The above is, technically, an intro to the Chicago restaurant Alinea, led by restaurateur Nick Kokonas and chef Grant Achatz, whose story I recount in The Reach of a Chef. The question “Are chefs artists?” almost always annoys me. Grant told me he considers himself as such (and not without reason). His mentor Thomas Keller considers himself, the chef, a craftsman. In a long-ago post I reprint from Reach of a Chef my chapter on chef Masa Takayama, making a case I almost argue against: that the chef can, in certain instances, rise to the level of artist. That chefs are artists is a facile assumption that is almost always wrong.
To complicate matters in the funnest of possible ways, in walks Christian Seel, a chef as actual filmmaker, creating this, one of the most dramatic series of food, cooking, dining images I’ve encountered. If the Food Network/Cooking Channel/Bravo/Travel Channel ever gets its collective act together and discovers the balls to broadcast this kind of work, I’ll be there. Kokonas noted that Alinea patron, friend, and consultant Gary Adcock of Studio 37 was a consultant on the above film. Seel, a CIA grad who has cooked in some of the world’s best restaurants, is currently the media director for the Next/Aviary/Alinea group. I’ve asked him to discuss the film and his thinking:
By Christian Seel
I just read a great book by the Academy Award–winning film editor Walter Murch (In the Blink of an Eye). In it, he prioritizes the six most important elements of film editing. At the top of the list is emotional content. With any short, the first thing I personally do is try to identify an emotion and a story that I want to convey, and work from there. It sounds very obvious put like that, but its not always so, given that you start with something abstract and no characters or dialogue.
Music and sound are always critical with any production. As I’m behind the camera, it’s often difficult to simultaneously capture great images and record quality audio—fundamental aspects of a dining room or kitchen. With the Alinea Intro here, I was lucky enough to find a song that had the exact characteristics I was looking for—an experience larger than life, grandiose. When you have the right music, it does a lot to carry the emotional content. A short really starts to come together and have a life of its own. When you edit with the music, it kind of tells you what it wants to be. A good song or music will have kind of a “drive” to it. It carries or drives you along, which in turn carries the video. Good music/songs will also have emotion and obviously rhythm that you can play off.
I was lucky enough to be able to use a RED Epic camera recently. It records at 5K resolution—roughly five times the resolution of HD video. It’s a serious Hollywood camera used to shoot The Hobbit, Oz The Great and Powerful, The Great Gatsby, and dozens of other major productions. You can play footage from that camera on an IMAX screen and it would still look sharp. It’s really cool how far technology has come. From a practical standpoint, I can stabilize and crop footage and still maintain a very high playback resolution.
With this short in particular, I wanted to convey first a sense of excitement and anxiety that comes from sitting down at a highly anticipated restaurant meal. With Alinea specifically, there are so many hundreds of thousands of movements that go into the production of a meal. If you observe, you can see how all these movements have to fall into place in a very precise way, almost like a choreographed show or a symphony. It’s really impressive and amazing in my opinion. When I cut the piece together, I tried to convey that. The cuts in the video are based almost entirely on these individual movements—as if the employees themselves are moving to this internal rhythm. Each action in the restaurant is like a note being played on an instrument. I don’t pretend to take credit for this concept. I wanted to show bold and decisive movement, which is extremely agile and precise at the same time. With Alinea, the food is so carefully conceived and executed that I try to light it and shoot it as simply, honestly, and straightforward as possible, in hopes of doing it justice.
You can respond to Christian on Twitter: @XtianSeel
If you liked this post, check out these other links:
- My Had Something to Say Video on Stupid Kitchen Tools.
- Todd and Diane of White on Rice Couple are the ones who made my Had Something to Say series.
- Emilia’s favorite Alinea movie made by Christian: 21st Century Ltd.
- Chef Brian Polcyn’s video on trussing a chicken.
© 2013 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2013 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.