I recently had a conversation with the thirty-something young father of two boys, a cancer survivor and an an internationally famous chef and restauranteur. After the hoopla about the James Beard Awards in Chicago and the celebrations for the tenth anniversary of his Alinea restaurant (attended by all the culinary royalty including Achatz’s mentor and former boss Thomas Keller) had died down. While at the anniversary celebration, it occurred to me that it might be a bittersweet moment for a lot of other chefs in attendance like Mario Batali, Ming Tsai, Keller, Jose Andres, and Andrew Zimmerman (who are all household names) to see this young contender at the top of the culinary heap in record time. Achatz is on a fast track towards helping create a universal appreciation for the so far unrecognized culinary talent in the United States. He has, however, gained the respect of his peers and become of role model of sorts for the possibility to succeed in spite of taking a a road less travelled by most. Individuality, if well-intentioned and supported by self confidence and a conviction to stand by your ideas, can be very rewarding, as in his case.
I always believe that good food comes from good intentions, a purity of purpose and an unusual resolve to never let go of the passion. As I know from my own experience after facing and defying the terror of cancer, fear takes a backseat and there is a strange clarity of purpose in life. Grant and I spoke about this mind game, and if you win it there is no stopping you from accomplishing anything you want to. At the same time it does not define an individual, and it’s unnerving when it becomes part of your introduction. He is a very pleasant, well spoken man with the ability to put a smile on people’s faces with his whimsical food and presentations. I hope to continue this dialogue on my next visit.
Grant Achatz: Racing to a Non-Existent Finish Line
by Geeta Bansal
Grant Achatz, while cooking his way into the future of cuisine has not only been bestowed with numerous accolades but has also gathered a huge fan following on the way. In the last ten years since this young American chef opened his acclaimed restaurant Alinea in Chicago, there has come a new found appreciation of the United States and its burgeoning culinary traditions. In January of this year while he served as the Honorary President of Bocuse d’Or, the reputed culinary competition held every alternate year in Lyon, France, Team USA stepped onto the podium to take the silver for the very first time. It was a defining moment in culinary history for a country with food influences and traditions from around the world, and about time for it to be taking its place next to other cultures like French, Italian, and Spanish with their long culinary histories.
Achatz, after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in New York, spent four years at French Laundry in Napa with Thomas Keller, now his mentor and close friend. In 2001 Achatz took the daring step to leave the his Sous Chef position in the French Laundry kitchen and take his game as Head Chef into the kitchens at Trio in Evanston on the outskirts of Chicago. At Trio his brilliant ravioli (among other spectacular creations) caught the attention of Nick Kokonas, a regular and a fan of Achatz’s progressive cuisine, who then partnered with him to open Alinea, followed by their other projects Next and Aviary, versions of which are planned to open in other cities the near future. Within its first year, Alinea was named the Best Restaurant in America by Gourmet Magazine in 2006, and in 2007 it was added to Restaurant Magazine’s list of the 50 Best Restaurants in the World. In 2009 it earned its third Michelin star, which is no doubt here to stay. Its three Michelin stars and a spot on the World’s 50 Best list are not the only reasons why guests travel from all over the world to dine there. Alinea, simply said, is a unique experience at an unlisted address with an unassuming façade the heart of Chicago, adding to the drama of what takes place inside and making it the top table in the country.
Achatz is a creator, an alchemist, and a futuristic cook who likes to involve his diners in the spectacle at the table. Attention to detail, thorough research, and aided by a super creative team, he has embarked on revolutionary projects like Next where the menu and concept could change from 1906 Paris, to a retrospective of El Bulli, to a current menu featuring Tapas from all over Spain. His cuisine is taking a mixed-media approach as after an upcoming remodel of Alinea in early 2016, the plates at the tables will appear along with music, images screened on the walls, or other lighting effects. This seems to be an upcoming trend around the world along with active diner participation, somewhat similar to the Roca brother’s El Somni, the Adria’s upcoming Heart project in Ibiza in partnership with Cirque du Soleil that will incorporate aerial acts overhead, Andoni Aduriz’s Mugaritz, with diners pounding away with mortar and pestle, or guests frying eggs at the table in Noma a few years ago. The flavor, taste or technical wizardry do not suffice for these radical chefs aiming to ignite emotions and create a unique sensory experience. The race is on and heading to a prophetic Huxley-like brave new future.
Questions for Chef Achatz:
It looks like Gelinaz shuffle has taken a page out of your book like your pop up at Eleven Madison Park with Daniel Humm with 37 chefs participating in the event. Are pop-ups the new international trend?
I thinks it’s very different from what we did with Eleven Madison Park. We really moved our venue to NYC for an entire week and took 15 members of the Alinea team. We rented a U-Haul moving truck and drove from Chicago to New York with the exact service ware that we had at Alinea, we prepared much of the food here in advance and had our purveyor ship the exact ingredients that we use here in Chicago. In that sense taking Alinea to New York was truly a pop-up. What Gelinaz shuffle is doing according to my understanding is one chef and maybe one sous chef are going to another location for one night and utilize the hosting restaurant’s culinary and service team for a creative dinner. It’s not Rene Redzepi popping up Noma at say Mission Chinese in New York but maybe just Rene going and cooking at Mission Chinese for one night. They are two entirely different things. The Eleven Madison Park pop-up was six months in planning and an enormous amount of work leading up to the actual dinners. I think this one is more of hopping on a plane, talk to the team quickly, and cook dinner. In our pop-up there was not a lot of spontaneity, it was very calculated and well thought-out when we did the swaps.
Speaking of guest chefs would the Ikarus Hanger7 model work here in the U.S.?
I feel like we have done that already here in the United States and it’s really interesting to me that most people don’t remember a lot of these guest chef events that we have done here years and years ago. Alinea swapped with Per Se and French Laundry swapped with Alinea back in 2008. Meadowood in Napa hosts the 12 days of Christmas ever year with guest chefs. A lot of people have been doing this but probably not getting the same exposure and media as the Gelinaz event probably because most of the chefs participating are on the 50 Best List and it’s more of an international exchange and more impactful. In reality the guest chef concept has been around for 20 years and is nothing new.
Your Paris 1906 at Next a few years ago was a peek into past culinary trends. Is this backward progression with traditional platters reappearing in restaurants an influence of culinary competitions like the Bocuse d’Or?
I think so, at least for me personally being involved in the Bocuse d’Or opened my eyes to possibilities of creativity that I would never have thought of before. There is a saying that the old is new again and I think it’s really important for cooks around the world especially the younger cooks who are into modern gastronomy and progressive techniques. They totally forget about the classics and the backbone of cooking. Watching Martin Kastner from Crucial Detail creating the platter for team USA this year was amazing. I have intimate knowledge of his work having worked with him since 2002. He and I broke into the custom restaurant plate ware together. He was a jewelry designer when I found him on the Internet and I brought him into this culinary world and he has been here since. So I know the possibilities, the creativity and collaboration chefs can have with designers in relation to bringing back and modernizing some of the older techniques that have fallen away and I think that is really exciting.
As for me we are talking about here at Alinea bringing back some of the platters and some of the older aspects of presenting food, showing food and styles of service. The platter styles of service are all the things that will come back into the fold. Especially now that people are already looking for the next thing and we are all on a fast track. Things appear to move in a cycle and every fifteen years they tend to come back. Ferran and Albert Adria and all of Spain held the world’s attention for a very long time. Heston Blumenthal, Joan Roca, Andoni Aduriz, Ferran, and Arzak were all fascinated by molecular gastronomy and progressive cooking for a very long time and then came along the new order, the New Nordic order as it’s referred to. All the people in Scandinavia grabbed hold of it and now people are wondering whether Lima is really going to take off or not. Some say that it’s never going to have the foothold of New Nordic and Ferran Adria’s style of cooking did. People are looking for what’s next and what will be the big thing for the next five years. This exploration is good for gastronomy.
With the rampant use of social media there are copycats and those who seek their inspirations from the creations of others. Does it concern you when a new idea is not yours for long if it’s instantly plagiarized?
I think at the end of the day all of us realize that we are basically doing the same kind of thing. To be honest that what it is like with movements in cuisine, art, music, or film. When you look at the cooking of Humm, Redzepi, Narisawa, Bottura, or Martinez it is sometimes possible to say that it looks familiar or it came from there and to be honest we are all doing similar kind of things. In the cooking that Humm, Redzepi, Bottura, and Andoni do it is what it is and we are all influencing each other. If you have an intimate knowledge of global gastronomy then it is possible to as an example link the bread Narisawa puts on the table to a restaurant in Stockholm that does the same. If you see a particular ingredient and the way it’s handled, maybe just a type of clover at Noma then you see it at Brooklyn Fare and or even at Atera that has a strong Nordic influence, and you say that’s almost exactly the same. It’s natural to be influenced by what you see or find interesting and social media is a factor in that. It’s quite difficult not be influenced by our travels or our peers. It is something that is pervasive and music is a great example like UK and the Asian bands and everyone wanting to listen to that music it’s the same in art and food. Even if you look through magazines you can watch the service ware change. If Dan Barber and Redzepi want to plate all their food on earthenware, with a certain look and feel then it will appear elsewhere. This past weekend at the Restaurant Show in Chicago you could see that even big names like Bernardaud, Steelite, and other French or Spanish companies are creating the exact same patterns, shapes , textures that you see at Noma or Blue Hill at Stone Barn since everyone is looking to plate on those. Since it is obvious that everyone is very quick to follow the trend and it’s hard to find individuality and originality in today’s culinary scene.
Do you think from a diner’s perspective it leads to ennui, and is social media partly responsible?
I agree, and it’s a product of a lot of different things and you are correct in saying that social media is a big part of this. I remember when I was at the French Laundry, or Trio in 2002 it was still difficult after dinner service to go online and see photos at say El Bulli or Mugaritz to see what they were doing. Now like you said I can go online right now and see what DiverXO is doing today or what D.O.M is serving today. It literally happens in seconds whereas earlier you had to buy the cookbook, wait for it to arrive in the mail, and by then the food was two years old. Now it’s instantaneous so it makes it a lot more difficult to be original because everyone is racing for this finish line that does not exist. Everyone wants the media attention or be the number one restaurant in the world. When a restaurant achieves that distinction everyone wants to copy it.
Cooking is becoming a performance art, and is that where cuisine is heading now?
Yes absolutely and we have been doing that since we opened. Now when we close down in January and February for a remodel that is a huge part of the experience that we will implement. Talking of music as an example we did a video five or so years ago when we got a live cellist in the dining rooms and we choreographed the plating on a table with the musician and it was very colorful. I am not saying that the Roca brothers copied us but people that are cooking together or simultaneously may be directly or subliminally influenced as similar things are happening around us in our environment. We put it on film and presented it at a couple of congresses, and then a few years later El Celler de Can Roca does it and made a movie out of it. Essentially everyone is thinking the same way. We need something to break that cycle where we all begin to think differently again.
Should our industry be proactive in breaking this cycle? Otherwise diners will think “Why bother to travel thousands of miles for an experience similar to one close by?”
(Laughing) I agree!
You were recently in Barcelona while you were researching your tapas menu currently being offered at Next. What impressed you most about Albert Adria’s latest restaurants with different concepts offering Peruvian, Mexican, or Spanish cuisines in close proximity?
For me the idea that you could go from one experience to an entirely different one close by was interesting. Just think if I stepped out and mentioned to anyone on the street, not from the culinary industry or media, and said I was in Barcelona and I went to a restaurant that is run by one of the most famous pastry chefs of all time and he was known for avant-garde pastry in a small restaurant on the coast of Spain. For years he was known as the ultimate and most creative pastry chef of the world’s best restaurant. Now he has a Peruvian restaurant that I visited and it was excellent, and that sounds absurd to someone who does not know. You and I know about it and can understand that it’s totally possible. Then you go to a Mexican restaurant by the same chef and have fantastic Mexican food. It’s kind of mind boggling and was the biggest surprise for me. I expected Bodega to be fantastic of course since Albert is Spanish and they are serving Spanish tapas, but it was awesome to see how great each cuisine and restaurant was. What Albert creates is spectacular and what they are going to do in Ibiza as I saw in the plans is truly extraordinary, it’s interesting what he has visualized and what he is about to create.
Albert Adria manages, along with whimsy and techniques, to retain the taste and flavor in his food. Is the visual appeal as important or more important according to you?
It’s always the taste that has always been important for us. We try not to make the food have any more elements than are justified but the taste and flavor is most important. To evoke emotions, trigger memories, and make people feel good: that as cooks is our job and everything else is secondary.
With all this talk of performance art etc., are chefs becoming more cerebral and intellectual and at risk of disconnecting with diners since a large proportion of diners don’t care about these concepts?
As a general statement that might be true, but in our case people that fly 5000 miles to come to Alinea from San Sebastián or Tokyo and all over the world are coming here because we do what we do. It is a commitment to come to a restaurant like Alinea, Mugaritz, or Noma. You have to plan months in advance, you have to get reservations, it’s not inexpensive and they know what they want their experience to be since we don’t get people walking in off the street.
Generally speaking after El Bulli closed there was a major shift in the focus of the world’s best restaurants to a blend of New Nordic and in America there was a push for restaurants like Blue Hill and towards super foods, more natural presentations, and I think we are still in that area. As a general statement most restaurants in the world now are doing less theatrical, less pomp, and only a small handful of us like maybe Massimo Bottura, Alex Atala, Alinea, Celler de Can Roca, Mugaritz, a couple of restaurants in Japan, probably just ten of us are really focused on that aspect. For the most part this kind of cuisine is very focused and isolated and people who come to these restaurants come because they want that experience. It was like when you were going to El Bulli you knew what to expect, you had to, there was no way you could go there accidentally.
When you were at El Bulli who else was staging with you at that time?
Rene Redzepi was there, there was another American there, Cornelius Gallagher, who is not around these days but at that time was working for Daniel Boloud, then he went onto to open Oceana in NYC and now he is a chef on a cruise line. Rene and I were very close when we were there as he was one of only four English speaking cooks there. I didn’t speak Spanish and neither did Rene but he spoke French so in order for us to understand what was going on I would ask Rene in English. He in turn would ask the young French guy who would ask the Italian who understood Spanish. So it was like a telephone game since if Albert, Ferran, or anyone else said something in Spanish the Italian guy would translate it in to French, then the French guy into English. Finally Rene and I would figure out what was going on. I was there for a week while Rene was there for the entire season. We kept in touch and a year after we were there he reached out to me and asked if I could help him get a stage at French Laundry and so I connected him with Thomas [Keller]. And we have always kept in touch and when I was diagnosed with cancer, as soon as the news broke Rene was the very first person to call.
You are going to Chef Sache in Germany this year. Do these events help you connect with people you wouldn’t meet otherwise?
Yes they do. I went to the one in Netherlands two years ago and am looking forward to going to the one in Germany. The one I went to was very well-organized and interesting.
Don’t we need such events here in the U.S. to promote that sharing and building a fraternity? Maybe you can take that initiative?
I agree that we need that here and we have talked about doing that. Let’s hope it happens!