He’s the chef behind the famed Chicago restaurant that draws in guests from all over the world. Grant Achatz of Alinea talks to Elite Traveler about what motivates him as a chef, the changing restaurant scene and where he’d like to go next.
Congratulations on coming first in the Elite Traveler Top 100 Restaurants. How does it feel to be recognized by the public in this way?
It’s always nice to be recognized by your industry or your guests at the restaurant. It’s always good for morale at the restaurant. Although we can’t base our existence on accolades and recognition, it’s always nice to have some reassurance that you’re doing the right thing and that people like what you’re doing.
What do you feel is the secret to maintaining such a globally successful restaurant over such a long period of time?
You’re your own worst critic and every day we try to come in and do better than we did the day previous, so it becomes more of a guiding philosophy of the restaurant versus trying to chase something.
What is Alinea’s signature dish?
We try not to have signatures. For a good amount of time we had a dish called the ‘Hot Potato, Cold Potato’ that we recently took off the menu and we have a couple of dishes that have been on the menu for a year or two, but we’re trying to constantly evolve and move forward.
In a way having a signature dish impedes growth and creativity, so it’s that fine line between giving people what they want and what they expect when they fly in from all over the world, but also we need to keep the restaurant fresh. I would say currently people are pretty excited about this green apple edible helium balloon. That’s probably our latest one that people identify with the most.
Do you have a favorite dish?
They kind of come and go. Usually the newest creation is my favorite because it’s exciting and it’s usually a fresh idea and something that we’ve worked on for a couple of months to get on the menu. Usually those are my go-tos.
Who do you rate as some of the top chefs in the world right now?
Daniel Humm in New York City at Eleven Madison Park is doing a great job. Obviously Rene Redzepi and Joan Roca continue to do great things, but it’s getting more and more difficult to identify one person. I think there’s a lot of young talent popping up all over the world.
I go to Japan at least once a year and I feel like some of the cooks and some of the restaurants over there are probably the most underappreciated in the world. Some of the gastronomy that’s happening over there both in terms of honoring tradition and pushing forward with creativity is being overlooked. One person in particular that does an amazing job has a two-table restaurant in Tokyo. His name is Yoshiaki Takazawa and his work is incredible.
I was in San Francisco over Christmas and I had a meal at a restaurant called State Bird Provisions. It’s not haute cuisine, it’s more casual, but the concept of the restaurant and the execution of the food stood out as something very original and very delicious. It was great.
Which young chefs would you tip for the future?
Certainly Yoshi [Takazawa] in Tokyo. There’s the chef at State Bird Provisions in San Francisco who is relatively young, I think he’s in his 30s [Stuart Brioza runs the restaurant with wife Nicole Krasinski].
There is also a chef in New York City called Alex Stupak. He runs two [Mexican] restaurants and I think he’s about to open his third. He’s one to watch because I think his next restaurant is trying to get three Michelin stars and he’s trying to do that with a Central American theme. He’s super talented; he is the one to watch and be inspired by.
The current trend for restaurants is breaking away from that three Michelin star mold and just cooking really, really well, and prioritising the food and the service, and not so much the ambience. You’re getting a lot of restaurants, in the States especially, that are kind of the equivalent to maybe what Nirvana was in terms of importance in the music industry. They’re kind of like garage restaurants, just like garage vans.
These guys cook with less rules and therefore they can potentially be a little more creative because they don’t have to answer to the establishment, if you will. They don’t have to do certain things or follow the rules that maybe Alinea or Per Se or Fat Duck have to follow.
I don’t know if it’s the future [of fine dining] but it’s an important aspect of what’s happening right now. I think there will always be Michelin star pressure on us because people want that type of experience. These ‘grunge’ restaurants that are popping up are doing their job to loosen up some of the criteria that Michelin and the James Beard Awards and the rating guide books expect. They’re changing the landscape of what is expected of our restaurants.
Tell me about your recent experience of appearing in the documentary Spinning Plates.
It was good. I knew the director [Joseph Levy] going back to 2002; he did a short piece on me back then. It was interesting; they were like flies on our wall for about a month. Looking back on it now, it’s an interesting piece of information for me and for the team at Alinea. It’s not often that you get to step outside of the bubble and look at yourself inside, and that gave us a bit of an opportunity to do that.
Would you like to appear more in front of the camera?
I think documentaries are good. I don’t think I will ever have the ambitions to become the next Gordon Ramsay; it’s not what I do. But showing people the behind the scenes, behind the curtain aspect of what it takes to run a restaurant and the creative process is always good as long as it’s done well.
I think it comes down to the team. We have 70 employees at Alinea that serve around 80 people a night and it’s very rare I think, in every aspect – whether it be professional sports or a business or many aspects in life – where you can get 70 people together and unite to achieve a common vision. When you have that it’s very special.
I think having that at Alinea becomes the self-motivator. It becomes the thing that, every day when you go into work, you realise that it’s not just you – it’s you and 69 other people who are trying to provide a very original, creative and flawless dining experience. You can’t be ‘on’ every day, but if you’re having a not-so-great day then there are people to pull you up and remind you why you’re coming to work every day. It’s a powerful thing.
You have three restaurants in Chicago. Would you consider opening up a restaurant in another city or elsewhere in the world?
I think we would if it was right. We would never open another Alinea, but I think the potential to open another Aviary somewhere in the world is probably pretty good. It’s a much more scalable concept and much more universal. I just feel that Alinea is one of those restaurants where there should only be one of them. I think Next could be replicated elsewhere in the world as well. We’re entertaining those thoughts but we don’t have anything solid yet.
I love traveling all over the world but like I said I go to Japan a lot. I’ve never been to Singapore or Hong Kong or Shanghai or any of those places and that always interests me. I’d like to travel to that part of the world and visit it frequently.
What is your next goal?
It’s pretty much the same as it always is: just to make sure Alinea is constantly evolving. Instead of following the trends, we’re trying to make the trends, so it really requires a lot of time and work and we all understand that, but at the end of the day it’s worth it to know that you’re not copying people, you’re cooking and expressing yourself for what you want to do. I think that’s the most important thing.
What are your plans for the future?
We’re constantly asking ourselves what the next concept might be and what the next city might be that we might move into. Those are things that are on the horizon. I would say that for sure we’re going to open a totally new concept and potentially scale the Aviary at some point.
We have a couple of cookbooks in the works, one for the Aviary, a cocktail focus and we’ve made the commitment to continue our e-books. In the long-term, over a year from now, we’d like to put out another Alinea book, so we have all that going on as well. We stay busy.
Images courtesy of Christian Seel.