In a highball glass sits a hollow sphere of ice.
Inside the ice sits a perfectly chilled Old Fashioned, piped through a small hole with a syringe.
To get it out, you’re handed a slingshot.
So goes one of the amusements at Chicago’s The Aviary, a sleek lounge serving up wildly imaginative cocktails and bites.
Calling The Aviary a bar seems wrong. So does calling The Aviary Cocktail Book, published in 2018, a “cocktail book.” It’s not inaccurate per se, but it’s a major undersell. Instead, the book is more like a trip inside the minds of the Willy Wonkas of liquor and food and photography. It’s otherworldly and zany and a little overwhelming.
Several recipes call for the spherification of a liquid — such as rum or brown sugar syrup or cucumber juice — using combinations of calcium lactate and sodium alginate, which creates little membrane-spheres full of flavor. Other drinks are served in “pillows” — plastic bags filled with aromatics that engulf patrons when they slice the bags open. Another might arrive in a plume of dry ice and resemble a mad science experiment gone wrong.
The book has sections on flavored ice and drinks served in vacuum pots. The recipe for “Green Thumb” calls for hot dogs. “Infernal Imagery” comes in a treasure chest filled with applewood smoke. Another drink is titled “Jesus Can’t Hit a Curveball.” And so on and so forth, for 400-plus eye-catching, mind-bending pages.
The cocktails, and the Chicago bar that serves them up, are the creations of chef Grant Achatz and restaurant executive Nick Kokonas — both of the city’s famed, three-Michelin-star-winning Alinea — along with beverage director and “ice chef” Micah Melton. But the book is the brainchild of Allen and Sarah Hemberger.
The Hembergers aren’t restaurateurs by trade. Nor were they proficient barkeeps. By training, Sarah ’05 is a digital painter and Allen ’01 is a digital-effects artist. They have worked on movies like Avatar, Brave, The Avengers, Finding Dory and King Kong. Their foray into the restaurant world was accidental.
On one of their first dates, Sarah and Allen went to Alinea, then in its early, pre-Michelin, pre-James-Beard, pre-“Best Restaurant in the World” days. The couple was wowed by 23 courses of imagination, molecular gastronomy, nostalgia-triggering dishes and theater. Years later when the restaurant published a cookbook, Sarah bought it for Allen as a Christmas gift.
The cookbook, Allen felt, was a dare from the folks at Alinea to try — just try — to cook like them. He decided he’d take on a recipe, the one he deemed easiest: “dry caramel, salt.” Easy it was not. It took three attempts and required him to source maltodextrin. But on that third try he recreated the powdered, dusty caramel that magically melts into a warm, soft caramel in your mouth, and an obsession was born. One recipe became two, and three, and four, until five years later, Allen had cooked the entire book — from “granola in a rosewater envelope” to “ayu, kombu, fried spine, sesame.”
The food, Allen explains, is kind of a byproduct. What most delighted him about Alinea and its cookbook is that the geniuses behind them had created dishes that harness an emotion or memory and serve it on a platter.
“They’re just looking around all the time trying to figure out how to give somebody these little presents. It’s got almost nothing to do with the food itself. They’ll say all the time around here, ‘Making it taste good is not the hard part. . . . You can make a burger taste good. . . . Does this make you feel?’”
As for the recipes themselves, many are a bit out of reach for your average home mixologist — unless one has access to equipment like an immersion circulator, a smoking gun, a carbonation device, a cotton-candy machine and a volcano vaporizer.
Allen offers an example from Alinea, the cookbook: a plain-looking nugget of meat skewered on an oak branch. At first glance, it’s nothing special. Then you set the leaves on fire, and instantly the scent of oak leaves fills the room and transports you.
“Anyone from the Midwest knows what that smells like,” Allen raves. “The second you smell that, it’s like you’re a six-year-old again. It’s immediate. You don’t even have to see the dish. You get a whiff and you’re like, ‘Someone is burning a pile of leaves around here.’
“The thing I enjoy about the Alinea stuff, there’s some part of problem-solving, and making the dishes is interesting, but the most fun part is saying, ‘Hey Sarah, come check this out.’”
He invited others to check out his progress, too. Allen photographed and blogged about every step of his exploration of the 107 Alinea recipes and gained some notoriety of his own in the process, even starring in a minidocumentary called Allen & Alinea. He had made the foams and gels and powders that puzzle and delight the restaurant’s guests. He had learned to woodwork and weld in order to create vessels similar to those used in its kitchen. He had built relationships with the purveyors of rare ingredients. And he had become a superfan of Achatz. Once the project was complete, Sarah encouraged him to turn it into a book to commemorate the experience.
It’s essential to understand that Allen and Sarah did not simply print out Allen’s blog along with 4-by-6 snapshots of the dishes and slap them into a photo album. It seems the Hembergers don’t do anything halfway. They share an insatiable appetite for learning and go 1,000 percent into every endeavor. That’s obvious in Allen’s voice on the blog, in the book and in person. When asked what he does in his free time, he effuses about learning how to sew because he wondered how jeans are made. For a while he was interested in blacksmithing and learned to make knives in his garage. Sarah has reupholstered furniture and made candles and jewelry. The couple taught themselves to make soap using leftover oils and fats from their kitchen. The breadth of their curiosity is limitless, and they have the talent to match it.
So when they decided to make a book, it wasn’t a simple scrapbook. They ditched the customary print-on-demand options and instead sought a company that could help them print a tactile, high-end book without the need for a publisher. They learned about printing, binding and cargo-shipping in order to complement their already honed skills in design, layout and writing. When all was thoroughly researched, Allen opened a Kickstarter fund to raise $28,500 so he could print 750 copies of an artistically designed and shot, museum-quality book he titled The Alinea Project. In one month, in April 2014, he had over $42,000 to produce an account of his foray into molecular gastronomy.
The Hembergers sent the first three copies to Alinea. The next day, Nick Kokonas called with a job offer.
The proposal was loose: Find creative ways to use their artistic skills with the restaurant group, which now comprises six, and soon to be seven, very different restaurants. They could design, photograph, videotape, publish or do whatever they deemed interesting. The couple freelanced projects from teaser videos to menu, label, logo and website design until the team at Alinea said the time was right for the Hembergers to quit their film jobs, move to Chicago and become the group’s new directors of media and publishing.
A happy hiccup nearly derailed them — a baby daughter named Miramar — but Kokonas offered options to work from home, set up a crib in the office or whatever it took to help the couple achieve a favorable work-life balance.
“It was the flexibility of the job that I found really appealing,” Sarah recalls, noting she has since become a superfan in her own right.
Once the Hembergers had settled in Chicago, Kokonas revealed he had long wanted to create a cocktail book — but not a tiny bar manual as sits on every home bar cart and liquor cabinet. He wanted a giant, stunning coffee-table book that would capture the drama of The Aviary’s menu, but he knew typical publishers wouldn’t spend the money or time on such an enterprise.
The Hembergers were up for the challenge.
Allen tackled the photography and writing while Sarah designed, worked on layouts and illustrated emoji versions of the bar and the cocktails. They learned how to write recipes and sharpened their bartending skills. They shot and reshot 10,000 photos until they captured each drink. It took two years to complete the book, and at the end they ordered an initial run of 30,000 copies, which quickly sold out. The group has since printed another 40,000 that retail for $85 — or $135 for the reserve edition that “comes enclosed in a custom-designed, display-worthy clamshell case” — on theaviarybook.com.
As for the recipes themselves, many are a bit out of reach for your average home mixologist — unless one has access to equipment like an immersion circulator, a smoking gun, a carbonation device, a cotton-candy machine and a volcano vaporizer. But with the right ingredients, some ingenuity and a bit of free time, the other cocktails are crazy but possible.
Yet the goal of The Aviary Cocktail Book might not be to recreate each recipe as much as to encourage readers to think like chefs and bartenders.
“One of my favorite cocktails in the book is . . . very boring-looking,” Allen says. “It’s brown liquid and served in a giant plastic bag. At the table they cut the bag open and pull the drink out. The drink is good, but what’s amazing is when you cut the bag open, the thing you smell is this incredible aroma of oats and cinnamon and brown sugar and allspice. Most people are like, ‘that smells amazing, what is that?’
“It’s the smell when you rip open a bag of Quaker Instant Oatmeal. . . . Some chef woke up and ripped open a bag of oatmeal and was half-awake and had to go to work and was like, ‘This is an amazing smell. How do I give someone this experience?’”
The Hembergers have started thinking that way, too. Allen even published a cocktail recipe of his own in the newly released The Aviary: Holiday Cocktails booklet. The 100-page guide features approachable cocktails like a key-lime-pie mimosa, a cider margarita and a pumpkin royal fizz. They’re now at work on a summer cocktail handbook for home cooks — another outlet for their “hard-earned knowledge,” Sarah explains.
They’re also busy with a laundry list of other projects. In July the Alinea group launched the St. Clair Supper Club, which offers a retro spin on classic Midwest dishes like prime rib and grasshopper pie. The restaurant’s casual vibe is a far cry from the highbrow Alinea, but the throwback style had Sarah jazzed.
“The design work for this is one of the most fun projects I’ve done,” she says, noting the website’s satirical, mid-’90s, HTML2 style. “Most of the others are fine dining and buttoned-up, but this is very personality driven.”
When we tour the St. Clair Supper Club days after its opening, the chef stops Allen to chat about how the Oysters Rockefeller will appear at the next day’s photoshoot and to ask which sauce will look best on the prime rib.
The interaction is indicative of the Hembergers’ role within the restaurant group. While they’re not chefs or bartenders, their creative opinion is appreciated across nearly all facets of daily operations. And they encourage feedback on their own work from the culinary staff. It is, as Allen calls it, a “democratic creative environment,” but they’re careful to point out that creativity — for them or the chefs — isn’t just a string of wacky ideas. It takes persistence, collaboration, enthusiasm and time. And for them to stay happy in the job, and for the job to stay happy with them, they’re constantly pushing themselves.
“Part of Nick’s entrepreneurial spirit has ingrained in us to ask, ‘What can we build on our own?’” Sarah says.
What they will build on their own remains a question mark. Perhaps a children’s book. Or an art gallery. Until then, they’re toasting to the curious route with an outrageous cocktail.
Tara Hunt McMullen is a freelance writer and former associate editor of this magazine.