by Aoife Moriarty
“There’s always that underlying understanding that anything less than number one is not what we want to be,” Grant Achatz tells me, on the phone from Chicago. The 40-year-old fine dining doyen is more soft-spoken than one might expect of a world leading chef. But then, Achatz has never embraced any culinary stereotypes – including that of boorish kitchen dictator.
Opening back in 2005, his three-Michelin-starred restaurant Alinea – voted the best in the world by Elite Traveler readers this year for a fourth year running – defied expectations from the start. It snubbed the traditional white linen and table silverware of many Michelin-starred favorites, and opted for a shapeshifting genre of food, centered on molecular gastronomy, that Achatz describes simply as “art”.
Part of the enduring success of Alinea is Achatz’s philosophy of perpetual evolution. “There’s always that constant curiosity and excitement to come up with something new – a new dish, a new technique, a new way to plate the food, a new service to use – that’s just kind of built into our fabric,” Achatz explains. Recently, critics have commented on there being “less theatrics” than in the early days, with a new focus on the sensuous and subtle.
Dishes at Alinea surprise and confound the senses, from sweetbread nuggets eaten from a takeout box with cinnamon bark chopsticks to southern grits perfumed with scents of manchego, ham, truffles and sherry. Achatz says the 18 to 22 course tasting menu is an “emotional experience”, with some diners even said to have cried at dishes – such as one containing smouldering oak leaves – which remind them of their childhood.
A brief visit to Ferran Adrià’s elBulli in Spain in 2000 – when the rising culinary star was working at The French Laundry in Yountville, California – proved highly influential. “It was just a very eye-opening experience,” recalls the Michigan-born chef. “Rather than learn how to produce certain techniques or certain dishes, it was more about seeing a chef that was willing to take a lot of risk.”
Soon afterwards, Achatz left the Napa Valley to take up a new position as Executive Chef of Trio in Evanston, Illinois. It was there he grabbed the attention of critics with his unique take on molecular gastronomy, earning a Rising Star award from the James Beard Foundation. During his four year stint at Trio he met Nick Kokonas, a successful derivatives trader and fan of his cooking, and Alinea was born.
On his decision to go into business with Achatz, 47-year-old Kokonas remarks: “The analogy I use is it’d be like meeting Miles Davis when he’s 25 and he’s playing completely different music than anybody else and you hear it and you go, ‘Wow. If we built the right stage for this guy, everyone would figure out how great it is.’”
The relationship between the two business partners – “we’re kind of like the belligerent brothers we never had,” says Kokonas – received the ultimate test in 2007 when Achatz received a sudden diagnosis of stage four tongue cancer.
“We had been named best restaurant in America by Gourmet magazine, so everything was going incredibly well, just so smooth”, says Kokonas. “And then you get something that reminds you that nothing’s permanent and we’re all here for a relatively short time. So it was very devastating and, to be honest, at the time, I definitely thought that was it; there’s no more restaurants and hopefully he’ll live. The fact that he’d be living so well was such a remote possibility.”
The first five cancer specialists the pair visited told Achatz he would need to get his tongue and part of his jaw cut out in order to live – a devastating prospect for anyone but with an added cruel irony for a chef.
Eventually, they found a clinical trial at the University of Chicago advocating chemotherapy and radiation treatment. Although he lost the ability to taste for a year, by December, Achatz was cancer-free. “It was really an incredibly difficult time,” says Kokonas. “But also, building another restaurant or taking another risk or whatever, doesn’t seem so hard after all that.”
In 2011, Achatz and Kokonas embarked upon their second venture. Aptly named Next, the restaurant had a bold concept: a completely new menu every four months, covering all styles and corners of the globe. Next door is The Aviary – the duo’s high end cocktail bar – with a fourth venue, Roister, due to open its doors in a few months’ time.
“It’s going to be our first foray into a la carte,” explains Achatz. “It won’t have a tasting menu and we’re going to let people kind of control their experience a little bit more. The vibe will be intentionally boisterous and hopefully people won’t be afraid to get loud and have a good time.”
What else is left, I ask. Achatz doesn’t skip a beat. “I think that when we speak of accolades and goals you’ve achieved, it’s fantastic and it’s wonderful, but the real challenge comes in holding onto those and having longevity,” he says. “The French Laundry celebrated its 22nd anniversary a while back. Alinea is a baby at ten years. So that’s the next challenge. How you create something that has a legacy that continues on. That’s kind of what we’re looking at now.”
(Image Credit: Christian Seel/Eric Wolfinger)