Credit: Lucy Hewett

No, there are no foams, emulsions, or aromatic vapors at Alinea’s family meal. Today chef de cuisine Simon Davies has decided to make murgh makhani, or Indian butter chicken, for the simple reason that it’s one of his favorite things to eat. He cooks it in large pots on the stove. There is no dry ice involved. The jasmine rice, it’s true, was simmered in a cumin and bay leaf stock, and the naan was prepared from scratch, but the components of the salad are merely tossed together in a large tray, not painstakingly arranged with a pair of tweezers.

The most experimental thing anyone has ever prepared for staff meal, at least that Davies can recall, is breakfast—French toast with bacon. Personal experiments, like a prep cook trying out a tiramisu, are tolerated. But no wild stuff. “It’s important that the family meal is very traditional,” Davies says.

Preparations for tonight’s dinner began last night, when Davies began marinating chicken thighs in yogurt and spices. It’s been stewing in a tomato-based sauce all morning. The rice is simmering on a hot plate. The naan has been baked, the salad assembled. At 2:45, Davies gives the command: “I want everybody in this kitchen right now!” (This is less a shout than the eerily calm chef raising his voice about four decibels.) The line cooks respond in unison with an almost military “Yes, chef!” and commence whisking cutting boards and sheet pans that contain the preparations for tonight’s dinner service off the three long metal countertops and start scrubbing.

A buffet materializes on the center counter with surprising speed: the rice, the naan, the salad (spinach with orange segments, shaved fennel, carrots, and golden raisins), the dressing (an orange-cilantro-cumin vinaigrette), a plastic cube full of huckleberry-grape limeade, and a stack of plates and a pile of silverware that a cook positions just so. In the back, three dessert cooks toss balls of dough into the deep fryer, where they will become gulab jamun. With his glove-covered hands, Davies mixes herbs into cauliflower that has been roasted in clarified butter. The front-of-house staff carries in stools that they position at regular intervals perpendicular to the counter.

The Alinea kitchen hierarchy holds during staff meal. Davies and his fellow chef de cuisine Mike Bagale serve themselves first, followed by the line cooks, the dishwashers, the guy who works in the garage in the back alley carving ice with a chainsaw, and the servers and bussers; chef and owner Grant Achatz can join the line whenever he feels like it, and he does, but only to grab a piece of naan to take back to his office. Nobody makes an effort at attractive plating and almost nobody sits to eat, except for the chefs. No one lingers. They might as well be eating frozen Trader Joe’s meals at their desks—which they kind of are. If it’s your job to manipulate taste and texture in ways no one’s ever seen before, it’s a given that you have the technique to make an Indian meal whose deliciousness is entirely unremarkable.   v

Credit: Lucy Hewett
Credit: Lucy Hewett
Credit: Lucy Hewett

Simon Davies’s chicken makhani

Masala spice
30g coriander
30g cumin
30g paprika
10g fennel seed
8g black pepper
20g cardamom
10g chili powder
15g yellow mustard seed
5g cinnamon
5g clove

Blend until fine powder.

10 each boneless, skinless thighs
200g plain yogurt
40g ginger, finely chopped
40g garlic, finely chopped
30g masala spice

Marinate together for 12 hours. Season with salt and roast in a 350 degree oven until just cooked. Cut into cubes.

40g grapeseed oil
800g tomato, diced
400g Spanish onion, diced
10g jalapeño, finely chopped
40g ginger, finely chopped
40g garlic, finely chopped
20g masala spice
100g yogurt
100g heavy crime
200g butter, diced
Salt and lemon juice to taste

Sweat the garlic, ginger, and jalapeño together in grapeseed oil. Add the masala spice and cook until fragrant. Add onions and cook down, stirring for several minutes. When onions have become slightly translucent, add tomatoes and simmer for three hours on low. Using a stick blender, blend in the heavy cream and yogurt breaking up any chunks in the process. Whisk in the diced butter, melting it piece by piece. Season with salt and lemon. Add roasted chicken, heat, and serve with naan and rice.

Credit: Lucy Hewett
Credit: Lucy Hewett
Credit: Lucy Hewett