March 6, 2012
A great chef and his not-so-great appliances

I am looking at a photograph published in the Wall Street Journal showing one of the greatest chef's of our generation. Grant Achatz's restaurant in Chicago, Alinea, was awarded three Michelin stars and it has been listed by some as the best restaurant in the United States, and by others as one of the best restaurants in the world (how anyone can know these things without actually visiting all of the contenders within days of one another is a topic for another time).

Achatz is slim. His shirt is untucked. But my eyes looking over his shoulder. Yikes! He has a microwave! And it's white! And it's over his range! It's one of those gawd-awful microwaves that doubles as an exhaust hood - the kind that we used to have, the one that couldn't exhaust anything to save its life. The range and oven are also white. I rubbed my eyes. Refocused. Still white.

For the past decade or so, whether it was on one HGTV show after another or in magazines dealing with style and design like "Dwell," we have been led to believe that anything but stainless steel appliances are the kitchen equivalent of a fashion faux pas. We were supposed to make our kitchens look more commercial, more rugged. Watch HGTV. "Househunters," for instance. The first thing folks say when they walk through and encounter white or black appliances is, "Oh, we'll have to upgrade those." There is a slight and recent trend to offer other appliance options, like hiding them behind cabinetry.

Yes, this is the age of form meets function. Your kitchen has to look like you know what you're doing. Whether you do or not is another matter. Something tells me Achatz doesn't have to prove anything to his house guests. I assume they know about Alinea and its stunning food - highly inventive and highly stylized. And they have probably seen his beautiful book, "Alinea (Ten Speed Press, $50, 396 pages), which is within arm's reach of my desk as I write this.

The Achatz photo is certain to create quite a stir in certain circles. If you're able to look past it, please read the interview. It is quite revealing, especially Achatz' take on home cooks -- they often don't use enough salt, and on wine - if you treat it like a trophy you won't enjoy it.

One other favorite moment is this nugget: "In my refrigerator, I have sriracha sauce, Hellmann's mayonnaise, Heinz ketchup, French's yellow mustard. People think that because I'm a chef my refrigerator is filled with high-end stuff, but we're people. Good God, in my freezer I have crappy vanilla ice cream."

It was nice to see Grant Achatz demystify Grant Achatz.

The Achatz photo reminds me of the uproar awhile back when a picture of food journalist and best-selling cookbook author Mark Bittman's kitchen appeared in the paper for which he writes, The New York Times. Yikes! There's that white microwave over the stove, and the range is white, too, and it's not by Wolf or Viking. His kitchen is tiny. There's no counter space. As anyone who watches "Selling New York" on TV knows, that's what you get in New York City unless you've got $4 million or more to spend.

The reaction to Bittman's kitchen was so intense that the paper actually followed up on it in a piece called "Mark Bittman's Bad Kitchen."

Bittman explained:

"I got a bunch of e-mails that say, "Can you believe all this stuff about your crummy kitchen?" But the whole idea is that you don't need a fancy kitchen. You don't need fancy equipment, and you don't need fancy recipes. When I show people my kitchen, they believe it. But I hate my kitchen also. I bump my shins on the dishwasher. There is not enough room to put stuff. It's a terrible stove. It's a terrible dishwasher. I don't have room for the pots I'd like to have. I've cooked in much worse, though. I'm used to it. Someday I'll grow up and get a real kitchen."

I agree with Bittman that you don't need all the latest, greatest stuff to cook well. But the microwave over the stove not only looks bad, it just doesn't function well. When Lynn and I moved into our new house a few years back, the first thing we did was yank out the microwave over the range and sell it. Until we did, any time I sautéed or seared anything, I set off the smoke detector, freaking out the cats. The new exhaust is commercial grade and is very powerful. It gives me a bit of comfort when I heat up a pan. How do Achatz and Bittman manage without one?

Blair Anthony Robertson is The Bee's restaurant critic. Follow him on Twitter, @blarob.

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