The Maverick Grant Achatz and his trailblazing Alinea have helped Chicago challenge New York's standing as gastronomic capital of the USA
The entrance to Alinea is down a long narrow corridor, a dimlylit windowless portal that gets narrower as you progress down it; there's no host to greet you, no reception and no sign of a door into the restaurant. Suddenly, invisible doors whoosh open and you're in. It's an unsettling start, deliberately disorienting. Not that I went in that way, mind you. When I went to meet the Chicago restaurant's chef, Grant Achatz, one afternoon last month, I had to go round the back way, stepping past the standard issue stinky kitchen bins and a scruffy back stoop to get into the Alinea kitchen, a kitchen famous for its technical advances, laboratory conditions and state-of-the-art cuisine. And what do you know? The first thing that hits you is the smell of food cooking. I tell Achatz I'm shocked.
"Exactly!" he laughs. "It smells of food. I don't know why people think we're growing everything in test tubes and Petri dishes. It's just not the way it is. You get purists saying we're bastardizing the craft, but we source the same – no, better – ingredients than them."
You could be forgiven for expecting laboratory conditions and men in white coats given that Achatz (rhymes with jackets), along with his contemporary Homaru Cantu at Moto, have been lumped together as ‘molecular gastronomy' mavericks, Ferran Adrià acolytes, who have upset Chicago's ‘meat and potatoes'
mentality, and seen the Midwestern city steal New York's crown as the gastronomic capital of the USA. Achatz "for today, at least"
characterises his oeuvre as Progressive American, which sounds about right for a career trajectory that took him from helping out in his parents' Michigan restaurant to the prestigious Culinary Institute of America and on to being Chef de Cuisine at The French Laundry in California from 1996 to 2001. It was really only once he made the move back to the Midwest to be chef at Trio in "sleepy Evanston" that word of his talent spread. And now, two years after Alinea (rhymes with Lavinia) opened in May 2005, we're sitting down at a table in one of its three stylish dining rooms discussing the accolades that have been heaped upon the 33 year old wunderkind. Why? Already this year he's won No.1 position in Gourmet magazine's five yearly Best Restaurants in America (toppling Chez Panisse from its perch) and no less impressively (surely?) he entered the S.
Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants in Restaurant for the first time, scooping ‘Highest New Entry' at No.36.
Although his cuisine is popularly considered of the hi-tech school, it's evident that his years under Thomas Keller were formative. "I was there when the kitchen was really hitting its stride, and still Thomas was first in last out every day, seven days a week, sweeping and mopping the floor, or peeling fava beans – just grinding it out, has had a big influence," he recalls. "And it's thanks to Thomas that I've also seen the polar opposite, as he was the one who saw my need to keep pushing creatively, and arranged for me to do a stage at el Bulli.
"Now Ferran is something different. He's sitting there at his desk, with his pencils, his notepad, just coming up with ideas." It's the el Bulli connection that's aligned Achatz with the ‘molecular gastronomy' crowd, although Achatz is the first to admit his ‘stage' was a blink-andyou- miss-it four days. Four mind-blowing days.
"I've been in kitchens all my life," he says.
"But I walked into the el Bulli kitchen and I felt like I was on Mars. The sights, the sounds, the smells. I recognised nothing. But there was this guy Ferran doing whatever the hell he wanted, regardless of what's been done in the past or what will be done in the future. And he's able to take six months every year just to work on new ideas. I got back and told Thomas ‘That's what I want to do.'" Trio, where Achatz spent his first three post-Yountville years, wasn't quite it.
"People liked the food, they liked the service, but the building was horrible. Horrible. I was always very frustrated, as I wanted to make a homogenous being of the food, the service and the building."
Step forward Trio regular Nick Kokonas, a philosophy graduate turned derivatives trader with whom Achatz has shared his vision of a restaurant of the future: just the mix of brains, readies and commercial smarts to realise Achatz's dream. Achatz left Trio in August 2004, leaving himself six months to get the site, a Lincoln Park greystone not far from Charlie Trotter's, into suitably epoch-making shape.
"It was like one giant school project, only one I was really into," enthuses Achatz. "Doing the kind of cuisine I do, there are inherent risks and there was a lot of pre-opening hype – hype we fuelled. So knowing we would be under a microscope, I said we'd better try to put some time into this, try to figure it out and make it as good as we possibly could. Let's deconstruct the experience of dining, isolate all the components and ask what do they mean?" Thus ‘The Alinea Project' was born, a blow-by-blow account of the restaurant's genesis elaborated and explored on eGullet, the online foodie community. Everything from the logo to the menu was dissected by the website's salivating members, an audience with whom most restaurateurs, it's probably safe to say, have no truck. Achatz isn't one of them.
"I know people thought it was shameless selfpromotion, one giant commercial," he sighs.
"But it was rewarding in a lot of ways that people don't realise. Here you have a website populated by thousands of foodies, the people that are going to patronise the restaurant. Communicate with these people and you understand your client base."
If that sounds like a cynical attempt to finagle dinner money from gullible geeks, consider the fact that Achatz – and to a similar extent, Cantu at Moto – are new generation chefs: chefs born into the information age. Unlike chefs even 10 years their senior, these cerebral Generation Y chefs know exactly where the ‘on' switch on their computer is. Thus there's little about Achatz's career, cuisine and restaurant that hasn't already been blogged, photographed and posted on Flickr, or documented online (by Achatz or others). Achatz doesn't just tolerate it: he embraces it.
"To make this the best it can be, we took that collaborative think-tank environment and invited thousands of people to speak up. It wouldn't be nearly as good if I made every decision. Take the chairs – I hated these chairs [large, upholstered armchairs, an edgy take on the Egg chair]. But when I heard again and again the chairs at Trio were horrible, that I made people sit there for four hours eating 25 courses and their asses hurt and their asses hurt for days, it tells me we need to deconstruct the idea of a chair in a dining room. And you know, sometimes a chef, even Curtis [Duffy, Chef de Cuisine] will plate a dish a certain way and I look at it and think ‘Oh. I like the way I do it better'
but let ‘em do it, that's what makes the restaurant alive. There are 52 people working here, all contributing in a meaningful way, such that Alinea takes on its own personality that is way, way beyond me."
But take that famous ‘entry way', one I've read about a hundred times myself elsewhere and written about once to date: hasn't it lost some of its mystery already? "The reason I'm OK with this is because what matters is the guest's emotional fingerprint, their experience when they come here. That's why we're so open source with our website, our cookbook [due out in 2008] and with contributing to blogs. You still don't know what the ‘entry way' is like until you walk down it.' Of course Achatz being Achatz, the collaboration doesn't stop there. He's taken the idea of an holistic, collaborative restaurant project, a kind of Restaurant 2.0, and run with it, closely involving architect Steve Rugo, interior designer Tom Stringer and designer/sculptor Martin Kastner. It's his collaboration with Kastner that is perhaps most novel.
There's the showpiece staircase ‘a kinetic human art piece' (in glass and steel that afford penetrating views of all three dining rooms, and on which guests see constant movement of staff and other guests throughout service) and on a collection of 30 eating implements: including the ‘bow', the ‘squid', the ‘antenna', and most thrillingly, the ‘anti-plate'. Instead of the usual fine-dining Limoges then, you might get ‘Licorice Cake, Muscovado Sugar, Orange, Anise' on the antenna, a self-supporting skewer from which one eats hands-free, apple-bobbing style. "A deliberate attempt to make people's heart beat," says Achatz. "Maybe two a month refuse to eat off it, but that's OK too. Just take notice of the moment."
A table decoration of key limes encased in a moulded plastic tube is called to action in service of ‘Guava, Avocado, Brie, Key Lime Juice', cut open to squeeze to ‘finish' the dish. And another favourite is ‘Duck, Mango, Yogurt, Pillow of Lavender Air', served on a pillow of air that deflates – slowly and fragrantly – as you eat. Achatz evidently likes that one too: "The machine that produces that was discovered by an investor while he was in Amsterdam. I'm not going to tell you what he was doing or what that machine's for." Ah.
There's method in the madness, claims Achatz. "We feed ourselves three times a day with this monotonous motion, so mechanic you don't even know you're doing it. Who wants to be that bored? Why not create serviceware in parallel with the new culinary techniques? It makes sense functionally as there are dishes we serve that cannot be served on a plate."
Another collaborator worth knowing is Philip Preston of PolyScience, He's the guy Achatz shoots an email off to whenever he's got one of his crazy notions. Preston then does his best to try to make whatever boy's toys he's after. The AntiGriddle is a case in point, a ‘cooking' surface that reaches -50?C that came about following Achatz's dissatisfaction with liquid nitrogen.
As you can imagine, dining at Alinea's certainly not dull. The idea is to give every guest "their own little theatre happening right here at the table." The tables are huge, placed apart from others in the dining room, with 65 covers spread over the three dark grey, simple rooms.
The waiting staff are part of the drama, all ready to interact, as well they should be given that the 24 course extravaganza ($195) takes a good four and a half hours, with wine matches served at every course. That's a lot of interaction.
The waiters are a quirky high-brow bunch with a yen for facial hair – one with a handlebar moustache, another boasting a remarkably fulsome Bonnie Prince Billy style beard, not something you often see in a fine-dining context. The enthusiasm for the project radiates from everyone, buoyed up by its success to date.
The pressure's on to keep pushing the boundaries, and Achatz's certainly eager to fulfil his remit as bright young thing. Another restaurant will come, but not just yet. For the time being, he's carrying on with the day-to-day business of postmodern deconstruction.
Unlike Adria, he can't yet close for six months, so it's head down, back to the Macbook and his virtual network of supporters.
Alinea, 1723 North Halstead, Chicago, IL 60614 alinea-restaurant.com, 001 312 867 0110
ON THE MENU…
The entrance isn't the only discombobulating element of Alinea's design. The menu – which you receive after 12 or 24 courses – is, as Achatz puts it, ‘out there-ish'.
It details the seasonal menu (with around 35-40 dishes introduced each quarter), and is designed to graphically convey the experience, not just a list of ingredients. "A menu is a piece of information. That's really all it is,"
asserts Achatz. "Martin Kastner (the designer) talked about finding a way of laying out a menu so that the guest has some idea of how their experience might play out."
Achatz compares the concept with sheet music with the sweetsavoury scale communicated by circles of different sizes and opacity organised along an axis, to the right of which is sweet, to the left of which is savoury.
The extent to which the circle strays from the axis reflects how sweet or savoury that course might be, with the opacity denoting its intensity. The size of circle tells you whether it will be a ‘course' or a ‘one-biter'.
Clear as mud, right? "People can see how we zigzag between sweet and savoury, how we place transitional courses and so on, but frankly, I don't think people necessarily understand it, so we've pretty much eliminated the menu altogether now. We now ask how long they want to be here. If they're pressed for time, they do the 12 course. The rest are here for the game."