Grant Achatz is the chef of Alinea in Chicago. It is regarded by many as the best restaurant in the United States. It is very expensive, and hard to get in.
Ferran Adria is the chef of el Bulli near Barcelona. It is regarded by many as the best restaurant in the world. It is very expensive, and all but impossible to get in.
Each has just released a book to help convey the experience of going to these restaurants, if not replicate the food from them.
The average home cook — even the above-average home cook — is unlikely to attempt any of the complicated recipes and procedures needed to manipulate the sometimes impossible-to-get ingredients called for in the books. Especially since the average home cook is also unlikely to have the expensive equipment needed to pull them off. Both Adria and Achatz (ACK-ats), who worked under Adria briefly, practice evolving methods of food preparation and presentation. It is generally known as molecular gastronomy, though neither is a big fan of the term. Both present food in ways that encourage the diner to reconsider what food is.
To pull off the recipes, you might need a dehydrator, an immersion circulator, syringes and an arsenal of chemicals that would make a pharmacist blush.
So why would anyone buy these books?
They are pretty. The dishes are beautiful, and the photography is stunning. And it's not unreasonable to think you are at the forefront of the way cooking will be done in the future just by knowing what chefs like this are doing now.
Flipping through Achatz's Alinea (Ten Speed Press, $50) is as much about art appreciation as it is food appreciation. Full- and double-page photos of intricate dishes dominate the 400 pages. Achatz attaches spartan, simplistic names to his dishes. For instance, one of his most famous is called PB&J. It is, in fact, based on exactly what it sounds like. But you won't find a schmear of Jif on Wonder with a little Smuckers here. Achatz's recipe takes a single seedless grape, dangling precariously from an otherwise empty stem, and peels it. Then the grape is dipped into freshly made peanut butter and wrapped in a thin slice of baguette before being toasted and topped with peanut dust.
And that isn't even the best part.
The dish is presented in a utensil called an octopus, which looks like a whisk that has been in some terrible kitchen accident, with the wrapped grape set in the middle and the empty stem hanging off to the side.
That is one of the easy dishes.
Ultimately, the book admits that it is putting things in front of you that you may not be able to do, or includes ingredients you may not be able to get. But it encourages you to figure out a way to work around that. Can't find an ingredient? Leave it out. Or use something more attainable that is like it. Don't have a piece of specialized equipment? Improvise. It doesn't tell you how, but if it did, you wouldn't be improvising, would you?
Adria's book, like Adria, is a little more complex.
A Day at el Bulli (Phaidon, $49.95) doesn't really purport to be a cookbook. It is more a behind-the-scenes look at how a restaurant that gets 2,000,000 requests for the 8,000 meals it serves each year works.
As such, it is more aimed at the food professional, or the food groupie. The first recipe doesn't show up until more than halfway through the 500-plus page book, and it doesn't really matter, because if you haven't apprenticed at el Bulli, you probably won't understand it anyway.
Where this book hits its marks is in walking through the thought process of dishes, menus, wine service, even gardening. Much of the book is photos: Several full-page photos of Adria and his team tasting. A series of photos of people entering the restaurant and being seated. The surrounding hillsides and shoreline. Two pages of photos of someone shining silverware and folding napkins. A two-page montage of someone opening a gate.
There are reproductions of Adria's notes to himself. And his shopping lists. If you get it, this is like having the Holy Grail handed to you. If you don't, it's a really heavy book.
Jim Webster can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.