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2011 American Chef of the Year | Grant Achatz

Photo Credit: Lara Kastner/Alinea
Looking across the American culinary landscape, one chef in Chicago stands higher above the rest last year

How after almost completing three menu overhauls at Next, is the concept working for you? Is it more trouble than it's worth? Is it fun?

Grant Achatz: Itís definitely a lot of work but we knew that going in. Itís a lot of fun. I think at the beginning most people thought that the criticism of was going to be that Alinea was going to suffer. ďHis Next restaurant and his ambitions are going to consume all his time." But actually what happened, I equate to gastronomic graduate school. I have had to do all this research on different cuisines, and I find that it all comes back to Alinea. It really works out because it makes the entire restaurant group more creative ó not just at Next, but also at Alinea. So itís really cool.

One could argue that in 2011 with Next and The Aviary you've reinvented the restaurant, the bar, and the reservation system. Any idea what you might try to reimagine next?

GA: You know, thereís been this trend of pop-up restaurants, of course, but I think that as a concept, that could be something that could be explored a bit more and stabilized. That might be fun. Again, when we went to open Next, we had offer after offer to open a restaurant in Tokyo, New York City, and Dubai, but nothing was exciting about this. They just wanted to clone Alinea.

And once we stumbled upon the idea for Next we knew we had to open it. I think the same thing will happen again, when we can think of something to do thatís new and exciting. It has to be organic though. It has to happen on its own. It canít be forced. Itís not like the core members of our group are sitting around a table saying, ďOK, what are we going to do?Ē Itís not a focus group. But we will. Weíll do something else.

Why donít you use the new reservation system you and your partner Nick Kokonas pioneered at Next at Alinea?

GA: We will implement it at Alinea. Weíre trying. But doing it at Alinea is a little different. Frankly, the level of customer service is an issue. Next is an amazing restaurant, but it was never built to be a Michelin-starred, three-star restaurant. What happens with that is we will flat out say we will not change anything, we will not accommodate dietary restrictions. At Alinea we will accommodate anything because in no way is that a bad thing, but you canít do the same thing at Next. Can you take that mentality, can you take that away from Alinea and make it the same restaurant? Thatís something weíre struggling with. We couldnít just take the software from the Next reservation system and apply it at Alinea. It has to be tweaked.

Why do you think other restaurants haven't followed suit? Or do you think they will?

GA: I think they will. There are other factors that prohibit restaurants from using this kind of system. One of those things is demand. For us, weíre in a very fortunate position to have the demand, where people just want to come. They donít complain about going to a web site or there not being a phone. They just do whatever they can to get in. If that wasnít the case Iím not sure we could do this. But from an operational point of view, itís incredibly beneficial.

So I hope other restaurants will do it because it eliminates costs and youíre able to pass down a better value to your guest. Thatís why weíre able to offer a five-star French meal for $65, because weíve eliminated a lot of the typical nonsense that happens at many restaurants. At Alinea we pay five different reservationists a total of $180,000 a year to answer the phone and tell people that they cannot come to our restaurant. I mean, thatís just ridiculous. So if youíre able to eliminate that, youíre able to pass that value on to your clientele.

Speaking of Alinea, you've talked about possibly taking a new approach with the restaurant. Are there any new developments, or new directions you're considering?

GA: Yeah, I think weíre well on our way in that regard. For instance, we met two days ago with a couple of cellists, and weíre trying to involve a score in the meal thatís based on presentation in the dining room where they would come out live and play, and synchronize their playing with plating a course. A lot of people have been saying that since elBulli has closed, molecular gastronomy is dead. I always hated that term, but I donít think itís dead.

These things happen on a 10- to 15-year cycle. Itís just going to be more residual. I think the technology and ingredients of molecular gastronomy will be available in the chefís toolbox but dining is going to change again. And at Alinea, weíre going to make it a little more theatrical, but try to find that balance so itís not silly or over the top, but try to explore more options about whatís off the plate Ė involving the environment, the music, the lighting Ė so that play with the ways that we perceive food.

I have to tell you, it blew me away. We did a test with these guys where we took a spoon of peanut butter, which is a very familiar food that everyone knows the flavor of. And we had a bunch of the staff take a bite and out of nowhere, the cellists would start to play. I went around room asking everyone what they remembered tasting, and unanimously it was like theyíd forgotten. The music became a palate cleanser. It was cool because I think the mind canít focus on these two aspects of experience at the same time. The cellists played and you didnít taste the peanut butter, and attention shifted in the room, naturally. You look at these various aspects of physiology and perception, and you go, ďThis is fun.Ē It might be fun to use this to create a new dining experience. I think a lot of the rules are going to begin to get broken again.

You look at trends, call them movements. You know, I remember reading an article in The New York Times where Molly O'Neill was talking about Charlie Trotterís, and she was waxing poetic about how he was a genius and using French technique, and she basically went on to describe it as fusion. So you have these practitioners going through these different movements.

I think youíre going to see a shift. What weíre going to do at Alinea is hopefully create a new genre, a new style. I think as we progress, the American public are more willing, more trusting, more excited about doing different things in restaurants. Daniel Humm from Eleven Madison Park came in for dinner at Alinea and we put him at this table that we covered in oak leaves, and I mean about a foot and a half pile and when they came in they had to brush the leaves off onto the ground. And for me, of course, it reminded me of my childhood, of playing with leaves and jumping into piles of them during the fall in Michigan. And one of the staff asked, ďWhat are we going to do with all these leaves? Do we have to pick them up immediately?Ē And I was said, ďNo! Absolutely not. As the other tables are being seated and walking through the dining room, theyíll get the sensation of fall as well.Ē

It was comical what people would do. They were all dressed up for dinner and getting up to use the restroom, and there they were, picking up the leaves and throwing them at each other? I mean, it was great. I love the idea of removing the formality of fine dining. It shouldnít be pretentious. Letís just have fun with it. Itís really invigorating to me to have the opportunity to do things like this and to be with people who are willing to take risks. Itís really exciting.

When I visited Alinea, I saw you in the kitchen, but was surprised to see you ďplateĒ dessert at the table. You still do this most nights, no? Does this have special meaning to you and will you?

GA: Well, one, I really enjoy it, and two, the guests really enjoy it. Shockingly, itís interesting what public perception is about chefs. Theyíre like ďOh, well heís never cooking in his restaurant.Ē Where else would I be? I think with the popularity of Food Network and Bobby Flay and all these guys that have become celebrity chefs, people assume youíre either on the golf course or off doing something on TV. I think that coming out to the table for dessert enhances the experience as well, not because I think Iím better at it than my sous chef or anyone else, but because people get a kick out of it.

I hate the term ďcelebrity chef.Ē I know It has a purpose. And when youíre talking about Bobby Flay or someone like that itís a fitting term but I donít think of myself like that. But I do it just for the reason you gave. Someone leaves the restaurant and theyíre like, ďBut man, I got to talk to the chef.Ē So itís cool. My week is usually four-two, four days spent at Alinea and two at Next. And thatís how Iím dividing it up right now. And at times Iím traveling, but for the most part Iím at Alinea.

You said youíd do something new next, and that youíd considered other cities before. Would you consider a city other than Chicago?

GA: Iím really apprehensive about doing that only because Iím very close with Thomas Keller and when he goes back and forth from Yountville to New York City, you know he often says itís difficult to fly back and forth and do all that. And itís really convenient for me to jump in my car and be from Next to Alinea in five minutes.

I think it largely depends on what the concept might be and if thereís room for doing it in this market, in Chicago. Weíd prefer to put it in Chicago. But one of the things weíve talked about is maybe Alinea ceases to exist in its current location. Maybe we just take it on the road. Make it goes to Manhattan for a month, and then to L.A. for a month, and then to Miami for a month, and then to London, Paris, and Barcelona. If you could make that work ó and again, people have done popup restaurants and theyíre great Ėbut if you could make that work on another level, on a high level, that would be something. You know, 45 percent of our clientele are from out of the state of Illinois. And of that, 50 percent are from Europe or Asia, itís a very international crowd. I donít know. It could be fun.

A food truck would be fun. Itíd be something new. Weíd have to think about how to reinvent that. One thought was to do a Next food truck, and when the menu changes, it changes. So if youíre doing Paris 1906, what was the quote unquote street food, then for Tour of Thailand, you do Thai street food. That would be fun. There are a lot of ideas floating around. We just need to let them mature. Thatís the one thing I think me and my group, Nick, are good at. Weíre good at being patient. Weíre not going to fool people. There might be something that we already think is a good idea, but we let it stew for a while.

What's your assessment of the state of food and dining in America? Is food exciting in the States right now or are the most interesting things happening elsewhere?

GA: Thatís a really difficult question only because I think food in America is very exciting in its diversity. You can find your progressive restaurants like Alinea or wd-50, and obviously, now thereís this great surge in the farm-to-table movement where you have restaurants like Blue Hill at Stone Barns ó thatĎs creating its own little niche. Youíre starting to get these high-quality Southeast Asian restaurants. Not your typical Thai spots, but food thatís on a different level, which is exciting, I donít know how familiar you are with the food scene in Chicago, but there are these restaurants popping up now that are like The Spotted Pig in New York, that are like charcuterie-based, like gastropubs with in-house charcuterie, I think a lot of restaurants are in same position as us in terms of looking to do something new.

You have Daniel Humm at Eleven Madison Park opening a new place. I think there are a lot of young chefs pushing to do new things, which is great. But for me as a chef, itís always super exciting to go eat elsewhere. And Iíve got to say, the last couple of trips to Japan, the food there is just amazing. They have this respect for tradition and at the same time a forward-thinking approach. It just blew me away.

Which restaurants blew you away?

GA: Two in particular. Thereís Aronia de Takazawa, where Aronia is a flower and Takazawa is the name of the chef. Itís a two-table restaurant in Tokyo and itís just him in the kitchen and his wife in the dining room. Itís just very progressive, itís Alinea-esque in its thought process, and elBulli-esque, and itís rooted in Japanese cuisine Ė with a culture thatís so disciplined. And they use restraint so well.

The other restaurant was in Sapporo: Le Musťe. Itís a very small restaurant, 30 seats and all in one main room as far as you could tell. And they did this course where midway through the meal they ask you to get up, which I thought was strange. They asked eight of us to get up and they escorted us into this back room that maybe had been a private dining room at one point. And the chef had trimmed grape vines from his yard, and placed them around the room, with grapes on them, so that it almost looked like they were growing off the walls. And then they encouraged us to pluck the grapes off the vines. And the grapes were perfectly ripe and delicious and then they served us four courses that included different manipulations of those grapes. It was cool because you got the tactile feeling of experiencing the feel of those vines, and they prepared you for what was ahead. And you got to taste the grape in the raw state. And then he served really creative courses using the grapes. And there was different lighting, things were on a different scale, there were different tables ó it felt like we were transported to a different restaurant for a moment. Iím sure there are many places in the world doing exciting stuff, but right now, Japan is my go-to.

Is there a chef that challenges you? One who inspires you to better, greater things? Or at some point do you feel like youíre really competing against yourself?

GA: I think with any chef that is driven thereís both of those things happening at the same time. Obviously, I wouldnít say we compete. But there are many chefs that inspire us. I was in San SebastiŠn, Spain, over Thanksgiving, and we ate at Mugaritz and Andoni, the chef and owner, is ó you know, Iíve eaten there before and was impressed, and that was in 2007 ó and some of the stuff that he does, it just makes you go, ďMan, I feel lazy! How the hell did he come up with that? I have to get back in the kitchen and get to work.Ē And thatís a great thing. And weíre friends. They dropped on the Top 50 list to #5 and we were #7, and I donít go, ďWe have to beat him,Ē but I walked into the restaurant Ė and this one blew me away ó and he takes a local fern that they harvested on the hillside, and then he cooks it in vanilla, and other things I donít even know, that turns the fern completely black. Itís a fern stem that they cut to seven inches long. Then they dehydrate it for 12 hours and it looks identical to a vanilla bean.

So they present us a course, a very simple course, of salted loose caramel and then this mock vanilla bean. And they put it down, and Iím like, ďOK, Iíve seen this before. The vanilla bean is going to be there for aroma, and itís there to drag it through the caramel, and itís cool, and thatís fine. ďAnd the guy goes, ďYou eat the vanilla bean.Ē And Iím like, ďYou donít eat the vanilla bean.Ē And he kind of winks at me and says, ďYou eat it.Ē And I drag it through the caramel and take a bite and I was like, ďMan, thatís brilliant!Ē And itís cool. It was inspiring. And this is where is Alinea is going. This is where the chefs are going to start to go.

Itís not about foams, and gelťes and magic white powders, he literally harvested a fern and he used beet juice to turn it dark. Itís that cerebral aspect that people are ready to play on a little bit more ó the experimental things that the next wave of chefs are going to take chances with. Thatís where weíre going to go. Because itís smart. Itís exciting. Itís not that technical. I think during the last 10 years, the food was very technical. elBulli was very technical. But thatís why it got coined, ďmolecular gastronomy,Ē and ďmodernist cuisine.Ē Going forward, itís going to be more loose art. Itís going to be improv, that kind of thing. The rules are less defined.

Who would your choice for chef of the year be?

GA: Thatís a tough one, because my immediate reaction was Thomas Keller because itís an obvious choice, but less obvious in a way that a lot of people donít know. Heís one of the most celebrated American chefs ever, but what a lot of people donít know is that he is in a lot of ways pushing American cuisine forward into the future not by cooking necessarily, but by mentoring some of the young great chefs cooking right now.

If you think about it, youíve got Jonathan Benno at the Lincoln, Eric Ziebold, and Corey Lee at Benu, and myself. There are two guys in the company who have been with him for 12 years, and literally just left a couple of weeks ago, and Iím sure theyíre going to be doing something special. Heís such a genuine guy, and heís perpetuating American cuisine through these people, and I think thatís just amazing. Heís like the enabler. Heís not being greedy, heís not holding them in, and he lets them leave. Itís kind of weird in a way, in that I think sometimes when chefs get big, they get mad when people leave and he encourages people to strike out on their own. Itís pretty awesome.

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