"What makes the food that we do at Alinea so interesting on the outside is that we really don't let ourselves say no to an idea," Achatz says. "When we start looking at things really critically or even very simply, we realize that there's more than one way to actually get the same results ... You're deconstructing the components of a course and putting them back together."
From planning a menu of constantly changing, mind-bending fare to grappling with design (“Why does a restaurant need to have tables?” he had asked, to the consternation of business partner and now-longtime friend Nick Kokonas), this was going to be a restaurant that held nothing sacred: not its food and certainly not convention. Even the restaurant’s name staunchly reflects these values: an alinea is the typographical character which denotes a new train of thought.
As Grant looked around the kitchen, at spotless, stainless steel tables that had yet to see a plate or a crumb and at pans still untouched by heat, he at last addressed the team gathered around him – friends from before, new faces – together in this place that was going to be quite unlike any restaurant that any of them – himself included – had worked in before. “Here’s the deal. Tomorrow we’re going to open the best restaurant in the country. And anything less is gonna be a failure.” Even over the phone, we could hear his voice warming at the memory. “At that moment, I won. ʼCause I felt like I accomplished what I set out to do.” He paused. “Even though the food could have really sucked,” he added, and laughed. Fifteen years on and three Michelin stars later, Alinea has not only established itself as America’s best restaurant, but as one of the world’s best. Now, widely known as one of the most unparalleled culinary minds in the world, chef Grant Achatz has thoroughly proven that the food, in fact, doesn’t suck.
The night before Alinea opened its doors for the first time, 60 people stood together in the middle of a brand-new, unused kitchen, whose head chef-slash-owner was but 29 years old. This was a restaurant that Grant Achatz had built from the ground up. From planning a menu of constantly changing, mind-bending fare to grappling with design (“Why does a restaurant need to have tables?” he had asked, to the consternation of business partner and now-longtime friend Nick Kokonas), this was going to be a restaurant that held nothing sacred: not its food and certainly not convention. Even the restaurant’s name staunchly reflects these values: an alinea is the typographical character which denotes a new train of thought. As Grant looked around the kitchen, at spotless, stainless steel tables that had yet to see a plate or a crumb and at pans still untouched by heat, he at last addressed the team gathered around him – friends from before, new faces – together in this place that was going to be quite unlike any restaurant that any of them – himself included – had worked in before. “Here’s the deal. Tomorrow we’re going to open the best restaurant in the country. And anything less is gonna be a failure.” Even over the phone, we could hear his voice warming at the memory. “At that moment, I won. ʼCause I felt like I accomplished what I set out to do.” He paused. “Even though the food could have really sucked,” he added, and laughed. Fifteen years on and three Michelin stars later, Alinea has not only established itself as America’s best restaurant, but as one of the world’s best. Now, widely known as one of the most unparalleled culinary minds in the world, chef Grant Achatz has thoroughly proven that the food, in fact, doesn’t suck.
The career of a chef is especially grueling: thankless 14–16 hour shifts in the high-octane rush of a restaurant kitchen, hands in furious unison with sharp blades and searing pans that could melt flesh – all of it second nature by the time Achatz was 15 years old and working at his parents’ family-style restaurant in Michigan. The diner was a place of community and gathering, serving familiar faces who had been ordering the same thing every day for years. After growing up with the basics – western omelets, hash browns, burgers – he decided to pursue a different expression of food at the Culinary Institute of America in New York. He then went on to work his first stint at a 3-Michelin-starred restaurant, Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago, and then afterwards, with legendary chef Thomas Keller at the French Laundry in Napa Valley, California. Achatz cites his time at the French Laundry as the pivotal moment of his career. Chef Keller’s kitchen and work ethic is what would set the table for Achatz’s own team a few years down the road. “Every night was an incubator of creativity and extreme dedication, passion, and push. He was in the kitchen – first one in, last one out – teaching, mentoring, guiding the team,” Achatz recalls fondly of his time at the French Laundry. This environment was something Achatz worked extremely hard to keep at his own restaurant years later, even in 2007, when he was diagnosed with – and eventually beat – stage IV tongue cancer, just as Alinea was hitting its stride to culinary infamy. He attended chemotherapy sessions all while plowing forward with prepping and service at the restaurant, and continued to create new dishes with his team even after the radiation took away his sense of taste. “If there’s a better excuse to not go to work, I don’t know what it is,” he quipped. “I always reflect on my time at the French Laundry and you wanted Chef Keller to be there. That’s the lightning bolt.” Though Achatz is often armed with intimidating-sounding equipment like nitrous canisters, liquid nitrogen or the Anti-Griddle (which flash-freezes food surfaces – like a griddle, but opposite), he off-handedly compares it to the first time someone has ever used a gas stove – science is simply a tool, not the main attraction. That early experience of food as communion and connection from 15-year-old Achatz’s first foray into the culinary world is one of the elements that makes his food so memorable. Guests share a dish plated straight on the table, watch each other try to eat a bite of food dangling off a bouncing wire without using their hands, and speak to each other at chipmunk pitch from having just consumed an edible helium balloon. Sounds of unbridled disbelief and deep, stomach-clenching laughs are common in Alinea – and undoubtedly rare for a three-Michelin-starred restaurant. It’s a shared experience that, at the end of it all, brings us together like any good meal – only that meal is also a paradigm-shifting journey that redefines what it means simply to eat. “If we can make people take notice of the act of consuming food – if we can make that something special...” – he trails off – “we got their attention, you know?
WHEN DID YOU FALL IN LOVE WITH COOKING?
That’s sort of impossible to say, right, because it alludes to a quantification in falling in love. I realized, probably when I was in high school, that it was a craft that I excelled at. At that young, impressionable age when you and your friends are trying to figure out what to do for the rest of your lives, a lot of people tend to gravitate towards things they excel at. So it became pretty apparent to me, right around 15 years old, that I was going to try this as a career. That's sort of the surface way of looking at it.
Then there’s the more romantic way, where, even when I was very young in elementary school, I was artistic. I drew in charcoals and pencil drawings, liked to use my hands a lot in terms of model car and airplane building, and just had this immense curiosity. I think if you really want to pull back the layers, all the building blocks were there to the type of food that I’m doing now at Alinea, where there’s more of an exploration, more of an out-of-the-box thinking mentality. It’s always kind of existed. As a technician, though, it came early on ʼcause I was sort of born into it, you know. Long lineage of cooks in my family.
THE INTERESTING THING ABOUT FOOD IS THAT EVERYONE KNOWS IT SO INTIMATELY. EVERYONE HAS A RELATIONSHIP WITH FOOD. HOW DO YOU FEEL THAT PLAYS INTO FOOD AS AN ART FORM FOR YOU?
I remember our first night. We had the food critic from the New York Times. So here you are, you got the most important food writer in the world on night one, which is obviously the very worst night to have any critic in your restaurant. And then he wrote kind of a – he didn’t smash us. But he questioned the relevance of that style of cooking and he sort of poked fun at it. And so you get offended. As a young, brash, immature person – most chefs have that clichéd reputation of being egotistical and over-confident – then all of a sudden, this really important person said, meh. It’s not that good. But then over the years, that became a creative driving force. It became a rite of passage in a way like, hey, people are making fun of us, or criticizing us, or calling us “nonsense upon stilts” – maybe there’s some validity here. Maybe we are disrupting it in a good way.
Food is such a complicated thing. We see it every day. Where people grow up in the world, people grow up here in the United States, people in the Midwest, people on the west coast, east coast, people in southeast Asia, western Europe. Their palates are tuned because of their upbringing – how their parents cooked, were they in a cosmopolitan area, were they in a rural area, were they tight with their family, did their grandmother cook for them – all this stuff really, really influences their opinion. And all you can do as a chef… you simply cannot please every single person at Alinea on any particular night. We do 130 people every night. Some people are gonna be jumping up and down in their seats out of excitement; some people are gonna go, eh, it was all right. I prefer 11 Madison Park. I prefer Per Se. I like Pierre Gagnaire. You just have to get over it and feel good about what you do.
WHAT'S THE MEANING OF FOOD TO YOU? HAS THAT CHANGED AT ALL OVER YOUR CAREER?
It has a multifaceted meaning. Growing up with my family owning a restaurant where it was a community gathering place – same people came in, sat at the same seat, and ordered the same thing, every day – was it really about that terrible cup of coffee and those western omelets we served that kept them coming back for 20 years? No! It was about the sense of camaraderie, sharing highs and lows – and that all happens over food.
When I worked at the French Laundry … Now we’re onto something, because Chef Keller is clearly expressive with his cooking. There’s a sense of humor there. That energized me. I was like, man, I can make people feel with food. And not just a sense of comfort, but a sense of wonderment, exploration, and adventure.
If we talk humor, like an edible helium balloon the flavor of bubblegum, or cotton candy – now you have everything. Having a grown adult, 65 years old, being presented with edible floating food and then saying to them, “Okay. You’re going to suck the helium out of this and talk to your dinner companions like Mickey Mouse.” Then, when they start to pull in that helium, they taste cotton candy from a carnival when they were eight years old, walking around, holding hands with their parents. You’re all over the map emotionally. Sometimes that backfires. We had guests that would refuse to eat something [because] the act of eating it was weird, or in their minds it has some sexual connotation or whatever.
WHAT WERE SOME OF THE SERVICE PIECES THAT MADE THE GUESTS REBEL A LITTLE BIT?
We had one in particular that was called The Antenna. And the reason I could quote to you the 12–14 inches off the table surface thing is because we measured it [before]. We wanted people to eat without their hands. We had this very thin wire that was counter-weighted at the bottom, and it suspended a single bite of food above the table, about 14 inches. So the front-of-house would put this thing on the table and, as they put it down, the wire would bob up and down. And we would say, “You need to lean forward without your hands and bite the food off the end of this wire.” People would be laughing so hard watching their other dining companions do it, or thinking of doing it, that it would take them forever to eat a single bite of food.
CAN YOU TELL ME A BIT ABOUT THE CREATIVE PROCESS THAT HAPPENS BEHIND THESE DISHES?
It varies wildly. Sometimes it’s just me alone, trying something out, writing something down. I’ll see something, smell something, touch something, whatever. Other times we’ll sit as a group – say, the executive chef of Alinea, Simon Davies, and two sous chefs – and go, how do we best harness this smell of rain on concrete? Sometimes it’s ingredient-driven. So that could range anywhere from just silly questions like, What is a tomato?
On Chef’s Table, we talked about What is a tomato? And somebody just said, “Red.” Well, yeah sure. Then I’ll go, what else is red? Cherries, raspberry, hibiscus tea… And all of a sudden, you have a legal pad full of foodstuffs that are red. And then we go, well, why don’t we make the tomato look like a strawberry? And the strawberry look like a tomato? Next thing you know, we’re out here manipulating shapes and flavors and pairing it with weird stuff. That came from somebody going, “Well, what is a tomato?”
There’s no way anyone can do any of this alone. And so we really try to engender the collaboration aspect, ʼcause everybody has awesome ideas to contribute. Alinea’s turning 15 years old. Throughout the years, I’ve been thinking about all the people that worked here every day, coming to work with this unified goal to make this restaurant creative and great. That’s kind of rare. It’s pretty amazing to have such a dedicated, passionate, creative team.
YOU'RE STILL SO HANDS-ON IN EVERYTHING, RIGHT DOWN TO THE PREPPING.
Nick [Kokonas] criticizes me for that. It still feels right for me. I’m 44; I don't feel that old [laughs]. First of all, I love doing it. It’s the most rewarding thing for me. To see an idea on paper or in conversation come to fruition – to have a guest come into the kitchen and tell me how they’ve looked forward to this for so long, they’ve booked the reservation three months prior, they flew in from San Francisco, Hong Kong, Barcelona or wherever, and they had the best meal of their lives – all that stuff is so amazing. How often, in any industry, are you able to get that sort of satisfaction and gratification on a nightly basis?
It really bothers me when I see chefs not in their kitchens a lot, not guiding their team, not mentoring their team. Not invigorating the restaurant with new ideas. That was one thing when I went through cancer. If there is a better excuse to not go to work, I don’t know what it is. But I would come to work early in the morning, then I would go to the University of Chicago Hospital to do my chemotherapy. I’d come back to work, I’d prep, I’d go back down for round 2 [of treatment]. Then I would go back to the restaurant for service. It felt like the right thing to do, personally and for the team. They all wanna see me; they all wanna know what I’m thinking about food or service or the beverage program. I always reflect back to my time at the French Laundry – you wanted Chef Keller to be there. That’s the lightning bolt. And when he wasn’t there, it’s still an amazing restaurant. But hearing him talk, hearing his ideas on food – that stuff’s infectious. As a cook I wanna be able to provide that as long as I can.