Forget the New York versus San Francisco debate. You could argue that the culinary artistry and imagination that chef Grant Achatz has displayed at his restaurants has positioned Chicago — not New York, not San Francisco, and not Las Vegas or Los Angeles, either — as the culinary capital of America.
Achatz's Alinea has long been considered one of the nation's best restaurants (a few years back, the now-defunct Gourmet proclaimed it the best). In 2011, not resting on his laurels, the chef launched Next, a restaurant that completely changes cuisines every few months. Paris 1906 was first, then a Tour of Thailand, and currently, perhaps most ambitiously, Childhood. Achatz and his partner, Nick Kokonas, also reinvented the way people look at reservations with their innovative online nonrefundable ticket system. At The Aviary Achatz reinterpreted cocktails, bar food, and the bar experience, and published a well-received memoir, Life, On the Line.
For these reasons, we're pleased to announce that chef Grant Achatz was singled out by The Daily Meal's editors and illustrious panel of judges as 2011's Chef of the Year in America. (The panel and our editorial staff voted anonymously, and the percentages of votes for each chef were tallied in order to determine the chef of the year in two categories, American and international, the latter of which was won by Noma's René Redzepi.)
We reached out to the chefs to discover where they, and along with them the state of food, may be heading. In this interview with Grant Achatz, the chef discusses whether Next is worth the work, the chefs and restaurants who blow him away, the possibility of doing a Next food truck, and tips his hand about how Alinea might change, including the possibility of closing it in Chicago and taking it on the road.
How after almost completing three menu overhauls at Next, is the concept working for you? Is it more trouble than it's worth? Is it fun?
It’s definitely a lot of work but we knew that going in. It’s a lot of fun. I think at the beginning most people thought that the criticism of was going to be that Alinea was going to suffer. “His Next restaurant and his ambitions are going to consume all his time." But actually what happened, I equate to gastronomic graduate school. I have had to do all this research on different cuisines, and I find that it all comes back to Alinea. It really works out because it makes the entire restaurant group more creative — not just at Next, but also at Alinea. So it’s really cool.
One could argue that in 2011 with Next and The Aviary you've reinvented the restaurant, the bar, and the reservation system. Any idea what you might try to reimagine next?
You know, there’s been this trend of pop-up restaurants, of course, but I think that as a concept, that could be something that could be explored a bit more and stabilized. That might be fun. Again, when we went to open Next, we had offer after offer to open a restaurant in Tokyo, New York City, and Dubai, but nothing was exciting about this. They just wanted to clone Alinea.
And once we stumbled upon the idea for Next we knew we had to open it. I think the same thing will happen again, when we can think of something to do that’s new and exciting. It has to be organic though. It has to happen on its own. It can’t be forced. It’s not like the core members of our group are sitting around a table saying, “OK, what are we going to do?” It’s not a focus group. But we will. We’ll do something else.
Why don’t you use the new reservation system you and your partner Nick Kokonas pioneered at Next at Alinea?
We will implement it at Alinea. We’re trying. But doing it at Alinea is a little different. Frankly, the level of customer service is an issue. Next is an amazing restaurant, but it was never built to be a Michelin-starred, three-star restaurant. What happens with that is we will flat out say we will not change anything, we will not accommodate dietary restrictions. At Alinea we will accommodate anything because in no way is that a bad thing, but you can’t do the same thing at Next. Can you take that mentality, can you take that away from Alinea and make it the same restaurant? That’s something we’re struggling with. We couldn’t just take the software from the Next reservation system and apply it at Alinea. It has to be tweaked.
Why do you think other restaurants haven't followed suit? Or do you think they will?
I think they will. There are other factors that prohibit restaurants from using this kind of system. One of those things is demand. For us, we’re in a very fortunate position to have the demand, where people just want to come. They don’t complain about going to a web site or there not being a phone. They just do whatever they can to get in. If that wasn’t the case I’m not sure we could do this. But from an operational point of view, it’s incredibly beneficial.
So I hope other restaurants will do it because it eliminates costs and you’re able to pass down a better value to your guest. That’s why we’re able to offer a five-star French meal for $65, because we’ve eliminated a lot of the typical nonsense that happens at many restaurants. At Alinea we pay five different reservationists a total of $180,000 a year to answer the phone and tell people that they cannot come to our restaurant. I mean, that’s just ridiculous. So if you’re able to eliminate that, you’re able to pass that value on to your clientele.
Speaking of Alinea, you've talked about possibly taking a new approach with the restaurant. Are there any new developments, or new directions you're considering?
Yeah, I think we’re well on our way in that regard. For instance, we met two days ago with a couple of cellists, and we’re trying to involve a score in the meal that’s based on presentation in the dining room where they would come out live and play, and synchronize their playing with plating a course. A lot of people have been saying that since elBulli has closed, molecular gastronomy is dead. I always hated that term, but I don’t think it’s dead.
These things happen on a 10- to 15-year cycle. It’s just going to be more residual. I think the technology and ingredients of molecular gastronomy will be available in the chef’s toolbox but dining is going to change again. And at Alinea, we’re going to make it a little more theatrical, but try to find that balance so it’s not silly or over the top, but try to explore more options about what’s off the plate – involving the environment, the music, the lighting – so that play with the ways that we perceive food.