Posted: Sep 30, 2018
How the chef behind Alinea found his inspiration and opened a groundbreaking restaurant
The Grant Achatz episode of Chef’s Table appropriately kicks off in an art gallery. “Early on in Alinea, we had this realization that there’s other disciplines that we can draw on for inspiration,” the chef muses. “We would go to art galleries and you would see these giant scale pieces of art and I would always say ‘Why can’t we plate on that.’” This desire to push back against conventions fuels Achatz’s creative journey.
Who is Grant Achatz?
Grant Achatz is the chef at Alinea, the three Michelin-starred restaurant in Chicago that’s co-owned by Nick Kokonas. The name Alinea means “the beginning of a new train of thought,” and is symbolic of Achatz’s goal to constantly change and upend expectations. Achatz is known for using modern techniques to create avant-garde tasting menus that are theatrical in their presentation. Dishes are served on rolled out pieces of cloth rather than plates; strawberries become tomatoes; and dishes are served on scented pillows. “I want the guests to have a sense of wonderment,” Achatz says of the tasting menu at Alinea.
What was Achatz’s journey through the culinary world like?
Achatz was born in St. Clair, Michigan. His parents acquired their first restaurant, a diner, when he was four years old. Achatz worked throughout his childhood at the family restaurant. One day his “bully uncle” wrapped a pickle around french fries and encouraged Achatz to try it. “That sounds terrible. It sounds gross. Why does it work?” Achatz wondered. “At that moment I fell in love with cooking,” he says. “It wasn’t about physical cooking. For me it was about curiosity. It was about toying with things.”
Achatz attended school at the Culinary Institute of America and then went to work at Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago. “It was cutthroat,” Achatz says of Trotter’s kitchen. “It felt sterile. It felt stripped away. It made me question everything about cooking.” Achatz left Charlie Trotter’s and landed a job at the French Laundry in California, working under Thomas Keller. “It felt like I was rubbing shoulders with the master,” Achatz says. “I wanted to be Thomas Keller and I was super dedicated to learning how to cook like him.” Later Keller got Achatz an internship at El Bulli with Ferran Adrià, which introduced him to molecular gastronomy. Shortly after returning from that experience, Achatz left the French Laundry and returned to Chicago, where he became executive chef at Trio. While cooking there, his food caught the attention of Nick Kokonas, who offered to invest in a restaurant for Achatz. That would eventually become Alinea.
In 2007, Achatz was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. He underwent experimental treatments that were effective in saving his life, but as a result, the chef lost his sense of taste for a time. The episode ends with Achatz planning the renovation of Alinea, which was completed in 2016.
What was his “aha” moment?
Achatz describes his experience dining at El Bulli as a significant moment that opened his mind to a different style of cooking. “There was a translucent risotto that looked like glass,” he recalls. “There was a latex glove that waved at you as you left. It was like eating on Mars.” After returning to the French Laundry, Achatz was inspired to create his own dish called the black truffle explosion. While he was working on the dish a fellow cook at the French Laundry told him that Keller would never let him serve that dish. This realization encouraged Achatz to leave Keller’s kitchen and define his own style of cooking.
What are some notable quotes from Achatz?
On his philosophy for Alinea: “Why do you have to eat with a fork or a spoon and why does it have to be served in a plate or a bowl? Why can’t we come up with something new? Every element of the restaurant we try to break down and go is this the best way it could exist or is there a better version? Rules? There are no rule. Do whatever you want.”
On what he wants customers to experience: “The thing that’s important to me is the guest has the ‘aha’ moment where they feel like they’ve discovered something.”
On the experience of losing his sense of taste: “I realized that to make a world-class restaurant you can’t do it yourself.”
On experiencing taste for the first time (again) as an adult: “To me it was revelatory. To me it was like my whole world just changed as a chef.”
By Brenna Houck
September 28, 2018
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