Behind the Menu: Alinea Restaurant Tour
Author: Alyce Oh
Boasting the esteem of three Michelin stars and the rank of 21st best restaurant (according to the 2017 World’s 50 Best Restaurants List—take it as you will), Alinea is no diamond in the rough. Ask anyone who has even the slightest familiarity with Chicago’s fine dining scene about the establishment, and they’ll likely tell you with wide, eager eyes that they’d kill for an evening in one of those coveted seats. But with a $200 minimum price tag and scheduled booking periods, dining at Alinea is but a fantasy, even for the best of us. So when Anil, the visiting instructor of my spring quarter global food history class, announced that we—our class of three students, plus Anil, himself—would be taking a tour of the restaurant by a rather impromptu arrangement made with the Alinea group’s Director of Operations, we were giddy with excitement. I didn’t quite know what to expect of the tour, aside from the fact that it’d be taking place in the day during prep time, before dinner service. In all honesty, we could have been shown the garbage pile at the back of the building and I would have been perfectly enchanted.
On the fateful day of the tour, we walked up to the nondescript, slate gray building of Alinea, wedged in between an apartment complex and dental office. There is no sign bearing the name of the restaurant—instead, a ratty piece of paper on the front door requested that all deliveries be brought to the back. I second-guessed Anil’s assertion that we had reached our destination. After finding that the door was locked, Anil gave a knock and the door swung open two seconds later, secret society-style. We were greeted by the Director of Operations, Gary Obligacion, a cheerful, middle-aged guy clad in round spectacles and a gray Patagonia pullover—an unexpected departure from the stiff, pretentious, PR-trained snob I’d been expecting.
As the initial thrill of stepping into the front corridor gave way, we took in our surroundings. We were in a rather small, wood-paneled room, fitted with a cushioned bench and a front desk at which guests are greeted. The distinctly cedary scent, Gary pointed out, came from a reed diffuser sitting on the bottom shelf of the front desk. After taking our jackets and stowing them away in a closet (fun fact: it’s heated), Gary pulled out a coffee table book of grayscale photos and proceeded to talk us through the history of Alinea, including a background on its head chef and co-owner, Grant Achatz. Achatz had humble beginnings, working the line at his dad’s classic American diner—now he’s a globally renowned super chef who leads the vision behind the restaurant rather than its everyday function. At one point, Gary proudly opened a side door off of the front desk and told us it was the office where the menus were printed daily, customized to each patron’s dietary specifications. It was really more of a broom closet with a computer and printer, but his guileless enthusiasm was endearing in a way that put one at ease.
Introductory formalities came to a close, and we were led through a heavy door into a space that looked like a cross between a modern art museum and a really nice house. This was called The Gallery, where reservations can be made for groups of two or four. Three round tables were lined up adjacent to one another in the center of the room, while chairs were pushed against the walls. Hipster-looking staff members were carrying large, square boards which they lay across the round tables, creating one long tabletop. They were clearly in the middle of getting ready for service. We continued to observe as Gary explained the concept behind The Gallery. The different groups of guests are unexpectedly seated together at the communal table where they share an initial number of courses. Following this, they head into the kitchen for drinks and small bites, just as one would at an intimate dinner party. Then just as they’re getting used to the idea that they’ll be commingling with the other guests all night long, they’re ushered back to The Gallery to find that the tables have been separated, and they enjoy the rest of their courses in their individual groups. This is just one example of the philosophy that has come to define Alinea—to delight, amaze, and take the diner by complete surprise.
Next, we were led into the kitchen—or rather, a glass-walled room inside of the kitchen with a round table surrounded by six chairs. This table is called The Alinea Kitchen Table, and it’s the most exclusive (and expensive) of the three total dining options. It’s no wonder, as diners have full view of the kitchen staff at work. They were there prepping away as we walked in, and a few of them gave us an inquiring glance as we gaped back. I couldn’t help but feel like we were witnessing the Oompa Loompas at work. Rest assured, they all looked like normal humans, but they were still just as fascinating. Gary continued talking, but I couldn’t concentrate. All I wanted to do was take in as much I could. The kitchen was an intermediate-sized space with three rows of stainless steel countertops, natural light flowing in through a few side windows. The Rotovaps and helium tanks I’d been expecting were nowhere to be seen. Instead, people were doing normal kitchen things like chopping vegetables, puréeing green liquid, and stirring broth. The craziest gadget I spotted was a Sous-vide, which by today’s standards isn’t even all that. Nonetheless, I was taken away by the cool and calm of the staff members, each immersed in taking care of their task at hand. It completely countered the chaotic and uncivilized image of a professional kitchen I had conceived in my head, fostered by both trashy reality cooking shows and chef-written memoirs, alike. Granted, we were there during prep time when stakes aren't as high nor time as pressing as they probably are during service, but I don't imagine it getting that much more hectic in the evening. It wouldn't be a very pleasant dining experience with the head chef cursing the cook on fish duty into tears on the other side of the glass wall. I did note with a tinge of disappointment, however, that of the 25 or so staff members I saw (both kitchen and front-of-house), only a handful were non-white. Even fewer—three, if I remember correctly—were female.
After the kitchen, we climbed a flight of stairs that opened up into a hallway with three doorways, each leading into a different dining room. Each of these rooms is part of The Salon, the most economical and versatile of the dining options, able to accommodate parties of one, two, four, or six. The rooms themselves weren’t terribly interesting, as they were all decorated in muted colors and with minimalistic furnishing like the rest of the restaurant. But when considering the fantastic nature of the dishes served, it makes sense that most of the focus would be funneled into the food rather than the interior design. It would be rather tactless to stick more sculptures in the corners or have the walls painted bright red when there’s art being created right on the table (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qofsdSMuGbg). One of the rooms did have an interesting art fixture, though, which came from a local artist. It’s a life-size, humanoid form—arms up and fingers curled in anguish—made of reels of film. The contents of the film I don’t recall, but it’s an interesting choice of decoration. There might be particular meaning behind it, or it could just be another attempt to befuddle guests. Either way, it’s very Alinea.
Outside of the restaurant, we’re huddled in a circle with Gary when someone asks the meaning of the restaurant’s name. “It means ‘off the line,’” he says, “The beginning of a new train of thought.” Alinea wasn’t what I had envisioned—what most people would have envisioned. But what Gary said rang true. Stripped of all its pretension—the Michelin stars, high rankings, global renown—Alinea still isn’t like the others. Of course, I won’t be dining there anytime soon, but getting to see what goes on behind the scenes was still an experience for which I’m thrilled to have had. If you do ever have the opportunity to dine in, leave the preconceptions at the door. Even if you don’t, you’ll soon find that you’ve abandoned them, anyway.