The Alinea Project's Allen Hemberger on Mastering Maltodextrin and Mocking Up an Anti-Griddle

Categories: Food as Art
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Allen Hemberger
"Bubblegum, long pepper, crème fraîche, hibiscus" from the Alinea Project.
Allen Hemberger, a visual-effects artist at Pixar with no culinary training whatsoever, had a conversion experience the first time he went to Alinea, arguably the tabernacle of modernist cooking in the United States. "I was really floored by the whole thing," he says. "It was my first exposure to presenting food as art -- so beautiful and poetic."

In 2008, Hemberger's girlfriend bought him the Alinea Book for Christmas, and he flipped through its pages, simultaneously marveling over the pictures and scoffing at the idea that anyone could make the recipes at home. "I was amused and irritated. It almost seemed like a bluff. I thought, 'I'm just going to try one of these,'" he says. The recipe was caramel powder. It took him six tries to get it right, making a caramel and then mixing it with tapioca maltodextrin. The results, he says, were "magic." The Alinea Project, Hemberger's primary hobby and beautifully photographed blog, was born.

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Alinea Project
Allen Hemberger, filling a water balloon with coconut-milk foam.
For the past two and a half years, Hemberger has been cooking his way through the book, working on a recipe or two at a time and photographing the entire process. Any given recipe (such as this one) can have four to eight components, involve powders Hemberger orders from San Francisco's Le Sanctuaire, and devices far from common to most home kitchens. The recipes take days to assemble, and involve a serious amount of persistence and geekitude.

Hemberger started by borrowing a dehydrator from a friend, and has since assembled a battery of chemicals, tools, and dishes. For the most part, he keeps prices down by investing in low-tech alternatives. Instead of an expensive immersion circulator, he uses a thermocoupler plugged into a rice cooker to cook dishes sous-vide, and mocks up Grant Achatz's famous anti-griddle (a device that freezes anything placed on it instantly) by sandwiching dry ice between metal sheet pans. He now wants a PacoJet. It costs $4,000. His girlfriend is telling him there's no more room in their apartment.

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Allen Hemberger
Alinea Project's "coconut, trout roe, licorice"
The results of his labors are flat-out beautiful, but Hemberger and his girlfriend are usually the only ones who get to taste them. "A lot of friends say, 'Invite me over,' but I don't know when a dish is going to work out," he says. "Sometimes I'll invite people over on a Sunday night to eat this one dish, but it's not a full meal. So we're probably going to have burgers or pizza afterward."

Hemberger's now 70 percent of the way through the book, and determined to see the project through. In a strange way, perhaps, the Alinea project has taught him how to cook. 

"The way my parents always cooked, they'd just take some random stuff and throw it into the pot," he says. "The results seemed to be dependent on a bit of chance. Now I'm able to predict which flavors will taste good together. I know how and when and how to use salt, and how to understand how temperature works. Now it's easy to pick up something and know how to cook it -- that's pretty awesome."

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