2011 American Chef of the Year: Grant Achatz

Looking across the American culinary landscape, one chef in Chicago stands higher above the rest this year

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.

I have to tell you, it blew me away. We did a test with these guys where we took a spoon of peanut butter, which is a very familiar food that everyone knows the flavor of. And we had a bunch of the staff take a bite and out of nowhere, the cellists would start to play. I went around room asking everyone what they remembered tasting, and unanimously it was like they’d forgotten. The music became a palate cleanser. It was cool because I think the mind can’t focus on these two aspects of experience at the same time. The cellists played and you didn’t taste the peanut butter, and attention shifted in the room, naturally. You look at these various aspects of physiology and perception, and you go, “This is fun.” It might be fun to use this to create a new dining experience. I think a lot of the rules are going to begin to get broken again.

You look at trends, call them movements. You know, I remember reading an article in The New York Times where Molly O'Neill was talking about Charlie Trotter’s, and she was waxing poetic about how he was a genius and using French technique, and she basically went on to describe it as fusion. So you have these practitioners going through these different movements.

I think you’re going to see a shift. What we’re going to do at Alinea is hopefully create a new genre, a new style. I think as we progress, the American public are more willing, more trusting, more excited about doing different things in restaurants. Daniel Humm from Eleven Madison Park came in for dinner at Alinea and we put him at this table that we covered in oak leaves, and I mean about a foot and a half pile and when they came in they had to brush the leaves off onto the ground. And for me, of course, it reminded me of my childhood, of playing with leaves and jumping into piles of them during the fall in Michigan. And one of the staff asked, “What are we going to do with all these leaves? Do we have to pick them up immediately?” And I was said, “No! Absolutely not. As the other tables are being seated and walking through the dining room, they’ll get the sensation of fall as well.”

It was comical what people would do. They were all dressed up for dinner and getting up to use the restroom, and there they were, picking up the leaves and throwing them at each other? I mean, it was great. I love the idea of removing the formality of fine dining. It shouldn’t be pretentious. Let’s just have fun with it. It’s really invigorating to me to have the opportunity to do things like this and to be with people who are willing to take risks. It’s really exciting.

 

ChefAchatz (left) plates dessert at Alinea (photo by Arthur Bovino).

When I visited Alinea, I saw you in the kitchen, but was surprised to see you “plate” dessert at the table. You still do this most nights, no? Does this have special meaning to you and will you ?

Well, one, I really enjoy it, and two, the guests really enjoy it. Shockingly, it’s interesting what public perception is about chefs. They’re like “Oh, well he’s never cooking in his restaurant.” Where else would I be? I think with the popularity of Food Network and Bobby Flay and all these guys that have become celebrity chefs, people assume you’re either on the golf course or off doing something on TV. I think that coming out to the table for dessert enhances the experience as well, not because I think I’m better at it than my sous chef or anyone else, but because people get a kick out of it.

I hate the term “celebrity chef.” I know It has a purpose. And when you’re talking about Bobby Flay or someone like that it’s a fitting term but I don’t think of myself like that. But I do it just for the reason you gave. Someone leaves the restaurant and they’re like, “But man, I got to talk to the chef.” So it’s cool. My week is usually four-two, four days spent at Alinea and two at Next. And that’s how I’m dividing it up right now. And at times I’m traveling, but for the most part I’m at Alinea.

 

You said you’d do something new next, and that you’d considered other cities before. Would you consider a city other than Chicago?

I’m really apprehensive about doing that only because I’m very close with Thomas Keller and when he goes back and forth from Yountville to New York City, you know he often says it’s difficult to fly back and forth and do all that. And it’s really convenient for me to jump in my car and be from Next to Alinea in five minutes.

I think it largely depends on what the concept might be and if there’s room for doing it in this market, in Chicago. We’d prefer to put it in Chicago. But one of the things we’ve talked about is maybe Alinea ceases to exist in its current location. Maybe we just take it on the road. Make it goes to Manhattan for a month, and then to L.A. for a month, and then to Miami for a month, and then to London, Paris, and Barcelona. If you could make that work — and again, people have done popup restaurants and they’re great –but if you could make that work on another level, on a high level, that would be something. You know, 45 percent of our clientele are from out of the state of Illinois. And of that, 50 percent are from Europe or Asia, it’s a very international crowd. I don’t know. It could be fun.

A food truck would be fun. It’d be something new. We’d have to think about how to reinvent that. One thought was to do a Next food truck, and when the menu changes, it changes. So if you’re doing Paris 1906, what was the quote unquote street food, then for Tour of Thailand, you do Thai street food. That would be fun. There are a lot of ideas floating around. We just need to let them mature. That’s the one thing I think me and my group, Nick, are good at. We’re good at being patient. We’re not going to fool people. There might be something that we already think is a good idea, but we let it stew for a while.

What's your assessment of the state of food and dining in America? Is food exciting in the States right now or are the most interesting things happening elsewhere?

That’s a really difficult question only because I think food in America is very exciting in its diversity. You can find your progressive restaurants like Alinea or wd-50, and obviously, now there’s this great surge in the farm-to-table movement where you have restaurants like Blue Hill at Stone Barns — that‘s creating its own little niche. You’re starting to get these high-quality Southeast Asian restaurants. Not your typical Thai spots, but food that’s on a different level, which is exciting, I don’t know how familiar you are with the food scene in Chicago, but there are these restaurants popping up now that are like The Spotted Pig in New York, that are like charcuterie-based, like gastropubs with in-house charcuterie, I think a lot of restaurants are in same position as us in terms of looking to do something new. You have Daniel Humm at Eleven Madison Park opening a new place. I think there are a lot of young chefs pushing to do new things, which is great.

But for me as a chef, it’s always super exciting to go eat elsewhere. And I’ve got to say, the last couple of trips to Japan, the food there is just amazing. They have this respect for tradition and at the same time a forward-thinking approach. It just blew me away.

 

Which restaurants blew you away?

Two in particular. There’s Aronia de Takazawa, where Aronia is a flower and Takazawa is the name of the chef. It’s a two-table restaurant in Tokyo and it’s just him in the kitchen and his wife in the dining room. It’s just very progressive, it’s Alinea-esque in its thought process, and elBulli-esque, and it’s rooted in Japanese cuisine – with a culture that’s so disciplined. And they use restraint so well.

The other restaurant was in Sapporo: Le Musée. It’s a very small restaurant, 30 seats and all in one main room as far as you could tell. And they did this course where midway through the meal they ask you to get up, which I thought was strange. They asked eight of us to get up and they escorted us into this back room that maybe had been a private dining room at one point. And the chef had trimmed grape vines from his yard, and placed them around the room, with grapes on them, so that it almost looked like they were growing off the walls. And then they encouraged us to pluck the grapes off the vines. And the grapes were perfectly ripe and delicious and then they served us four courses that included different manipulations of those grapes. It was cool because you got the tactile feeling of experiencing the feel of those vines, and they prepared you for what was ahead. And you got to taste the grape in the raw state. And then he served really creative courses using the grapes. And there was different lighting, things were on a different scale, there were different tables — it felt like we were transported to a different restaurant for a moment. I’m sure there are many places in the world doing exciting stuff, but right now, Japan is my go-to.

 

Is there a chef that challenges you? One who inspires you to better, greater things? Or at some point do you feel like you’re really competing against yourself?

I think with any chef that is driven there’s both of those things happening at the same time. Obviously, I wouldn’t say we compete. But there are many chefs that inspire us. I was in San Sebastián, Spain, over Thanksgiving, and we ate at Mugaritz and Andoni, the chef and owner, is — you know, I’ve eaten there before and was impressed, and that was in 2007 — and some of the stuff that he does, it just makes you go, “Man, I feel lazy! How the hell did he come up with that? I have to get back in the kitchen and get to work.” And that’s a great thing. And we’re friends. They dropped on the Top 50 list to #5 and we were #7, and I don’t go, “We have to beat him,” but I walked into the restaurant – and this one blew me away — and he takes a local fern that they harvested on the hillside, and then he cooks it in vanilla, and other things I don’t even know, that turns the fern completely black. It’s a fern stem that they cut to seven inches long. Then they dehydrate it for 12 hours and it looks identical to a vanilla bean.

So they present us a course, a very simple course, of salted loose caramel and then this mock vanilla bean. And they put it down, and I’m like, “OK, I’ve seen this before. The vanilla bean is going to be there for aroma, and it’s there to drag it through the caramel, and it’s cool, and that’s fine. “And the guy goes, “You eat the vanilla bean.”  And I’m like, “You don’t eat the vanilla bean.” And he kind of winks at me and says, “You eat it.” And I drag it through the caramel and take a bite and I was like, “Man, that’s brilliant!” And it’s cool. It was inspiring. And this is where is Alinea is going. This is where the chefs are going to start to go.

It’s not about foams, and gelées and magic white powders, he literally harvested a fern and he used beet juice to turn it dark. It’s that cerebral aspect that people are ready to play on a little bit more — the experimental things that the next wave of chefs are going to take chances with. That’s where we’re going to go. Because it’s smart. It’s exciting. It’s not that technical. I think during the last 10 years, the food was very technical. elBulli was very technical. But that’s why it got coined, “molecular gastronomy,” and “modernist cuisine.” Going forward, it’s going to be more loose art. It’s going to be improv, that kind of thing. The rules are less defined.
 
Who would your choice for chef of the year be?

That’s a tough one, because my immediate reaction was Thomas Keller because it’s an obvious choice, but less obvious in a way that a lot of people don’t know. He’s one of the most celebrated American chefs ever, but what a lot of people don’t know is that he is in a lot of ways pushing American cuisine forward into the future not by cooking necessarily, but by mentoring some of the young great chefs cooking right now.

If you think about it, you’ve got Jonathan Benno at the Lincoln, Eric Ziebold, and Corey Lee at Benu, and myself. There are two guys in the company who have been with him for 12 years, and literally just left a couple of weeks ago, and I’m sure they’re going to be doing something special. He’s such a genuine guy, and he’s perpetuating American cuisine through these people, and I think that’s just amazing. He’s like the enabler. He’s not being greedy, he’s not holding them in, and he lets them leave. It’s kind of weird in a way, in that I think sometimes when chefs get big, they get mad when people leave and he encourages people to strike out on their own. It’s pretty awesome.
 

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