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

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© 2013 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2013 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.


14 Wonderful responses to “Food Art Video”

  • Carri

    I love it when he shatters the ball. I cued this up for my crew last week, very inspiring! though I can’t help wondering what would happen if SNL got a hold of it, it is ripe picking for a parody.

  • Natalie Luffer Sztern

    everything about your video is art, from the music to the direction, to the food to the editing…food done like Alinea is art in its definitive term. How to plate a dish is an art whether the food is or isn’t; pastry chefs are artists as are chocolatiers sculpturers; in what medium of food ouside of diners drive-ins and dives is food not part of our cultural and artisitc society? in fact the above is almost a documentary in how food becomes art; but like in life; it is all in the eyes of the beholder.

  • maureen sanchez

    They evoke an emotional response — something we’re not really trained to have to food — at least not in a fast-food nation.

    • Mantonat

      I understand what you mean – when people eat, they generally don’t consciously consider emotion. But if you think about why we eat what we do, there’s almost nothing that’s more tied to emotion than food. The fast-food purveyors know this, are experts at manipulating it, and customers respond to it. If Grant Achatz is the chef equivalent of Dali, then the corporate minds behind McDonald’s or KFC are the Larry Flynts. All experts at tapping into human emotions, only the emotions they targets are almost polar opposites.

  • ryan

    There is no doubt that food can be an art as well as a craft. This video was really interesting…fun…cool, but the molecular thing still isn’t real cooking.

  • Derek

    I loved my meal at Alinea in 2011. That said, I can’t decide if that video is incredibly cool, incredibly pretentious, or both. I think it’s the intercut scenes of the cello player that push it over the top in a slightly off-putting way.

    • John Robinson

      I agree. I have a feeling this level of “food art” is going to look seriously outdated in the next 10 years, perhaps even laughably so. When fine dining jumped the shark so to speak.

    • Paul

      In my opinion, it was well produced but incredibly pretentious and overdone. One vote for Thomas Keller’s approach.

  • Dan

    Nouvelle Cuisine had a lot of the same charges of pretentiousness levelled at as well, even by chefs like Bocuse who famously said that it “put nothing on the plate and everything on the bill.” It seems like chefs, like artists, are torn between two poles, on the one hand, they must please the customer with their work or they will go out of business, but, on the other hand, they must constantly create and innovate or they lose customers who complain that their work has gotten too static. Thomas Keller, in addition to looking at the chef as a craftsman, also points out that chefs must constantly be striving forward in order to find or create or become the next big movement (not trend, movement) in the culinary world. It is undeniable that Achatz and company are more than just a trend.

  • Paul Kobulnicky

    Maybe the most interesting segment was the discussion on revising the menu. If you watch it you see that Achatz is really incapable of articulating anything other than being “different” and certainly even can’t articulate that clearly enough to lead his team. I think that this is what bother’s people about “modernist” cooking. It is too close to being just self-indulgent and hedonistic.

  • Pete Erickson

    You could not be more wrong about Grant Achatz’s inability to communicate anything other than being “different” to his team. I was lucky enough to be in Alinea on a March day last year. It was 80 some degrees out, the desert for that night was the perfect riff of a New Hampshire winter day. He had flown in that day, a day that had expected temps much colder. Two hours before service, at one of the best restaurants in the world, after prep and mis en place (sic) had been going on for about 8 hours on the 20 or so course’s, Grant realized that the dessert was no longer valid. This desert was indeed New Hampshire, the level detail was amazing and complex, it transported me to my childhood.

    It was decided to scrap it. In short order, they came up with a new desert solution, then to make the taste profiles work he and his team revamped three or so courses that came before it, to seamlessly integrate the desert. On a dime they shifted gears and pulled it off. Note, this is not just substituting strawberry short cake for bread pudding.

    Say what you what about, over done, pretentiousness, or whatever…what Matters is when you taste that food, it is just plain delishous. That is what counts, whether it’s $2.00 street food or 3 Star.

    Christian’s job is capture a moment, he did it! He may work for Alinea, but that, in this case, doesn’t neuter his film.

    Here is another film that may help you understand the mind of Achatz, the the focus it takes to create the vision he and his entire staff share. – he is quite articulate.

  • One Swell Foop

    Any idea what pasta machine that is? I’ve got the attachment for my Kitchenaid mixer, but it’s not wide enough and leads to substantial frustration on my part.

  • Mike

    All of the sets of videos were absolutely mesmerizing!! I could not get enough of these as I’m soooo fascinated how they make all those amazing dishes. I liked the flavor bouncing segment alot. And the edible balloon and the crash course chocolate egg. No way!!! Thank you so much for sharing this.


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