Grant Achatz on the Role of Food Media
Last night at the ICE, The New York Times' Recipe Redux columnist Amanda Hesser, interviewed Chef Grant Achatz and Nicholas Kokonas of Alinea in advance of the wide-release of their book, "Life, On The Line." During a brief Q&A after the talk, there was a chance to ask a few questions of the authors.
More than any other of America's most modern restaurants, Alinea stands at the forefront. As such, two questions about technology and innovation seemed most pertinent: What is the role of food blogging in the future of restaurants? And do they worry that the new reservation ticketing system they plan to implement at their upcoming restaurant (Next) might make their food too elitist?
In the book you talk about interacting on eGullet with diners and bloggers – what role will food blogging and photography play in the future of food?
Achatz: I think early on going back to Trio, we’ve been very open-source and very accepting, and a big proponent of social media. And the reason for that is that one, it’s smart business, and two, you’re able to reach a lot of people very quickly. You’re also able to bridge the gap to your target market, and listen to their voices. So, imagine you come into Alinea and you have a terrible meal. Do you write a letter to the chef saying you had a horrible meal? Probably not. Will you post it anonymously on a food blog? More likely. Taking notice of these blogs gives me the chance to hear honest opinions about what is going on in my restaurant. Otherwise, it’s anti-editing. We would never hear the complaints. We would only hear the fluff. You have to really pay attention.
Kokonas: I spend 30 minutes a day every night reading about what people have written about their experiences at the restaurant. I send two emails a night to people. Whether or not they’ve said something good about Alinea or not, I thank them for mentioning us. And it adds up. If you imagine, over the course of six years you end up sending several thousand e-mails from one or both of us. And with some customers these e-mails have been very powerful. And many of them we’ve met down the road. And they include mainstream writers, bloggers who only have two followers and live with their parents, and it’s all kind of equal to us, it’s interesting.
Achatz: We literally have had people that have written stuff on blogs, sometimes you get to the point where clearly they haven’t eaten at the restaurant. Where they’re complaining about something they’ve never experienced. But there’s the other side of spectrum where we’ve actually revamped service, or food based on comments we’ve gotten. We’ve taken those critiques and said, “Hey, that’s valid.” I read about a lot of chefs that complain about Yelp and I just don’t understand it. It’s such a great resource of feedback. Why wouldn’t you embrace that?
Do you worry about the new ticketing system making your food too elitist?
Kokonas: I would say the opposite is true. On March 1st we opened up our reservations for May. The Alinea number is (312)867-0110, and the 312-867 exchange was overloaded. That effects anyone in the city who has that exchange — It was corrected by AT&T pretty quickly. It’s very difficult to get a reservation on the phone. People will say to us, “You just opened up reservations for May, I don’t believe Saturday is already sold out!” But it is. This system will allow people to see online dates, times, places – not who, but all the other information they need. It democratizes the experience completely. It won’t be impossible to get in. You can go online and see the date and time—see the entire process. To those who say it’s elitist, we would say, you can come in on a Wednesday at 10 p.m. and have the full meal for $65 that someone else is going to pay at least twice that for. It makes the restaurant more accessible, not less.
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