (Alinea) came out with their cookbook, I was really blown away not only by, “Oh, I get to see all this other food I haven’t eaten yet,” but also they were just really straightforward and transparent about, “This is how we do it. You want to know? Here it is.”

So at what point did it go from just learning how they do it, to deciding to put in this immense amount of work of recreating the menu at home?

That’s a good question. I never really decided, or at least I can’t remember a point where I was like, “I’m going to cook my way through this book.” It was more: I got it, I read these recipes, said, “This seems ridiculous. There’s no way any of these are approachable; they’re just ridiculous.”

But after reading through it a couple times, I said, “Well, here’s this recipe. It seems the least hard of all of them. I want to try it and see if I can do it.” I didn’t think I could really make one of these recipes. Then (I looked at the) caramel powder one. “It’s like six sentences. Surely, I can pull this off.” It took three or four tries to get it right, which was frustrating but also curious to me. It’s not like all these crazy white powders are doing all the work. You can’t just throw some white powder into this stuff and it works; you have to get everything working together properly. It was curious to me how much effort was involved, but also when I got it right it was like, “Hey, this is really neat; I got it right.” That made me want to try another one after that, that’s a little bit harder and took me a few more tries to get right. That’s how I got started was picking the easiest ones first and seeing if I could get them done, and from there, that gave me a little more confidence to try another one and another one and another one.

Where along the way did you realize this was something worth documenting?

At the time I was being exposed to all of this, [the friends] who I was living with in New Zealand, kept blogs for the purposes of keeping their friends and family back home appraised of their day to day. That was interesting to me. I had never really had a blog before. I didn’t know much about it until I was like, “I like writing. It’s kind of like a journal. Doing this thing seems like a great way to explain to my friends and family back home what I’m doing on the weekends.”

And I was also geeking out about the crazy white powders you use to do this stuff. There’s a whole section at the beginning of the Alinea book like, “Here’s all the weird ingredients that we use.” To me, there was something interesting about demystifying those. That very first recipe, the caramel one, used something called Tapioca Maltodextrine, which is used to basically powder oils. That’s how Betty Crocker is able to put olive oil in their brownie mix. That seemed really interesting to me. And I said, “People are kind of scared of these ingredients with these really long names. Wouldn’t it be kind of cool if I used this whole thing as a vehicle, writing fodder, to talk about, ‘Oh, here’s actually what this ingredient can be used for. It’s not so scary. And here’s this thing I’m doing with it.’”

My first impression of the blog, what I’d do with it, is say, “Oh, here’s these three or four recipes, and each blog write-up will demystify one of these crazy ingredients. Maybe that will keep me amused for a month or so.” I got way more than I bargained for once I started doing it, but my original plan was just that.

And the photography thing was my way of confirming that I’d gotten the recipe right. The cookbook doesn’t ever say anything like what this should taste like or how this should work. “Do a bunch of this, this and this, and here’s a photo.” So I didn’t really know whether I’d gotten it right. The thing produced looked like the photo in the book. So my original reason for taking the photos was to say, “Here, I have done this thing.” It was my only barometer for how well I’d done.

So when did it turn into this bigger project to publish a book?

About a year into it, it was clear to me that I was starting to collect a lot of photos. I thought, “It would be cool if I made myself a photo album from it one of these days. Maybe when I’m done with this or get bored with this, I’ll take the photos and put them together, making a book out of them, something really simple. I had that idea, and then put it away inside my head. After I got to the end, I thought, “I have a whole sh**-ton of photos here. It would be nice to make a really big album out of this.” So I started looking into, “How do I print it nice?” Photo books are usually not particularly high-quality, and I was like, “Well, what are my other options?”

As with everything else in this project, I started digging, digging, digging, doing all this research. My girlfriend was like, “If you’re going through all this effort, maybe you want to think about writing something. Because this is going to be high quality, maybe you’re going to want to give it to your kids someday. So why don’t you write something to go with it?” I started thinking about it, and the more I learned about how the printing process works, the more I started realizing, “Oh, it’s not really cost-effective to just make one of these. To print this the way a real book would be printed, it would cost me $40,000, or something like that. So, if I’m going to do that, I might as well print 500 copies or 1,000 copies or something like that.” Which means asking other people whether they would be interested in a book like this.

Honestly, I had no confidence. I was like, “It’s all on the Web; it’s free. Why would anyone want to pay for a book like this?” And I started thinking about it a while. “Do I just copy and paste the blog into the book? I don’t even know what my book would be?” And it threw me off my original idea for what I wanted it to be. So by the time I launched the Kickstarter, I was not confident at all. It’s why I chose Kickstarter. I said, “It’s a good way to see if this is a viable idea or interesting to anyone else other than me.” But I really didn’t have any confidence that it was.

Is anyone at Alinea aware that you did this?

“Alinea has been pretty supportive through the whole thing, which has been pretty awesome.”

They definitely do. The owner, Nick Kokonas, emailed me during the first year of the project. He found my blog and emailed me to say, “Hey, nice work, and also I’m coming to New Zealand. Do you have any recommendations for places we should check out?” Which I thought was pretty cool. So he and I have batted back and forth many emails over the years. He’s a cool dude. The chef’s a harder nut to crack. He’s been very helpful, but I’ve just been very reticent to barrage him with questions, more because I wanted to impress him. I wanted him to be like, “Whoa, this dude is doing a lot of this on his own, without needing a lot of help.” I was so impressed with him, I wanted to reciprocate that a bit and impress him a bit with doing this stuff.

When I reached this critical point of “I want to make this book, but I need to ask other people if they would be willing to participate in it,” I was like, “Well, I want to tell him first.” Because I don’t want them to think that his whole project was about me trying to make a buck, or collect a story to tell. It hasn’t been about that, but this book reached this weird point, so I emailed them to say, “Hey, here’s what I’m doing. I’m thinking about maybe Kickstarter. I just wanted you guys to know, so you weren’t surprised or put off by it or anything like that.” And they wrote back like, “Yeah, no, cool.” They’ve been pretty supportive through the whole thing, which has been pretty awesome.

(Images copyright Allen Hemberger, used with permission. More images can be found at the Alinea Project.)