I have been curious and in some ways, completely enamored about what goes on in the kitchen when we go out for dinner.  What is going on back there that’s making our food taste so good/bad?  One thing’s for sure, you cannot compare a franchise restaurant, like a Cheesecake Factory, to a non-franchise/big box restaurant.  It’s clear the menu at Cheesecake factory will be the same, pretty much 365 days out of the year.  They don’t care that asparagus is not in season, it’s on that damn menu.  But if you truly care about food [yes, that’s somewhat of an indictment on Cheesecake Factory, although I think it’s a fine place to eat], you bring in seasonal and locally grown ingredients.  Not because you want to be posh, but because it’s the responsible thing to do.  It’s the sustainable thing to do.  I’ve never worked in a kitchen, nor have I ever even worked in a restaurant, but it’s clear when you eat at a restaurant that truly cares about the ingredients and how it is prepared.  Here in Los Angeles, I’ve eaten at Providence, a 2 star Michelin restaurant on Melrose near Hollywood.  The food is exceptional.  You can taste the craftsmanship in each dish.  To be fair to the Cheesecake Factory, the cooks also work damn hard.  When it’s the lunch/dinner rush, that kitchen is a hot bed of cooks pushing out orders like there’s no tomorrow.  So why isn’t the Cheesecake Factory sporting any Michelin stars?  Everyone works hard in both restaurants, right?  Right.  But not everything is created equal.  The people who run and work at Providence is not just about turning tables all night long.  The food is the center piece of something more than just feeding hungry mouths in the dining room.  There’s thoughtfulness to the ingredients, creativity, balance of flavors and texture, finding that niche where it’s pushing the envelop of one’s dining experience.  And I think if you’re honest with yourself, that is not Cheesecake Factory’s M.O.

Alinea is considered the best restaurant in America today.  It’s surpassed the French Laundry and Per Se to become the star of the culinary circle in this country.  It is ranked number seven in the world and it has, of course, 3 Michelin stars.  I’ve never eaten at Alinea.  Shoot, I’ve never even been to Chicago [egregious, I know].  I don’t know that I will ever get to eat at Alinea, where people wait in line to pay over $200 per person for a 20 course tasting menu.  It’s a restaurant that isn’t for everyone.  In fact, the sheer intensity of chef and owner Grant Achatz will probably turn off a lot of potential diners.  I think many of us want something familiar to eat, even if we think it’s so drastically different.  Alinea pushes the envelop to the nth degree.  They do it, not out of arrogance, but out of total respect for food and their diners.  They do it because, as chefs, they are in many ways, artists themselves.  To picture Picasso, Van Gogh, or Michelangelo giving anything less than their creative best would be unthinkable.  As masterpieces are created, artists go through a process of creating, executing, failing, and starting over again.  One can argue that I’m being extreme in calling chefs artists, and maybe so, but to understand just a little of their thought process in creating dishes would help us see that they are not that different than painters and composers.  They all go through a creative process in throwing out bad ideas and embracing new and exciting ones.

So, what goes into running and cooking at a place like Alinea?  Why is it the best restaurant in America?  What would make anyone pay $200 per head to eat at a place like this?  The video below shows how utterly dedicated these men are to their craft.  Led by Grant Achatz, these men discuss, debate, and embrace a world where their starting point is the Sistine Chapel, not Michelangelo’s sketch drawings.  It is a menu development meeting where you get to experience 2nd hand, anyway, the kind of creative process and healthy debate on how they want to give their customers the very best they can possibly give.  It’s amazing to me the passion and soulfulness of their approach to something as simple as squid and green beans.  Many out there may think, “Who cares?  Give me a slice of pizza and I’m in heaven.”  And that would be missing the point.  It’s not just about preparing food, it’s about excellence and most of all, a true passion to create something new and exciting.  This should inspire us to do the same in our own lives.  Push the envelop, even if the process is slow, as Grant says.  That’s OK, but we always have to be mindful of what’s “out there” in the landscape and strive for being the best.