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Chicagoist Grills: Alinea Chef/Owner Grant Achatz

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Mar 1, 2007 4:15PM


The directions were simple enough to follow. “If the front door is locked, go around the alley and enter through the back.” Approaching said back door, we were beset by a case of high school nostalgia. Back then, whenever the opportunity presented itself, we’d leave campus (Lane Tech back then was an open campus), head to Leona’s, sneak into the dining room through the kitchen, and enjoy what was, at that time, the meal of our lives. But this restaurant doesn’t stand out in the way Leona’s does. If not for the grays and blacks of the doors, window panes, and valet parking key cabinets, one wouldn’t know that this was a restaurant at all. We gathered a breath, told another employee entering through the back door the nature of our business, and entered.

Past the door, we surveyed the cacophony of the kitchen, centered on two long stainless steel prep tables, lined on both sides with serious-looking cooks almost identical in appearance. All of them have close cropped hair, white chefs smocks, and black pants, and all of them were hunched, concentrating on preparing the food in front of them for the evening’s reservations. It’s as efficient as any assembly line, and as chaotic as a dance floor. Panning around the kitchen, we’re reminded of our only other visit here, over eighteen months ago. Our focus then turned to the young chef heading our way to greet us, parting through the lines like a conductor leads an orchestra. He has an easy smile and comes across as eminently likable. He looks as serious as the cooks he employs, but in talking to him we quickly discover that he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He’s certainly not overly self-conscious, as suggested by some of the accounts we’ve previously read of him. With an ever-present can of Diet Coke nearby, Grant Achatz looks as though he’s ready for any question, even the steadily growing stream we’ve been writing down and solicited for weeks in preparation for this interview.

For readers unfamiliar with the meteoric rise of Achatz, widely considered as one of the preeminent disciples of the movement known as “molecular gastronomy” or “science food,” we’ll just say you’ve been adept at avoiding the press. You can read the Cliff’s Notes on Achatz here and here, while we pick up the story with the 2005 opening of Alinea. For those who haven’t or can’t experience the Alinea phenomenon – and it’s not hyperbole at this point to call it anything but – what Achatz essentially does is take the concept of fine dining, of cooking itself, and turns it on its head. For the duration of your stay at Alinea (depending on which of the two meal packages diners choose), Achatz and his staff take guests on the culinary equivalent of a safari. Dishes are prepared in ways that make the diner rethink how food is prepared and require them to give in to their basic senses, all in an atmosphere that’s as controlled as any laboratory experiment. It’s a style that can open itself to the criticism that what Achatz is doing is nothing more than smoke and mirrors. To critics, it can also reinforce the attendant pretensions, real and perceived, of fine dining, and it is not without its share of skeptics from both fellow chefs and food writers. Through all this, however, Achatz stands above the fray, earning near-unanimous praise from critics and diners alike.

Gourmet magazine recently named Alinea the best restaurant in America, which itself stands as a testament to, and validation of, Achatz’s vision. He has the requisite kitchen skills necessary to ensure that the focus of his cooking, no matter how experimental, is always on flavor. As he said in our interview, “I would never compromise taste for presentation.” It’s a maxim honed directly from his time at Napa Valley’s French Laundry under the tutelage of Thomas Keller, and serves him well today. Following the jump, Chicagoist presents a candid interview with Grant Achatz.

Chicagoist: Could you start off by describing in layman’s terms what you call “hypermodern, emotional” cooking, or what’s also known as “molecular gastronomy” or “science food”?

Grant Achatz: We really look at the whole thing as a block of time. We can cook individual meals or dishes. But for us, we’re trying to entertain, captivate, insatiate, all of those things combined into one experience for x amount of time. We have you in the chair for between two to six hours. What are we doing with that time? Well, we’re going to try to entertain you. We’re going to try to feed you, obviously. If food and service is the medium, how do we refine or craft an experience that is not only unique, but also … you mentioned “emotionally driven.” When people ask, “what is your goal with this?” I say, “I want people to feel.” Sometimes that feeling is going to be elation. Sometimes it’ll be intimidation. Sometimes it’s going to be happiness. When people think of cooking, that seems like a stretch to them. They think that, as a chef, my job is to feed you good-tasting food. That’s only part of that for us. We recognize that, and we focus on that, and all the other elements, as well.

C: Would “confusion” come up as one of those emotions?

GA: Confusion, disorientation, absolutely. That’s why the hallway (a long passageway that narrows as diners enter the dining area) is the way that it is. It’s my intent with that entryway to disorient people, simply to break the monotony of the experience right away. You walk into just about every other restaurant that exists, and there’s someone standing at a podium (saying), “Welcome! What’s your last name?” You open the door here, it’s immediately different. Now, you’re disoriented, alarmed, your senses are awakened. You’re thinking, “What’s going on?” That was the point.

C: How important is shaking up what we think of our basic senses – not just taste, but sight, smell, and even touch – to the Alinea experience?

GA: I think that all comes through simplistically in the presentation. But philosophically, it comes through more with intimately knowing the food and the way diners interact with it. At least, when trying to make those generalizations. We can be whimsical and make a peanut butter and jelly, and be funny about it. From a food standpoint, is it technically advanced? Is it mind-blowing from a chef’s perspective? No. It’s a peeled grape and some bread. The deliberate point, and the reason that that was the very first bite that we ever served in this restaurant was to make a point. There was so much pre-opening hype and pretense about what we were going to do. I thought, “You know what? Let’s serve the very first bite out of this restaurant and make it a joke.” Just make it funny. Sure it tastes good, so what? That’s kind of what we think of the meal, as a whole.

C: Do you ever compromise taste for presentation?

GA: It’s always got to taste good. At least, that’s our goal. We would never sacrifice taste for presentation, ever. You have to start with something that tastes good, and then figure out a way to present it.

C: Have you gotten criticism for some of the ingredients, the industrial additives, congealers and such, that give your food the textures that they do?

GA: Not as much as you would think. And I’d like to think that, despite the manipulation, the changes in form and texture, all of that, I hope that we have the responsibility to keep whatever it is we’re playing with tasting as it should be. You draw fire when you start doing wacky things and it doesn’t taste like it should. As long as you maintain that, I think people will understand, or at least respect.

C: Do you see what you’re doing, and by extension, what (moto’s) Homaru Cantu and (Avenues’) Graham Elliot Bowles are doing, as training the next generation of chefs? Do you see it trickling down to the levels of the bistro and trattoria?

GA: I like to explain it as … a lot of people seem to be alarmed about this style of cooking. I think this happens in everything: in art, in technology, everything. What people don’t do is look to the past. Because this is a giant pattern that happens every twenty years. It’s no different from what Thomas Keller and Charlie Trotter did when they were just starting to break out in the late 80’s, early 90’s. And, of course, myself, Homaru, and Graham worked for them. This is where we learned. And what does the protégé always want to do once they get on their own? They want to be better than the mentor. They want to make their own mark. That’s what Charlie did. That’s what Thomas did. It’s a natural progression.

Do I think it’s going to trickle down? No, I don’t. I think it will a little bit. You can already see some places use some of the techniques. Some of those will trickle down a little bit, but the philosophy won’t. It just wouldn’t make any sense. Because the goals of what we’re doing and what a bistro does are different. I hope they would never homogenize like that.

C: There’s an element of control to the experience here. How much input do your sous chefs and other chefs on the line have in refining some of your dishes, or creating new dishes?

GA: The funny thing about this environment is that it almost produces a sort of “anti-creativity.” A lot of these guys come here because it’s highly creative. Therefore, they come in to see, not really to give, if that makes any sense. You would think it would be the opposite. My philosophy is, “You know what? Somebody’s got a great idea? Make it.” I’m never the guy who’s saying that only my ideas are the great ideas. That’s just ridiculous.

C: Now how does that compare to your time at French Laundry?

GA: Thomas was very open and willing. He would always accept ideas and encourage them. Not a lot of cooks would. And I was one of the ones who obviously would, and would encourage others to approach me. But he had a very narrow boundary that he stayed within. I would come to him with ideas that involved, say, Japanese ingredients, and he would say, “We can’t do that. We’re the French Laundry.” He would taste it and say, “yeah, it’s great. But we can’t serve it here.” We have a broader row, I guess.

Some of the guys here have been with me since Trio. You mentioned the word "refined." They certainly help me refine the dishes. My role is switching here to a large degree. I built my reputation at Trio as a hands-on, working chef: first one in, last one out. It’s still that way here, but what I’ve come to realize is that, to keep this restaurant going, I need to devote more time to the creation. So, a lot of times, during the day, I’ll cut out of the kitchen for a couple hours, come out here with my laptop, some books, and a pad of paper, and come up with ideas. Then I’ll refine it on paper, take it back to the kitchen, give it to the sous chefs, and say, “produce this.” And they’ve been with me long enough to know that language. When they see a description on paper, they know what I’m thinking. They’ll bounce questions off me, and discuss the ideas. Once the prototype is made, we’ll taste it and refine it a little bit more. It’ll go on the menu, but they will produce it for a week or two. They won’t pass it off to one of the chefs de partie, because a dish evolves rapidly once you start serving it. Once we’ve all looked at it and said, “it’s done,” then we hand it down to one of the line cooks who starts producing it on a daily basis. That never happened at Trio, or the first year here. It was always me in the kitchen prepping. And I never felt like I had the time to create enough. I feel the core philosophy of this restaurant, one of continual emotion and creativity, is becoming the priority for me. It’s time better spent for me, personally.

C: Do you have any concerns about becoming complacent in the kitchen?

GA: Not yet. I still feel a strong energy (in the kitchen).

C: Alinea is also known for its unique plating and service designs. How did you develop your eye for design?

GA: That’s more Martin (Kaster, founder of Crucial Detail). He’s the aesthetic genius. I simply come to him with a problem.

C: So you come to him and say, “I want to hang a slice of bacon on a gossamer. Make it happen.”

GA: Yeah. We talk about it. It’s like the “squid,” that you had the PB&J in. I came to him with a specific problem. I said, “I have this tempura shrimp on a vanilla bean. I want to present it upright, and what I was doing was simply putting it in a pilsner glass, because that was the only thing I could think of as a chef that was readily available to me. He came up with a solution that was aesthetically appealing and functionally brilliant. We continue that; he was here just a couple minutes ago before you walked in, with new prototypes of three new pieces. It’s non-stop.

C: What food-related websites or media do you keep an eye on, for ideas and feedback?

GA: I do it a lot less now, but I used to be really into all the blogs, like eGullet, LTHForum, all of those. I don’t read them so much anymore, I don’t know why. I feel that some of it is that they’re losing some credibility. There’s a lot of good, honest material there, then there’s a lot of … bullshit. You know, where, at the beginning (of these sites), there was a lot of useful information, honest information. Now, somehow, I feel that maybe it’s a lot of people using it as a microphone to hear themselves. Then it becomes less credible. But what I’ve always enjoyed about it is it's the voice of the guest. If people come here and have a lousy time for a particular reason, are they ever going to come back to the kitchen and tell me? No, it’ll never happen. You might get a phone call the next day, or the occasional letter. But, if they immediately go online and list their complaints, I’ll know and then I can fix it. So it was always about the instant understanding of how people perceive the experience. That’s why I read them.

C: Would you consider another restaurant? Maybe one out of town?

GA: New York, San Francisco, not L.A. Well, it depends on the concept. If we were going to do another Alinea, then it would be another New York or San Francisco. If we were going to do a different concept that was going to be a modern style of cuisine to a more volume-oriented or accessible crowd, I could see doing something that was modern, hip, and trendy, and putting it in South Beach, L.A., New York, and San Francisco.

C: One of the questions we asked Doug Zell in our interview with him about opening a new retail location in Los Angeles was that he sees that culinary landscape as similar to here, five years ago. He sees the opportunity as ripe for experimentation.

GA: That’s interesting. I’m going to be the last guy to say it can’t happen there, it can’t happen here. Look at Chicago, all of a sudden … I shouldn’t say all of a sudden. Chicago’s always had a history of great cuisine. People forget that Le Francais was once the best restaurant in the country. Then there’s Everest, Trotter’s, Ambria. Those restaurants have been around forever. How long was Trotter’s considered the best restaurant in the country?

What we’re finding now in Chicago is depth. We’re getting a lot of layers. You have places like Green Zebra, Spring, Custom House, and Schwa. You’re starting to get more than just four-star concepts.

C: Like the gastropubs and bistros popping up everywhere.

GA: Yeah. That is what’s becoming the core of Chicago cuisine.

C: You’re on record as a fan of Potbelly’s. What other places do you try to frequent when you have time off?

GA: The problem is that I don’t have any time off. We’re closed Monday and Tuesday. Part of Monday I’m working anyway. The other time I try to spend with my boys – I have two young sons. I just rarely ever get out. I’m going to Schwa for the first time (the week this interview was conducted), I’m really looking forward to that. I’ve been to moto, but that was two weeks after (Cantu) opened. I haven’t been back since, haven’t had the opportunity. Of course, I’ve been to Avenues. Trotter’s was three years ago; Everest, two years ago. We had our staff Christmas party at Spring, been to Green Zebra. I just don’t get out. When I do, it’s because I’m traveling, to New York and Spain. And when I’m in those places, I’m seeking out my colleagues' places.

C: you spent time at La Jota Vineyards as an assistant winemaker. What lessons learned from your time there do you apply to your cooking today?

GA: It really refined my palate. It was neat to have the responsibility to go into the cellar everyday and taste wine out of the barrel, every day, the same barrels, watch them evolve, and recognize the flavors. You say to yourself, “wine is made from grapes. Why do I taste cherries? Why do I taste cinnamon?” Those are subtleties. So, as you take notice of that, it refines your palate, and it made a big difference for me. It also taught me about wine; the making of it was pretty interesting. Probably the biggest experience I got from it was that, although I enjoyed wine, I was in the “trophy” camp, where only good wines can be expensive wines. And the owner, Bill Smith, pulls me down to the cellar one day and hands me this bottle of wine that probably retails for hundreds of dollars. I told him I couldn’t accept this, and he insisted. He said, “It’s just wine.”

I’m reminded of that when I see some of the bottles people order here. They’ll buy bottles here for two, three thousand dollars, and I’m thinking, “That’s insane, but if you’ve got the money.”

C: You seem to becoming this different sort of celebrity chef, where people know of your name simply because of the innovations of your cooking? Have you thought about other outlets for promotion, like a cooking show?

GA: Not really. I've been asked to do "Iron Chef." I turned it down. It just seems too much like WWF to me. I know that Homaru and Graham have done it, and that's them. That isn't me.