Student Challenges Master in Achatz/Keller Showdown

by arnold on November 11, 2008

From The New York Times:

Columbus Circle will be the center of the culinary universe for a few hours tonight as two of the country’s most acclaimed chefs—those without my Timesian fear of hyperbole might just go ahead and say “the country’s two most acclaimed chefs”—collaborate on a 20-course, $1500 dinner at Per Se.

Thomas Keller and Grant Achatz are the chefs in question, and tonight’s meal is the first of three they will be cooking side by side. The next will take place on Dec. 2 at Mr. Achatz’s home kitchen, Alinea in Chicago; Mr. Keller gets home-kitchen advantage for the final meal on Dec. 9 at the French Laundry in Yountville, Calif.

Keller v. Achatz(Photos: Nicholas Roberts/Reuters, Peter Thompson/The New York Times)

Michael Ruhlman gives a great analysis of what this matchup means for both chefs:

“Grant estimated that if you got to the source of 90 percent of what he did, its source would be the French Laundry,” said Michael Ruhlman, who wrote “The French Laundry Cookbook” and the introduction to “Alinea.” Mr. Ruhlman met Grant in his first year working at the French Laundry; following both chefs over the year, he’s watched their relationship from a front row seat. “And I’ve always believed that the rigorous technique embraced while at the FL is the main reason he’s been able succeed at the relentlessly innovative cuisine he’s set out to do every night. He knows it, Thomas knows it, and they’re both grateful.”

Is there more to it than that? Is there, lurking beneath the mutual support and praise, a competitive streak? How often do the two chefs check to see who is winning this Amazon Meter?

“It’s probably more complicated from Grant’s perspective,” said Mr. Ruhlman. “Talk about the anxiety of influence, the need to slay the father. Keller looms so tall in this industry, I’m sure he does all he can to stay out of its shadow without alienating the friend and mentor to whom he owes so much.”

Of course, the anxiety can work both ways. “How did Thomas feel when Gourmet named Alinea best restaurant in the country?” Mr. Ruhlman asks. “How could Keller not feel competitive about this? All chefs are alpha dogs.”

My first reaction when I read this was a Keanu/Neo-like “Whoa,” especially for a dinner costing $1500. I honestly hope some of that money goes to a charity of some kind, but this match up is like the Super Bowl of cooking, and we all know how much Super Bowl tickets cost.

At least at this event, the food won’t suck, and it’s guaranteed to be a good game.

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