Hot Potato, Cold Potato

This is a dish from the tasting menu of Chef Grant Achatz of Alinea in Chicago.  It is often featured as part of the tasting tour ($225, 25 courses) at his restaurant.  I say often because at the same time that his menu, in its entirety, is changing constantly throughout the year, he has also taken on the task of not repeating any of his dishes, something that he considers part and parcel of expressing himself as a Chef.  However, a handful of dishes, including this one, return from time to time simply because too many people would protest, but for the most part any item, no matter how beloved and successful, is lost to everything but memory. 

But what is it exactly?  What are you looking at?  It’s called “Hot Potato, Cold Potato.”  The liquid at the bottom is a cold potato and truffle soup, made with both truffle juice and truffle oil.  The pin inserted from the side holds, from right to left, parmesan (a 1/8-inch cube), butter (a 1/8-inch cube), a 1/2-inch length of chive, a hot potato ball poached in butter, and finally a thinly sliced truffle topped with a single flake of sea salt.  Once brought to the table, the diner is asked to withdraw the pin from the side of the bowl.  As it is pulled, each item lowers, one by one, into the soup immediately before the diner begins eating. 

Achatz is known for many things in the culinary world.  He was working at the French Laundry (in California) when it was declared the best restaurant in the world and when its Chef, Thomas Keller, was declared the greatest American Chef of all time.  Achatz was working in Chicago at Trio when he was highlighted by the James Beards Awards as a Rising Star in 2002, and now his restaurant, Alinea, has been declared the top restaurant in the USA.  His cooking style has been both hailed and condemned by countless critics, and has been called everything from molecular gastronomy to techno-emotional cuisine.  Regardless, his philosophy is to push and relentlessly challenge our notions about what food and dining could and should be.  Through innovative techniques and unique servingware, he is forcing people to reconsider accepted ideas of the dining experience, and this dish in particular is a wonderful example of how he does so.  The act of pulling the pin is intended to include the diner in the “cooking” experience; without lowering the various elements into the potato soup, the dish itself is incomplete, and only with the cooperation of the diner can the dish ever come to fruition.  At the same time, the hot and cold potato element are meant to create a food in the mouth that is simultaneously hot and cold, something that could not be accomplished without the action of the pin keeping both parts separate until the last second.  However, this concept goes even deeper; the bowl itself is made out of paraffin wax, and during prep it is up the cook in charge of this dish to melt the wax, mold, and then trim the bowls so that they can be used for service.  By having the cook do this daily, they are in direct control of the diner’s experience at the restaurant; during the 25-course tour, the cook has complete control of what the patron eats and eats out of during this particular point in the meal. 

To be sure, Achatz’ cuisine isn’t for everyone.  Since he’s made his name, he’s had almost as many detractors as he’s had fans; people have called him gimmicky and others have called him emotionless.  Regardless, Achatz is pushing dining in America, and if nothing else, he is expressing himself by bringing innovation to the art of the restaurant.



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