Interview with Chef Grant Achatz of Alinea - Chicago, IL
JJ Proville: You’ve been traveling a lot recently and were just in Japan. How was it?
Grant Achatz: It was great. Really amazing. It was my first time there. Their whole culture—from the political views, gastronomy, the arts, and the landscape—is so disciplined.
JJP: Was there any cooking technique or flavor you saw there that really impressed you?
GA: I don’t think there was any one specific thing. I think it was more than anything how things that they’ve been doing for hundreds of years felt new. Like we went to this restaurant in Kyoto called Kitcho, which was a traditional kaiseki, and some of these dishes had hundreds of years of tradition, but yet still managed to feel new and contemporary. It’s just a testament to their aesthetic and focus.
JJP: Let’s talk about your career. Can you run down some of the watershed moments in your history as a chef?
GA: I think there are probably seven or so that are really poignant. Going back to Richmond, Michigan—my parents' diner essentially—I had the bug. I had the bug to cook and more than that, that moment in time, when I was 14 or 15 —I don’t know how to put it to not sound egotistical—but I wanted to be the best in this tiny little restaurant. I wanted to be the best egg flipper and mashed potato-maker. I was always in competition with people around me and myself—even when I was washing dishes. By the time I was 8 or 9 I was a scheduled dishwasher and it was a busy diner so you had to move your ass. I would create all of these little competitions. There was this moment of clarity when I was 14 or 15 that was less about cooking and more about the desire to achieve. I didn’t know if I would be a chef or own a restaurant, and I was toying with art and architecture at that point. But I knew at that point whatever I was going to go into, I wanted to push whatever I did as far as I could.
I didn’t really have a poignant moment at the CIA. Probably the next one was when I got to Charlie Trotter’s in 1995. I went through school, did my required externship at a hotel in Michigan and met my first mentor there, Steve Stallard [Executive Chef of the Amway Crowne Plaza in Grand Rapids, MI], who guided me through a critical time. I graduated CIA and went back to work for Stalllard who encouraged me to shoot high and go right to Charlie Trotter’s. He was a heavily European trained chef—a super sharp chef with a razor sharp palate—[and] a really great guy to learn from. He instilled a large amount of confidence in me.
I just got really lucky as an extern. Every step of the way, it just seemed like I would meet the right people and be in the right place at the right time. The [Amway Crowne Plaza] had a really good reputation and has five restaurants in it, two of which were considered fine dining. It turns out the first day at my externship, a guy in the fine dining restaurant quits and they basically need a warm body up there. They send me up there and I do my thing and do what the chef tells me. I ended up staying up there and working every station of the restaurant during my entire 18 week externship. It fueled my confidence since I earned my chops in a fine dining restaurant. It was a good step for me. I really caught my passion for cooking and being able to express myself artistically through food. Both Stallard and the chef of that restaurant gave me freedom with coming up with specials.
Right at that time, Charlie Trotter released his first cookbook and I remember going to Borders to buy it. I don’t know if you would consider that a watershed moment, but the whole Trotter genre was very important to me. I got that book in my hand and said “I need to work for this guy.” He talked about pushing until you fall over and die and excellence, and it was exactly what I wanted to hear. I was 21 at the time, and I was ready to go.
I kept writing and writing and finally they had me come down there for a tryout. I did a black box tasting for him and his sous chefs and he offered me a job, so I moved to Chicago. It was big deal—that was the best restaurant in the country at the time, and I was 21. He put me in the hot line and I got literally crushed. I remember the day before my tryout I made a reservation at the restaurant. I was a single diner, 21 years-old, with a cheap, frumpy J.C. Penney suit. I made the reservation because I was so nervous for the tryout and mystery box cooking thing. I figured if I came in the night before, I’ll figure out what ingredients he has in the restaurant at the time and have an idea of what they might put in the box. So I got crushed and it made me question cooking and everything I believed in. I said if this is one of the best restaurants in the world and this is how you have to manage, and this is your lifestyle, I’m not sure if I want anything to do with this. We were working 16, 17 hours a day. It was brutal and that’s me saying that. I only lasted about three months and I quit. I didn’t know if I wanted to chase the dream anymore.
Up to this point I’d only heard the stories about the great Michelin star restaurants. So I thought I should go see for myself and maybe it would help me realign and get some focus. I traveled Europe for three months and was totally disappointed. That could have been another watershed moment. The meals I had at the Michelin three star restaurants were just mediocre. So now two bubbles have burst within a few months of each other.
I went back to work temporarily at my father’s restaurant—so I had gone full circle at this point. I did some soul searching and decided to give it another shot. I stumbled on The French Laundry very serendipitously from a tiny ad in Wine Spectator. I bugged [Thomas Keller] and he finally let me come out for a tryout and I got hired. That was one of the best moments. [Keller is an] incredible man, an incredible mentor; generous, passionate, and dedicated. He showed me how to cook and how to live life. It was just amazing.
Halfway through that I did a year at a winery and met [the winemaker of La Jota Vineyards] Bill Smith, which was another great moment. He really helped me refine my palate by the way he treated wine and the way he approached it.
Probably the next moment would be 2000 when I remember very vividly Thomas walking into the kitchen and throwing down a copy of Gourmet Magazine and saying “you should go to this restaurant” and he pointed to a picture of Ferran Adrià juggling oranges. I had never heard of him before. Thomas said “it looks like it might fit with what you’re all about” because he knew I was aggressively creative and always wanted to change stuff. So I went to el Bulli and was blown away by how foreign everything was. I was only there for four days and managed to eat there twice during a two week period that summer and came back a changed person in that—with all due respect to Thomas and what we had been doing for the last four years—I felt like it was just time to move on and explore my own thing. He recognized that and I started to do the big search for an existing small restaurant that would give a 26-year-old kid who’d never been a chef before carte blanche of their four star kitchen, which I figured would be pretty difficult.
[I found] Henry [Adaniya] at Trio—another great moment and another great person—and had a three-year run there. At that time—we’re talking June 2001; wd-50 wasn’t open; Paul Liebrandt wasn’t on the radar yet—there was really nobody pushing the envelope. So we got Trio and took a big risk and people started to notice. There were limitations there: The location was not so great and, despite all the accolades, we had a hard time keeping busy, the restaurant was poorly funded, the kitchen was old, and the dining room was dated. Then I met Nick [Kokonas my partner at Alinea]; he became a regular at Trio and he mentioned to me one day “If you want to do your food justice and open a restaurant worthy of your food, just let me know.” In 2004, I reached out to him and we started to build Alinea.
That was the long version. The moments I would say were Charlie Trotter’s, Europe, The French Laundry, La Jota [Vineyards], Trio, and Alinea. I had an unprecedented string of mentors. I’ve been pretty lucky.
JJP: Can you describe the structure of your kitchen brigade? GA: It’s basically a pretty traditional French setup in terms of the brigade. We have myself and the chef de cuisine and four sous chefs. From there, the next tier down would be chef de partie. We have prep cooks who work from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. During service we have approximately 20 chefs in the kitchen including myself, 12 to14 of which are paid, and the other six to eight who are stagiers or externs. There are six stations throughout the kitchen that don’t really fall into the categories of French system because that’s not really how we cook. Each station has one to three cooks depending on their responsibility and number of dishes. We have an expediter who controls flow and the firing of food and that’s the front-of-house person. The cooks are physically cooking the food and they pass the prepared food to the two long islands that we have running down the middle of the kitchen. In the middle aisle are myself, the chef de cuisine, and the four sous chefs that are primarily responsible for plating. So depending on who they are and what their station is, the cooks’ main focus is to cook, pass, and then we assemble.
JJP: How many dishes are prepared at each station?
GA: Anywhere from one to six items on the menu. We swing from 60 to 100 diners a night, so if you think in terms of our menu structure—on average 16 courses—and the number of people we process in a night, we’re putting out something like 1,600 to1,800 plates a night, which is pretty staggering.
JJP: How does the hierarchy work during the creative process?
GA: It’s shifted slightly from before. When we first opened the restaurant I was very hands-on in the prep portion of the day. And then I would try to create dishes between 2 and 4 a.m. after everybody left. That’s not really sustainable. The kitchen is now staffed to a point where I don’t really have to be a part of the prep work. I’ll take a portion of the 11am to 4pm slot and prioritize with my creativity. I’ll take my notebook and my computer and start writing down dishes on a piece of paper and then at the end of the day, say I came up with three ideas—and they can be nearly complete on paper or they could be two words strung together—every night I sit down with the chef de cuisine and the sous chefs after service and we go over the ordering and we talk about new dish ideas. If we have a complete enough vision for a new dish, I’ll start delegating a mise-en-place for them depending on what’s on their plate the next day. We’ll come in the next day and the process pretty much repeats itself. I’ll come in at 11 a.m. and I’ll dig into whatever I’ve delegated to myself. If there is a component of a new dish that I want to work on and document, then I’ll do that and delegate the other components to [the sous chefs] and then I’ll help them tweak it and supervise as we go. Their chef de cuisine and the sous chefs’ main responsibility is about 60% creative and 40% production, so they are devoting over half their time to creating new dishes versus prepping an existing dish.
JJP: How do you maintain such a high standard of making sure every dish comes out the same?
GA: It’s just all in the organization. You have to break it down step by step. Everything delegated into early morning preparation is monitored for quality. If one dish relies on a stock, you just have to make sure that it’s reduced down and turned into a sauce before service. It’s no different doing that than some of the crazier stuff like spherification. You have your base infusion that is monitored and tasted throughout the day and then the process is watched closely, and at service it’s re-heated. A lot of the cooking that we do is so multi-step now and kind of different than the French à la minute style. We just have to watch each step throughout the day. At service, a lot of our ingredients have gone through one, two, or three cooking processes. Then they are chilled or warmed or whatever to what we need to do to produce the right temperature for service.
JJP: Going back to Ferran Adrià, his cooking philosophy was greatly inspired by a background in architecture. Was there any outside passion that you brought to your cooking?
GA: I don’t think I can point to any one thing. In fact, I would do the opposite and point to everything. I always say that creativity is being really observant of the world around you. I can point to examples where a particular song has influenced the dish or a menu progression or something in nature. In the cookbook I talk about going for a walk in the woods with my boys and finding an overturned tree and trying to mimic the root structure with salsify. And the work we do with aromas is obviously a direct link to smells and sights that I saw growing up. So it’s just really everything—other chefs and other techniques, other ingredients, etc.
JJP: You obviously rely a lot on your sense of smell. Why do you think that an educated sense of smell is important to developing a good dish?
GA: Well, it boils down to two things. There’s flavor by the way of smell. Most people notice, but it’s not in the front of their head. If you put something in your mouth, you’re going to detect four or five sensations. That’s it. But the human olfactory system can detect over 700 flavors based on smells. So really we taste more with smell than with our tongue or palate. I always say to my cooks, smell this wine, what do you smell? They’ll say “Well, chef, I smell cherries, leather, dirt, oak, and toast.” I say ‘wait a minute, this is made from grapes—how can you taste all of those things when the only thing in that bottle is grape juice?’ So there’s flavor, and there’s emotional triggers. Smell is one of the most powerful memory triggers there is. The burning leaves story I always tell about how when I grew up in Michigan that smell really resonated with me. You can delve into things outside the immediate culinary world and bring them in. I think of smell as a component ingredient, not a satellite. If a chef wanted to add all spice to a cookie recipe, he could grind it up and put it in the batter, but that’s not the only way you can do it.
JJP: When you worked as an assistant winemaker with Bill Smith at La Jota Vineyards, what did you learn about pairing wine and food?
GA: It wasn’t about an intensive food and wine pairing education. It was more about learning about wine. Every day I had to smell and taste wine as part of my job. You would pick up nuances based on a daily tasting smelling. It’s just like anything else—it’s about experience. I think that really helped in my culinary world too. Understanding how the body works. Because you’re not talking about the difference between water and honey. You’re talking in fractions of subtleties. If you can start to perceive those over time, and your palate becomes more sensitive to those things, it’s going to help down the road with food and everything else.
JJP: What’s a basic cooking technique that you couldn’t possibly live without?
GA: It’s tough to cook without sautéing. I don’t think there’s any one thing, but I would say sauté because it’s probably the most popular across the board. Restaurants, home kitchens—pretty much everywhere you go there’s a burner and sauté pan.
JJP: What was the most useful technique you brought back from The French Laundry?
GA: The first thing that jumps into my head would be veal stock. But even today, we were turning artichokes and I gave a cook a lesson on how to peel one, and that goes directly back to my time there. I caught myself and said ‘Jesus Christ, I sound like Thomas!’ I’m sure at one point he pulled me aside and gave me the same lecture.
JJP: Is there a specific front-of-house practice that you put in place that you feel completes the Alinea experience?
GA: Letting them be themselves. Honestly. We have an amazingly passionate group in the front of the house. There’s always this stereotype that the front-of-house people are just a bunch of actors waiting to get a gig. These guys live and breathe what we do and part of that is that we let their personalities shine through, which a lot of restaurants don’t. If you come here, you’re going to see a skinny white guy with a giant afro. Most four star restaurants would say “you need to trim that hair or you can’t have any tattoos or piercings showing.” In a way, we’re very liberal with them. When I give them direction on new dishes I don’t present to them the new dishes saying ‘this is how I want them described.’ I introduce the dish and we have a conversation about the important aspects both from a culinary perspective and guest experience perspective, and we let them create their own description. It feels genuine and warm, they can show off their personality, and it doesn’t feel like a script. I think it makes a big difference.
JJP: What’s the concept behind the expansion of Alinea? Would it be just another clone? If it were, would it detract from the mystique of the first one? Or is it a totally different concept?
GA: Well, I mean, we’ve been jostling with this for years now. Here’s the conclusion that I’ve come to: We were going to open in New York. I literally I had a lease in my hand for a spot on Broome Street and we had the idea that we were going to try to open a four star restaurant there. And then I really started thinking about it and said ‘wait a minute, if we open an Alinea or Alinea-esque restaurant in New York, and it’s better than the one in Chicago, then Chicago loses. If we open one in New York and it’s not as good as Chicago, then New York loses. If we open one that’s equally as good in both cities, then they both lose.’ There was really no win for us to bring the same concept to New York. Then you have all of the offers in Vegas, Dubai, and Tokyo. We were approached by a group in New York for a very prestigious address. There was a period of time when we were thinking these offers would really pay well, but they didn’t feel authentic. If we’re going to do something else, which we are, it has to be another game-changer. When we opened Alinea we did it with the hopes and ambition that it would change the landscape and be something special to make people take notice. If we open another restaurant, I think these have to be our ambitions. We can’t do the same thing over again.
JJP: Do you think the building-block style that’s representative of your cooking style at Alinea will be the same case in the new place?
GA: I think the cuisine in the next restaurant will be very different than Alinea by style and by genre, but I think the way we arrive at the endpoint will be similar because a lot of the techniques and methods and organization that we’ve learned here are very efficient and very exacting. And where Alinea is about innovation, the next restaurant will be about exploration.
JJP: In the Alinea cookbook, there is an entertaining description of making truffle juice with three giant stock pots of truffles going at once. Are there any other impressive examples of processing expensive ingredients?
GA: More than expensive and rare, it’s just that we never say we can’t do something. That’s just not even an option. On the opening menu we were doing the PB&J dish and we would buy cases and cases of grapes because each giant two-and-a-half pound cluster of grapes could only produce three perfect grapes that were still attached to stem as we wanted. The running joke in the restaurant is that every day at staff meal, there would be some iteration of grapes. And it ran the gamut. There was Waldorf salad, grape smoothies, etc. It was just because we were producing a retarded amount of grapes. And we did the same with hearts of palm. So when we approach certain things like that, there’s always one thing on the menu that the perfect piece that is like one out of 100, but we’re going to buy the 100 and use one. That’s just the way it is. We don’t limit ourselves. The truffle dish is another example. We’re just trying to get that perfect piece.
JJP: What do you think it is that sets good chefs and great chefs apart?
GA: There’s no one thing. There are so many things that make the Thomas Kellers and the Daniel Bouluds themselves. You can’t put your finger on one thing. Location, money, press, skill, staff, concept, timing—there are just so many things. It’s impossible to say.
JJP: What’s the last thing you learned?
GA: I had a conversation with one of my sous chefs this morning because we had kind of a bad day yesterday. It just wasn’t one of our best days. As I was talking to him, I realized that everything is just a big cycle. It’s just the same thing over and over again as you get older and progress through cooking and probably the same with any discipline. When I was a commis, I was faced with the same issues that I’m faced with now as the chef and owner of a restaurant. You don’t recognize the issues, but they’re the exact same thing.
So he’s telling me what’s frustrating him and everything he was saying sounded like something I would say to Thomas when I was 24. And probably that I’ll be saying to my business partner when I’m 50. I guess my point is that people just need to take a moment to step back and realize that the problems are consistent and it’s just time that changes. Once you wrap your head around that, hopefully it’ll give you some peace. Or it’ll drive you really crazy. I’m not sure which, but I’ll let you know in 20 years!
JJP: Spontaneously pick one of the following ingredients: Thyme or rosemary?
JJP: Sirloin or tenderloin?
JJP: Squid or shrimp?
JJP: Stone Temple Pilots or Pearl Jam?
GA: Stone Temple Pilots.
JJP: Spontaneously pair an ingredient with another that comes to mind: Cod?
JJP: Chicken drumstick?
GA: Blue cheese.
JJP: Swiss chard?
JJP: Rioja wine?
GA: Hmm.The first thing that popped into my head is rouget. I’m just going to go with that. That could work.
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