|A Creative Mind In Pursuit of Excellence: Grant Achatz
by JJ Proville with Amanda McDougall
At the age of 14 Grant Achatz was washing dishes and flipping eggs in the kitchen of his parents’ small Michigan town restaurant. But even at that youthful age, Achatz knew that he wanted to be the best at whatever he was going to do.
Now 35, Achatz is at the helm of one of the most lauded restaurants in the world. The Alinea kitchen channels Achatz’s mastermind ingenuity and creativity. The culinary virtuoso uses technique and technology to transform ingredients from humble to extraordinary (a potato was never so familiar and elusive) and assemble flavors in original but still successful ways—making him one of the most respected and closely followed chefs in the country.
The story of Achatz’s evolution as a chef is one of perseverance and—some might say—a bit of luck. After earning a degree at The Culinary Institute of America and working in a few fine dining kitchens in his home state, it was a copy of Charlie Trotter’s 1994 cookbook that sealed Achatz’s ambition to cook at the highest level. Achatz began the stagier circuit hitting Trotter's Chicago's landmark restaurant and visiting several of Europe's Michelin-starred restaurants. But Achatz hadn't found what he was seeking. It wasn't until a disquieted and slightly disillusioned Achatz serendipitously stumbled on a job posting for Thomas Keller's The French Laundry that the tide changed.
Achatz spent the next four years under Keller's wing, and learning, as Achatz puts it "how to cook and how to live life." Within two years, Achatz rose to the rank of sous chef at The French Laundry. And then it was off to Spain for a brief but revolutionary stage at Ferran Adria's el Bulli in 2000.
Achatz returned to the States ready to begin cooking on his own terms. At age 26, he accepted his first executive chef position at Trio in Evanston, IL and began to cultivate his own style. Toward the end of four successful years at Trio, a Chicago entrepreneur and fervent admirer of Achatz, Nick Kokonas, proposed a business partnership that would create a restaurant worthy of the young chef’s talent. Achatz, never shy of a challenge, decided to take up Kokonas on his offer and together they set about materializing Achatz’s vision; soon Alinea would change the Chicago restaurant scene and elevate the level of fine dining cooking across the United States.
Despite its unassuming slate-grey Chicago townhouse veneer, the Alinea kitchen’s ambitious mission is to innovate, a seemingly simple task from the outset—until you understand the scale of the process and effort behind the mission. Achatz employs a team of twenty or so chefs to perpetually create and build ingredient combinations borne of Achatz's and his sous chefs’ imagination. The ideas spring from challenges that Achatz sets for them, such as recreating a childhood memory, or re-interpreting nature—all keeping in tune with seasonal ingredients. The dishes that are selected for development end up on the restaurant's 13 -and 24-course tasting menus. Even with an intensive dish creation process and a large kitchen staff, Achatz's kitchen needs to be extraordinarily efficient. Achatz and his lead chefs maintain an intense level of organization, which is essential for producing the 1,600 intricate dishes they put out every night.
Throughout Achatz's career, including a battle with tongue cancer in 2007 (which he defeated), courage and determination have always paid off. In its fourth year, Alinea is still booked for months ahead and continues to rank amongst the top restaurants in the world. With Alinea well established and a James Beard Award winning cookbook on store shelves, Achatz now allows himself more time to develop dish ideas, travel to gain inspiration and share ideas with fellow chefs, and plan for the future. But this chef isn't resting on his laurels: A new restaurant project is on his to-do list, and about this he is sure of one thing: “It’ll be a game-changer.” We expect nothing less.
Read the interview to find out what Grant Achatz considers the watershed moments of his career; how his kitchen is organized; how his ideas go from mind to plate; and what angle his new venture will take.
1723 North Halsted Street
Chicago, IL 60614