It's not the equipment, it's the cook.....

jkom51March 4, 2012

Frankly, I have a hard time taking MG/Modernist cuisine seriously....nonetheless, this is a good interview with Grant Achatz, one of the most celebrated young chefs in the US. I edited the article slightly because it's a bit long; I know most don't have WSJournal access, either.

I'm posting this here because the photo of him standing at home in front of his OTR microwave and ordinary rangetop - all plain white appliances, I might add - really caught my eye.

(excerpted) WSJournal March 2, 2012

Grant Achatz: The molecular gastronomist unwinds at home with pasta and Little Caesars

Since opening his mad scientist lab of a restaurant Alinea in 2005, Chicago-based chef Grant Achatz (rhymes with jackets), 37, has earned formidable accolades, including three Michelin stars and the James Beard Foundation's Best Chef award. He has also battled stage 4 squamous-cell carcinoma of the mouth, a struggle he recounted in "Life on the Line," one of two books he has co-written with his business partner Nick Kokonas.

With his cancer now in remission, Mr. Achatz recently opened two more spots in Chicago: Aviary, a cocktail lounge, and Next, a restaurant featuring prepaid tickets and a fanciful, frequently changing menu. (Next's 29-course El Bulli-inspired menu wraps up in May.) Mr. Achatz relaxes at home in Wicker Park with his two sons, Keller (named for Mr. Achatz's former boss, chef Thomas Keller), 8, and Kaden, 10.

My home kitchen is airy, with a gas stove, a stainless-steel island table in the center and granite countertops. It's very modest but there's tons of counter space, so you can slap down three or four cutting boards. There's also lots of cabinet space, so we're able to have a spice cabinet with pullout drawers, an oil and vinegar cabinet and a starch cabinet.

I have every spice you could ever imagine: sassafras root, dried lavender buds, togarashi [a Japanese spice blend], rosebuds and all kinds of salt, including Kona sea salt, smoked salt, sel gris, Maldon and Murray River salt. My two boys lick their fingers, dip them in the spice and try to tell me what's in it.

To me, every kitchen appliance is useful and nothing's overrated. When I look at my little espresso machine, I don't see coffee. I see a steaming valve as an opportunity to make amazing creme brulee.

The kitchen gadgets I use every day at home are a mortar and pestle, a Benriner Japanese mandoline and--this will sound sacrilegious--a Fiskars knife sharpener. Here I am, a chef who knows how to sharpen a knife with a whetstone, but rock your knife back and forth on the Fiskars and you're good to go. For my sons, we have a collection of Zyliss plastic knives and they're the greatest thing ever: sharp enough that the boys are contributing to the prep, but there's no way they're going to cut themselves.

My secret vice is Little Caesars cheese and pepperoni pizza. I also like Potbelly Sandwich Shop in Chicago: They've got good condiments, bread and meat, and you can get a sandwich for $3.85.

In my refrigerator, I have sriracha sauce, Hellmann's mayonnaise, Heinz ketchup, French's yellow mustard. People think that because I'm a chef my refrigerator is filled with high-end stuff, but we're people. Good God, in my freezer I have crappy vanilla ice cream.

The best gift I ever received is an antique hourglass. It's incredibly beautiful but there's also a meaning to it because of the way I do things and my history with cancer. When you watch the sand go through the narrow passage and fall into the bigger section in the vessel, it has some meaning. What should we all focus on? Time. But nobody thinks about it.

My two greatest influences are Thomas Keller, who would always leave me a list of things to do and a couple of times he would write at the top: "What is your legacy going to be?" I roll my eyes at the word "legacy," but what he was saying is: Think about your life every day, how you're going to live it and how you're going to contribute to the lives of others. Also my best friend and business partner Nick's big saying is: Think long-term. He's programmed me in a way that makes me realize everything I do right now affects me 25 years from now.

The most luxurious thing to me is having an hour of my day, which rarely happens, to listen to my iPod and sit on my couch. That's how I unwind. Nobody's asking you a question, you're in control of your environment. That's a very rare moment in my day.

My home entertaining philosophy: good wine, good food. When you invite people over, you have to expect they're going to indulge themselves. We recently had a paella party for 100 people, friends and employees, and we had two 6-foot-long paella pans, and everyone taking turns stirring the paella over an open fire. For a friend's birthday, we had 12 people and we did sushi and made everybody participate.

The meal I like to eat best at home with my family is pasta with capers, toasted garlic, basil, olive oil and Parmesan. I also like scrambled eggs and quite heavily toasted whole-wheat bread, dry. Those are my two go-tos. I'll drink fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice and sparkling water, mixed 50/50.

I learned the best lesson about wine when I was working as a winemaker at La Jota. Bill Smith, the vineyard's owner, said, "Do you want to take this home for dinner tonight?" and I said I couldn't because it was a $300 bottle. He said, "It's just grape juice." If you treat it as a trophy you're not going to get enjoyment. At home, we'll drink the $9 Australian Shiraz or a vintage Krug, and to me it's the same.

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The skill of the chef is more important than the equipment.

A highly skilled chef knows how to overcome many of shortcomings of poor equipment.

However,some techniques require more precise tools.

If not restaurateurs would buy cheap builder grade appliances.They are business people not buying based on prestige of appliances but performance.

And it is more than just about speed. High end restauranteurs are about results.

    Bookmark   March 4, 2012 at 3:08PM
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deeageaux makes good points.

It is common for MotoGP racers to not ride street bikes. They'll tell you you're crazy to ride a motorcycle on the street with everyone else.

I know a lot of people that work in high tech that don't have much technology at home.

If you spend 15 hours a day around the best equipment money can buy you don't have so much need/desire for it at home.

I also read an article about how Daniel Boulud loves Grey's Papaya hot dogs. :)


    Bookmark   March 5, 2012 at 10:15AM
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It's entirely possible that his wife does a lot of the cooking at home, at least the day-to-day cooking for herself and the kids. The appliances might be ones Grant's wife is most comfortable using, or, as stooxie said, Grant might not find it necessary to have the same equipment at home that he has in a restaurant kitchen. Our neighbor's son is a chef and except for his days off, he's rarely around to cook dinner for his family.

    Bookmark   March 5, 2012 at 10:26AM
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This is reminiscent of another recent thread which discussed Mark Bittman's tiny, low-end NYC kitchen. I'll make the same point here. I think in many ways, the better the chef, the less he/she is reliant on good equipment.

As I related, one of the most impressive meals I've ever had was one cooked for us by a friend, who was also a classically trained head chef and owner of a restaurant. He prepared a phenomenal meal on a 20 year old range and a cheap Walmart grade charcoal grill. The crowning achievement was a perfect souffle baked in the oven with no reliable means of temperature control and a door that would not fully close.

There is no way in the world that I, or any typical amateur cook, could have done what he did on that equipment. And that's where I can justify the high end equipment we have in our kitchen--I need all the help I can get! So for me, a great stove and oven, and great ventilation, are ways I can compensate.

Another point: I suspect that Achatz cooks relatively infrequently at home, and when he does, it would typically be simple family style food. Indeed he says his favorite foods at home are a simple pasta with capers, scrambled eggs, and toast. I could make those in his kitchen too. I can't imagine he does any over the top "show off" cooking there--why, when you have Next to do that?

For the rest of us, though, if we like to entertain and make interesting, challenging food at home, then we really do need more equipment--an ice cream maker, a deep fryer. We don't have line cooks prepping for us, so a food processor is great. No staff to wash dishes, so a top notch dishwasher (or two) helps. In many ways, folks who love to cook as amateurs are really trying to do "restaurant cooking at home." Therefore it almost makes sense that we should be comparing our kitchens to professional restaurant kitchens, more than to kitchens of professional chefs, who don't do fancy cooking at home. And restaurant kitchens have great ranges putting out mega BTU's.

Great thread to get you thinking.

    Bookmark   March 5, 2012 at 12:18PM
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I totally agree, none of the equipment make anyone a better cook. But, it might make their cooking tasks easier. Before my kitchen renovation, it was mostly simple meals. Now, with all the amenities, I can get more elaborate meals in the same time or less. What used to be reserved for the weekend can now be done during the week. I'm not a better cook, talent-wise. but I'm more efficient now.

My father was a chef and he rarely cooked at home. He only cooked when my mom wasn't around, because someone had to feed us kids. And when he did cook, he never made restaurant food. It was always the simple stuff. And even then, mom did it better. One of my fondest memories of my dad was that his hands always smelled like garlic, but in a good way. :)

    Bookmark   March 5, 2012 at 1:16PM
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I agree with Clinresga. Thanks to Jkom for posting--it's an interesting article, but for me the interesting thing wasn't the appliances. Or, if it was, it was the espresso machine for creme brulee. It does sound like Achatz does cook at home, and entertain at home, which a lot of chefs don't do, as others have noted. He values the counter space so the family can prep together, which makes him a wonderfully sharing guy, rather than a cranky, let-me-do-it, you're-doing-it-wrong kind of pro. What's more important to him than appliances that do the work for him, is being able to stock rosebuds and a whole cabinet of starches, along with the "real people" Hellmann's mayonnaise, Heinz ketchup, French's yellow mustard (same as I have!).

Most chefs, even celebrated ones, aren't wealthy. It looks like Achatz has a nice, normal kitchen, as opposed to the pokey holes that a lot of less well rewarded chefs have at home. But he also values Little Caesar's and the $4 sandwich shop for food on the go. We don't have Little Caesar's where I live, but I bet it's a better value for the money than Wolfgang Puck Express, which may be fancier and pricier, but isn't all that. I wouldn't be surprised if LC were the more fulfilling pizza experience, too.

See, what I take from it is that this guy is the real deal, who shares his passion with his family, and has his kids participating before they're old enough to be trusted with real knives, and stocks his kitchen with enthusiasm for foods and flavors rather than snobbery.

    Bookmark   March 5, 2012 at 2:36PM
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Not only does he have young kids, but he values life because of his bouts with cancer. He's lucky to be alive, and knows it. That's why I enjoyed the article and posted it, even though I have absolutely no interest in ever eating at Alinea.

But again - I think sometimes we on the forum get too caught up in "what's the best XXX appliance?" Richard Olney, the great food writer, used to cook amazing meals for his guests at his little cottage in France, using battered pots and pans and a tiny 2-burner stove.

Good food is love. Simple as that, really.

    Bookmark   March 6, 2012 at 1:49PM
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I used to entertain with a gas ring and a baking pot. I actually baked in the baking pot, and made interesting and complex meals. For 6. I couldn't produce enough hot food for more people, and even at that, most of the food wasn't hot. I produced hot meals for dozens in my old kitchen with the oven that didn't have any particular temperature, but I was very limited in what I could do--mostly braises and similar things where temperature doesn't matter.

Absolutely, it's the cook, but I've got to tell you, having the best possible appliances makes it SOOOOOO much better. I have so many more choices of what to do!! A more valid comparison in my mind would be to give one of these top flight chefs $100K for a kitchen remodel, plus enough extra to cover the taxes, and see what they choose for themselves.

    Bookmark   March 6, 2012 at 2:49PM
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I think you nailed it, Plllog. What would the guy (or gal, for that matter) with the opportunity (or tortuous chore) of outfitting a new kitchen select for herself? Unless one builds a house or dives into a big renovation that includes new appliances, we are mostly stuck with what we bought into or accumulated piecemeal.

We make the best of it.

But I'll bet he doesn't make blackened fish tacos indoors very often on that setup of his. Having better gear gives you options.

I will say Grant Achatz seems like a thoughtful guy and a generous dad, and I love that he gets the guests in on the cooking fun. But Little Caesar's? That stuff is vile: cheap cheese on a greasy wheat sponge. Yuck!

    Bookmark   March 6, 2012 at 3:15PM
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Out of curiosity, I asked the chef of a local fine dining restaurant what he likes to eat and the answer was "anything made by someone else".

His wife, a grade school teacher, planned their home kitchen. His kids say the best thing he makes is pancakes.

    Bookmark   March 6, 2012 at 3:26PM
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