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.