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Alinea chef (and arguably the greatest chef in America) Grant Achatz was in town last night at the Institute of Culinary Education to promote his just-released memoir, Life on the Line. In a discussion with his business partner Nick Kokonas in a panel moderated by Food52’s Amanda Hesser, Achatz revealed what it was like overcoming cancer and why restaurants have lost their sense of fun.
“I think that part of my growing up in my mother and father’s diner is indicative of where I ended up. People don’t recognize the relationship between meat loaf and mashed potatoes and Alinea food. It’s really in a way the same — delicious food that evokes emotion. It’s dinner, comfort. … At the end of the day, it’s the same thing,” explained Achatz, who began working in his parents’ restaurant at a very young age, first washing dishes, and then being promoted to toaster boy at age 12. He said that another similarity between the two spaces is the language of the kitchen — knowing how to multitask and collaborate to produce food. “Once you understand the language and movements, you’re good.”
As Achatz grew up, he had only one goal in mind: to become the most famous chef in America. “I had no clue of famous chefs, but I had the goal of owning the best restaurant in America.” And after graduating from CIA (which he still credits with allowing him to understand the basics and giving him a broad foundation that has allowed him to go further in his cooking) and working at the French Laundry and El Bulli, he ultimately met Nick Kokonas, who came into Chicago’s Trio, where Achatz was working. Kokonas was blown away by Achatz’s food, and the pair formed a business relationship — one that Hesser likened to the pairings of Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Phil Suarez, or Dan Barber and David Barber, among other successful chef-partner pairings.
With Alinea, the pair ultimately sought to break the diner from the traditional constraints of formal dining and to add an emotional element to the restaurant experience. “Being able to break yourself from a round plate and eating with a fork, it’s new,” explained Achatz when questioned about why Alinea’s serviceware is so unique. And changing up the emotional aspect is what Achatz believes is the most important part of his cuisine. “That’s where food is going. … There’s a big shift from molecular gastronomy or modernist cuisine. Not that it’s come to an end, but we’re moving past the focus of that,” he said, explaining that he’s bringing fun back into the dining experience. And the new isn’t the whole locavore concept of dining, either. “Local, sustainable, and organic — that’s the very baseline of any great restaurant,” explained Kokonas. “I don’t want to read a menu with every farm’s name.”
Indeed, creating new ways to interact with the diner and changing perceptions are part of the philosophy driving his new restaurant, Next, and bar, the Aviary, scheduled to open in a few weeks’ time. Next will operate on a system in which customers won’t make reservations but purchase tickets for dinner, like at the theater, with prices adjustable to the time and day of dining. And because Achatz feared he would get bored with a traditional restaurant, the concept will change every three months, with the first month replicating Escoffier’s cuisine at the Ritz before moving on to a new time and place. Radical? Certainly. But that’s the driving force behind Achatz’s culinary sensibility. “If we can break the monotony, then we’re doing something right.”
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