Apicius: Grant Achatz—Surprise, Humor & Intimidation

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By Sofia Perez

[Published by Apicius, November 2007]

[Note: I originally wrote this article in English, for publication in a Spanish magazine, and it was later translated by the editorial team and published in Spanish. What follows is my original text.]

Achatz shotglass - Photo by Lara Kastner

(Photo by Lara Kastner)

In Chicago’s upscale Lincoln Park, the restaurant Alinea shares a street with the famed Steppenwolf Theatre Company. It’s an apt geographic pairing because, like its neighbor, Alinea features a creative ensemble that works to challenge its visitors in surprising ways. From the moment you step into the restaurant’s trompe l’oeil entryway to the point in the meal when you’re instructed to eat a bite of licorice cake (delivered to you on the end of a wobbly, vaguely menacing skewer called “the antenna”) without using your hands, it’s clear that the Alinea dining experience is as much about performance and perception as it is about gastronomy.

The director of this oeuvre, chef Grant Achatz, 33, readily admits that he’s a bit of a provocateur. “We like to use exaggerated elements of surprise, humor, even intimidation,” he says. “During the time that you’re in the chair, we’re telling our story.”

Achatz’s own culinary story began with a more traditional opening act, as a pre-teen working in his parents’ Michigan restaurant. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America and doing stints at a few restaurants, including Charlie Trotter’s, Achatz found a home at chef Thomas Keller’s French Laundry in Napa, California, where he spent over four years, the last two as Keller’s sous chef. “Grant was one of the most focused young chefs at the restaurant,” says Keller. “His dedication was exemplary and an indication of the chef he would become.”

Though Achatz’s experience at the French Laundry was formative and left him with a deep appreciation for Keller and his methodology, the day-to-day reality of perfectly recreating the same lineup of dishes left the young chef wanting something more. “I could see that there was nothing new coming around the corner,” says Achatz. “Even as a kid, I was never content with being repetitive. I need to continually evolve.”

His evolutionary path led him to open a restaurant that’s wildly different from that of his mentor. Though the attention to detail and impeccable service (and even a few of the purveyors) remain the same, Achatz’s food—your choice of a 12-course tasting or the 24-course “tour”—unfolds like a challenge to the palate, intellect, and emotions. It’s food that screams “I dare you to try me” before it whispers “I want you to like me.” Sweet courses are interspersed throughout the menu instead of being relegated to the end of the meal. No music is played in the dining room and nothing is brought to your unadorned table unless it will eventually play a role in one of your dishes.

In the food’s plating—if “plating” is even the right word for dehydrated bacon suspended from a steel wire, or a metal pin speared with potato, black truffle, butter, and parmesan, and set atop a small paraffin bowl filled with cold potato soup—one sees the precision of a draftsman, so it’s no surprise to hear that Achatz’s alternate career path would have involved architecture had he not opted for a life in the kitchen. Instead of dreaming up skyscrapers and glass houses, he collaborates with designer Martin Kastner to invent just the right base for each new culinary construction.

Clearly, the chef’s experimental approach has served him well. In only two years (Alinea opened in May 2005), the restaurant has garnered an impressive number of accolades, including the top spot on Gourmet magazine’s 2006 list of the best U.S. restaurants and the 36th position in Restaurant Magazine’s 2007 ranking of the world’s 50 best eateries, the highest new entry in that U.K. publication’s annual selection.

Almost half of Alinea’s customers come from outside of Chicago, a fact that can be attributed partly to frequent and favorable press coverage, not just from food magazines but also from technology, art, and business publications. “We’re getting some people in here not just because we’re a restaurant but because we’re offering an experience that they want to have,” says Achatz. “Some of them come because they’ve read about it on a design or art blog.” The proof is, as they say, in the pudding—or, in his case, the self-encapsulated beet liquid floating in rhubarb juice.

Though his experimental brand of cuisine will probably never win over the hardcore steak-and-potatoes crowd, it’s undeniable that Achatz (along with a small but growing number of chefs around the country) has already had an impact that extends well beyond the number of customers he attracts. Alinea’s success is a signal that the American restaurant has entered a new phase in its development—one that tries to makes us think not only about what we eat but also about how we eat, and that tests nearly every tenet of the conventional dining experience.