By Cameron Sharpe
Chicago restaurant Alinea has for the second year ranked number one in the Elite Traveler Top 100 Restaurants in the World, sponsored by Champagne Laurent-Perrier.
Spearheaded by chef/owner Grant Achatz, Alinea is known for its forward-thinking, deconstructed cuisine. Since opening in 2005, Alinea has crept steadily up best restaurant lists, with Achatz’s trophy cabinet seeing most action in the last four years.
The goatee’d gastronomer was delighted to have been recognized by Elite Traveler again, having topped the inaugural list last year.
“It is always an honor to be recognized and to receive accolades but it not what drives us every day. I am proud of the team – their effort and passion is unparalleled in trying to do better each day. Every time we get an honor it makes us try harder, and adds more pressure.”
Pressure is an understatement. With such high standards and a tasting menu consisting of as many as 18 courses, there is no part of the Alinea experience that isn’t under constant scrutiny. Achatz attributes Alinea’s success to his staff’s insatiable desire for success, yet he concedes that keeping a work force firing on all cylinders is a major challenge:
“The team works at a very intense level for many hours a day – eventually people just burn out. How hard can you work the machine before it breaks?”
Breaking point nearly came for Achatz himself when he was diagnosed with mouth cancer in 2007. There were real fears he would lose his sense of taste – bad news for a chef – but after an agonizing few months, he received the all clear later that year. Since then, he has redoubled his efforts to conquer the restaurant world.
“I would say I have new outlook on cooking and being a chef since opening our second and third places, Next and the Aviary. Alinea was born with the goal to be one of the best in the world at every cost, while pushing boundaries and taking an avant-garde approach to cooking. After opening Next and the Aviary it became clear that cuisine was shifting and not everything had to be in the genre of molecular gastronomy.”
This willingness to adapt gives Alinea, Next and the Aviary a real chance of enduring success, and allows Achatz to look at new projects with the same pragmatism. Achatz is unusual among other chefs in the Elite Traveler top ten, as his empire is limited to one city. Is he considering expanding his horizons beyond Chicago?
“We are always open to exploring other markets. We receive several offers a year to build another restaurant in places like New York, Las Vegas, Tokyo, San Francisco and Los Angeles, but we have always turned them down for one reason or another. Every concept we open has to be original and compelling otherwise it doesn’t interest us. I will say it is very nice to have all three of our places in Chicago, ten minutes apart. It allows me to spend more time in the actual restaurants rather than on airplanes.”
Achatz need not worry. If Alinea keeps producing food of such exquisite quality, diners will come from anywhere in the world to grab a seat at the table.