2011 American Chef of the Year: Grant Achatz
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.