A few years ago, a friend invited me to dinner at an unusual Chicago restaurant — one that closed and reopened every four months in a different form: new food, new theme, new décor, new service ware. I was intrigued, and agreed to visit during the restaurant’s vegan incarnation. As I was writing Making Makers: Kids, Tools, and Innovation at the time, I reached out to the restaurant’s co-owner, Nick Kokonas, and asked for an interview, in the hopes that he would have a good maker childhood story to share. I wasn’t disappointed. In addition to a great story for the book, Nick also took me on a tour of his other restaurant, Alinea. That evening, at Next: Vegan (other iterations of the restaurant have included Next: Paris 1906, Next: Childhood, and Next: Sicily), I found myself eating food that was both delicious and playful. They made plates from a tree that the city had to cut down, built an edible centerpiece, and designed dishes specifically for the food we were eating. As a designer and engineer, I was enchanted. So much so, that every few weeks for the next six months, I emailed Kokonas and begged to collaborate on a project.
I ended up spending a year working with the team at Alinea. The best part was getting to observe the work of the designers, chefs, servers, and others who work there. Where I had expected to see a typical kitchen, at Alinea I found a space that blended old techniques and new technology, artistry and craft. During a typical evening, 20 or so coat-clad chefs worked in silence breaking down fish, preparing sous vide bags, wrapping pork belly in seaweed, precisely cutting discs of black truffle, and filling edible balloons with flavored helium, all the while maintaining a pristine kitchen, down to the carpeted black rug.
Kokonas explained that his team’s process “is to ask what sort of experience or emotion we want to evoke for a guest. Then we figure out how to do that using every tool we can imagine. Then we do it once. Then we engineer how to repeat that 100 times per night. That’s what separates us. We never say it’s impossible.”
So many of the attributes that make the maker movement appealing to me were visible in that kitchen:
- Persistence: Making the same intricate dish dozens of times in a given evening, while keeping each iteration compelling.
- Resourcefulness: When a component of one dessert became too sticky over the course of the night, the chefs improvised a new version on the spot.
- Sharing: Rather than keep Alinea’s recipes a secret, Chef Grant Achatz published them in a book.
- Playfulness: Did I mention the floating edible balloons?
While Alinea (and Next:) push the definitions of what the restaurant experience can be, we shouldn’t overlook the myriad opportunities we have to make with food every day. Our kitchens become chemistry labs and machine shops over the course of preparing a simple, or complex, meal.
Despite my work with Alinea coming to an end, my fascination with the artistry that I saw there remained, and I’ve sought out new ways to take my lab’s work in playful electronics into the kitchen. While “Don’t play with your food” is a phrase many of us heard repeatedly during our childhoods, makers such as Chef Achatz and his team are wonderful reminders that perhaps that is exactly what we should be doing.