Grant Achatz runs one of the United States’ - and world’s - top-ranked restaurants, Alinea, and he feels like starting from scratch again. He’s restless, antsy. He wants to reinvent the food. He and partner Nick Kokonas have budgeted $100,000 to rethink the physical space. He wants to move forward. “We’re almost 10 years old,” the-just-turned-40-year-old chef says, from his coach-house offi ce behind therestaurant, “and we all feel this desire to really change.” He has a history of doing this sort of thing.
As Achatz prepared to open Alinea in Chicago, in May 2005, he decided that no dish he’d ever previously made - nothing, for instance, from his wildly acclaimed stint running the kitchen for the north suburban restaurant Trio - would appear on the opening menu. He’d named the place Alinea because it means “the beginning of a new train of thought,” as symbolized by a paragraph sign. Whatever had led to that point ended in a full stop. Time for a fresh beginning.
The gambit worked. Within a year and a half of opening in a gutted/rehabbed building on Chicago’s North Side, Gourmet magazine was declaring Alinea to be the United States’ best restaurant. Alinea vaulted into the British magazine Restaurant’s annual The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2007, and enjoyed a four-year stint in the top 10 (2009-2012), Achatz received the James Beard Foundation Award as the nation’s Outstanding Chef in 2008 and the restaurant boasts three Michelin stars.
All of those accomplishments paled next to the chef’s greatest personal struggle and triumph. He survived a grim diagnosis of Stage IV cancer of the tongue in 2007, in part
thanks to a University of Chicago oncologist who, seeking a new train of thought, saved both Achatz’s life and tongue through an unconventional, wisdom-defying series of radiation treatments, chemotherapy, and surgery. Cancer-free for several years, Achatz says his health “has no bearing on what we’re doing now.”
The chef and his kitchen team excelled by taking his classical French training, adding a strong element of what’s variously called molecular gastronomy, or hyper-modern
cuisine, or avant-garde cooking (though Achatz likes none of these labels), and using these tools to trigger emotional responses from guests while engaging all their senses.
Achatz tempura-fried a combination of pheasant, roasted shallot, and gelled apple cider, attached it to one end of an oak branch and then torched and blew out the leaves on
the other end so the dish would arrive trailing smoke and triggering memories of burning leaf piles in the American Midwest autumn. (Science came into play as Achatz
gelatinized the cider with the Japanese seaweed derivative agar-agar so the deep-frying wouldn’t melt it.) Achatz placed an English-peas-and-ham preparation atop a
pillow leaking lavender-scented air. He hung butterscotchwrapped bacon adorned with apple threads from a wire so the guest would have to yank it off before eating it. He froze dabs of mango purée, sesame oil, soy sauce, and grated bonito on something called the Anti-Griddle, which maintains a surface temperature of -45C.
These dishes shared a ‘wow’ factor and helped propel Alinea into the culinary stratosphere. And none of them - and nothing resembling them - are on the current tasting menu.
“If I can critique myself and look back at the food, it was gaudy in a way,” he says, calling the aromatic pillow an example of “forcing an idea. “Now we’re trying to look at more subtle ways or more - and I hate to use this word, but I don’t know what else to say - mature ways of telling the same story.” Daniel Humm, chef and co-owner of New York City’s Eleven Madison Park, a friendly rival of Alinea’s for best-restaurant-in-the-US status, says: “He never stops thinking about how something could be better. He keeps pushing long after other people stop pushing.”
The culinary world has changed since Alinea’s early days, when Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli reigned while championing new, often science-driven techniques. In recent years the gravitational force has shifted to Noma in Copenhagen and chef René Redzepi’s emphasis on natural ingredients and presentations. Achatz has too singular a vision to be chasing another restaurant, but he says it makes sense for Alinea to become more ingredient focused and to move beyond the ways it had been manipulating so many elements and presenting them on white porcelain plates or Martin Kastner’s funky, custom-made, stainless-steel service pieces with names such as the Squid and the Antenna.
Now, Alinea is presenting food on black plates, earthenware and even a tree stump that’s washed and freshly charred after each serving. And although the restaurant has not abandoned its love of complexity - a current duck course comes prepared five ways with 60 garnishes - it’s also not afraid to do something simple, such as a refreshing, intensely floral new dish that presents lily bulbs and rambutan (a tropical tree fruit not unlike a lychee) in a finger lime distillation, all presented in a Japanese
glass bowl to give the impression of flowers in water. “It’s like: ‘here’s something really cool that people are unfamiliar with; how can we present it to highlight its uniqueness?’” Achatz says of the lily bulb, an ingredient discovered while the chef and his team researched the modern Chinese menu to be served May through to August at Alinea’s sister restaurant in Chicago, Next, which opened in 2011 and completely changes formats every four months.
At the same time, Alinea hasn’t lost its knack for theatricality and surprise. During the meal, pieces of Japanese Binchotan charcoal are set ablaze atop the mahogany table (with a buffer to protect the wood). You expect something to be cooked over this flame, but after a couple more courses, the server separates the burning-wood pieces to
reveal pieces of charred parsnip (which look just like the charcoal) and Wagyu beef wrapped in kombu (Japanese seaweed), at which point the lusciously fatty beef is sliced and served with the parsnip. That dish, Alinea executive chef Mike Bagale says, serves a similar purpose to the earlier pheasant dish except this one evokes traveling in Japan “and smelling the Binchotan burning in the streets.”
Another current dish is a helium-filled balloon made from green-apple leather, including the string, so when you bite into it, you suddenly sound like Alvin or one of his fellow Chipmunks. When my dining partner subsequently began singing the “Lollipop Guild” song from The Wizard of Oz, a young woman at another table mouthed, “Oh, my God.” The meal ends with what has become an Alinea trademark: The chef himself comes to the table to create a milk chocolate tart, with many artistic flourishes, atop a silicone mat.
“He’s able to really be super, super creative, but at the same time the food is also super, super delicious, which is a really hard thing to do,” Humm says. Kokonas says he has also noticed in Achatz an increased collaborative nature, adventurousness and maturity, resulting in dishes that may encompass many ideas but don’t call attention to themselves. “To me it all becomes more sophisticated and subtle than when [Alinea] first opened,” Kokonas says. “But you shouldn’t have to know any of that to enjoy it.”
What Achatz knows is that sitting still won’t get him where he wants to go. “When I wake up and get in the shower, I go: ‘What do we need to do to make sure that 10 years from now Alinea is still relevant? How do we continue to evolve and continue to change and stay ahead of the trend? How do we create the trend?"
With that, the chef returns to his kitchen, seeking answers.
Photography by Christian Steel