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Chef Grant Achatz: An Alinea Overnight Update


ronnie_suburban
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Chef,

First of all, congratulations on the early success at Alinea.

My question is, on the off chance you are not at the restaurant, what do you like to cook for yourself and/or others on your own time?  I'm sure your home kitchen cabinets aren't full of anti-plates and antennae.

Also, what are some of the other restaurants in the Chicago-area that you think are putting out great food right now?

Thanks for your time.

Generally I don’t cook a lot at home. One …because I am rarely home…but mostly because my fiance is a great cook and typically makes some great pot pies, awesome pork with this dried fruit sauce and quinoa and if I am very lucky carnitas.

When I do cook though it is usually either pasta or some type of curry.

There are so many great restaurants in the city right now…had a good meal at Green Zebra a while back…a good meal at Avec…a long while back…and a very tasty meal at Avenues. I am looking forward to checking out Schwa, and I need to go back to Moto…my only visit there was two weeks after they opened…I don’t get out much

Edited by chefg (log)

--

Grant Achatz

Chef/Owner

Alinea

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How frequently do you rotate in-and-out dishes that don't prove to be successful?

Thanks,

Don Moore

Nashville, TN

don brings up a good point - how do you get a "read" on your diners' experiences? do you find that most (or enough) clients are open and responsive enough during the meals for your staff to pick up on winners/losers among the courses?

u.e.

See my post upthread.

--

Grant Achatz

Chef/Owner

Alinea

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When do you decide a dish is done? Looking back at some of the dishes that has been served, not every one of them is the same. Perhaps a few minor changes/tweaks in the preparation, ingredient selection, presentation, portion serving, etc. What defines making these subtle changes? On a couple occasions you came out of the kitchen to observe the diners reactions. Is it from this that you alter the dish to conform to the diners likes/dislikes. When do you pull off the dish from the menu? Some items last a week or two, and others last a couple/few months.

YT:

Generally the dishes continually evolve until they are taken off the menu. One of the best examples of that would be the Rib eye A-1. When it was first conceived it looked far different than when it was taken off the menu. The original version didn’t even have the sheet of potato. That dish in particular went through several more minor tweaks during it’s lifetime including the addition of the garlic blooms, chive flowers, the size of the actual sheet was changed for aesthetic appeal, the addition of tamarind, and some saucing changes.

I always feel the dishes improve as we change them, obviously the reason for doing so in the first place. Sometimes new ingredients become available, as was the case for the blooms of chive and garlic, or after plating the dishes for a period of time you start to see them differently. Obviously if a diner happens to experience a dish on the first night…or close to it (like you with the first Opah/Honeycomb dish) the changes over time are very apparent. Most of the dishes follow the same arch…changing drastically the first week or so as we discover what we like and dislike about it or what is working or not working. At some point we are content and the dish won’t change much.

The longevity of a dish depends on a few things: seasonality, if we have a dish waiting in the wings that we are excited to get on the menu…something might get bumped, or if we are bored with a dish it will get whacked.

When I come into the dining room it is more to see aspects of service and how the dish reacts at the table. For instance…the first couple of times we served the pillow of lavender air I would sneak out to see how precarious the plate was atop the pillow, or another example is the first couple wax bowls that were sent …I wanted to see how the diner interacted with the pin and how comfortable they looked eating directly from the bowl. The first couple of antennas that were served at Trio made for good people watching.

Any plans on opening a restaurant in Las Vegas?

No, San Francisco, Shanghai, Chicago

If the idea of creating a dining experience is to be ever evolving and constantly in motion - always a new train of thought - then would the interior also take upon the same relationship. Perhaps the LED lights with their infinite color selection is one solution.

That was the reason for the LED lights…and we have changed the colors about 5 times over the course the 9 months. On New Years for instance we pulled back the curtains…which I thought changed the dynamic of the space a great deal. Obviously the service pieces and centerpieces will continue to change, which due to their sculptural nature I consider them part of the interior look. The accent pillows change seasonally, both color and texture…and the floral changes weekly, which also make the rooms feel much different. Also some of the art has rotated and will continue to do so. Looking forward we have talked about changing wall colors, carpet, adding linen to the tables, adding different sculptural elements to the wedge and staircase area, and even knocking out the wall that separates the back two dining rooms

Any plans on publishing a book?

We are currently documenting all of the dishes as they are developed and at key stages throughout their evolution. This material will someday be used to create a book.

How much has technological advances in the cooking industry (or any industry) influenced your creativity? This question ranges from food preparation, presentation, diner experience, etc.

Certainly the technological advances in both the cooking and other industries can aid in the creative process, but for us it actually plays a small part.

How about television? Iron Chef America?

TV...sure. IC...no.

--

Grant Achatz

Chef/Owner

Alinea

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Greetings Grant,

I still have fond memories of my virtual NY style hot dog.  Ever thought about a cheesesteak?  Or scrapple?  A taste of home for a visiting Philly lad.

I've always appreciated your whimsical side.  Brings a smile or two to the meal amidst the wows.

No, no cheesesteak or scrapple inspiration.

--

Grant Achatz

Chef/Owner

Alinea

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Another question, Grant, if you will.

Where do you find the time to continue to be so creative and still manage to do such a great job nightly at Alinea? What do you do to recharge your batteries?

Generally I devote time after the staff has left, typically between 2 and 3:30 am. During this time I research, sketch, and jot down ideas. Alex and I are always here at least one of the two days we are closed, and that is when we actually try the ideas that were conceived on paper. Being that both Alex and I are very involved during the prep each day it is nearly impossible to experiment with new concepts Wednesday thru Sunday.

To recharge…not much. I spend my free time with my fiance and kids.

--

Grant Achatz

Chef/Owner

Alinea

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Any plans on opening a restaurant in Las Vegas?

No, San Francisco, Shanghai, Chicago

if you hurry up, i'll meet you in shanghai later this year! :raz:

if you were to open in shanghai, do you anticipate that you'll have to change your approach/technique/ingredients to tailor to the preferences of eastern palates? or, do you expect that your food, as it is now, is "international" enough to be a success abroad? on the flip side of that question, perhaps it could also be a question of whether you feel foreign palates are receptive to outside cuisines/approaches?

u.e.

“Watermelon - it’s a good fruit. You eat, you drink, you wash your face.”

Italian tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921)

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ChefG,

If a cook wants to learn in depth of different aspects of dining and decides to step out of a kitchen to work in other areas such as wine, coffees, farming...etc. How much does it affect a cook's ability when returning to a kitchen and continuing their career? Would it just be overall better to do those things durring free time while maintaining a kitchen job or fully get into whatever they want to learn?

Thank You

"cuisine is the greatest form of art to touch a human's instinct" - chairman kaga

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Now that you have a restaurant, is this the main focus. What I mean to ask is, will there be other events outside of Alinea? Prior to having a physical space you showcased some of your concepts at the MCA Chicago, late 2004. It was enjoyable to get a preview/taste of the food and fun to interact with the never before seen serviceware (antenna). Perhaps it might be interesting to showcase a few more never before seen concepts to the masses at other such events.

I agree…it was fun to show a few things before we opened. Actually we really enjoyed the challenges opportunities that a venue like that creates. Like I said up thread it would be really cool to do some type of edible art installation, and I would welcome an opportunity to work with Martin to create another serving piece that is designed to feed several people at once. But the problem with these events are they pull us away from the restaurant.

Back in The Alinea Project, there was a discussion (or lack there of) on the architecture of Alinea. Would you care to talk about the overall concept? How about sharing some insight towards some of the design details. And what made you decide upon certain material selections?

Obviously once the building was secured we went through a series of design meetings with the interior designer and architect. Certain aspects of the design were important to us during the development of the space. We knew we wanted to try to create elements of the design that would mimic the philosophy of the cuisine. We identified certain areas that were more suitable to “be creative” and others that we felt best to fall on the more conservative side to ensure guest comfort.

The entry was an area that we all felt we could push a little. We went through several iterations of the entry…all of them involved aspects of building anticipation creating a journey leading to the table, evoking a sense of intrigue by hiding the actual entry door, and in some cases producing disorientation from various perspectives. In the end with the decision to place the stairway mid-building the long wedge entryway was chosen. People seem to enjoy it…and from the comments I have received it does exactly as we intended.

Furthering the journey leading to the table I wanted to have a staircase that walked people on several different levels while giving them a 360-degree view of the space. By using glass and drapes to create penetrating views the stairs become a journey for the traveler and provide a constant sense of movement for the seated.

For the tables we wanted to buck conventional standards and go for a linen-less dark wood surface that would help define the clean modern lines of the space while framing the white and stainless service pieces. I really enjoy seeing and feeling the grain of the wood. I think it also adds a warm organic note to the space.

The chairs were designed for comfort. We sat in the chairs several times before it was sent to production…the dimensions and back pitches being tweaked slightly to provide comfort for the long meals.

And while we are at it, wines.

The wine program relies heavily on our tasting program but we decided in the end to invest in a cellar that had great depth in rare and special bottles as well. As it turned out we have a list of over 600 selections. Over 65% of guests choose the tasting program. Joe Catterson sources unusual producers and varietals to match with the cuisine. We feel strongly that the pairings add a great deal to the overall experience.

Trio was in the past, as was the Black Truffle Explosion. Alinea is "the beginning of a new train of thought." How strongly will you abide by this philosophy. The question is, would we see the return of some of your more successful dishes at (but not limited to) Alinea in the near future? Would there be a reappearance of the bacon?

We have brought back the black truffle explosion for special occasions and rumor has it that a table received a mozzarella balloon course…I will not confirm nor deny this…but it only lasts a night or two. I have been very tempted to bring certain dishes back for an encore but we just can’t. We said we were starting over at Alinea and we have. Maybe that is a valid concept for a second restaurant…as the dishes run their course at Alinea they find a home at restaurant X?

How about that dried crème brulee. Is it really lost. Never to be found again.

Never.

--

Grant Achatz

Chef/Owner

Alinea

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Grant,

First of all, congratulations on all your success. As somebody who grew up eating burgers, French Dips, and the like in Achatz Restaurant, I know how far you've come (a long way from Jungletown, to be sure). (Aside to those who don't know Grant's past: his family was/is in the greasy spoon business in Michigan, so Grant started out in a very different part of the industry.)

I stumbled into eGullet and have followed the development of Alinea with much interest. Along the way, I've often wondered: is there ANYTHING from the Achatz Restaurant days that you've carried with you to Alinea? If so, what?

Again, congratulations, and I hope to get to Alinea in the future to experience your ®evolution first-hand.

-Don

dlight

Seattle, WA

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You certainly have your critics (many who've never dined at Alinea).  But now, in light of Alinea's early success and a plethora of positive reviews, do you feel vindicated?  Do your critics have an impact on what you do?  Do they motivate you?

I never felt like I needed to vindicate myself. We all believe in what we do…even when people criticize it. The critics definitely have an impact on what we do….but in our case in a positive way. I never have and never will pull a dish based on someone else’s opinion, diner or critic. If that were the case Yellow Truffle would not have enjoyed the bacon the last time he did, after a well-known food critic proclaimed his displeasure of it. We have to cook for ourselves to a certain degree. Like I said, when a dish goes on the menu we know how it tastes. Believe me at that point we have tasted it 50 times, we know which dishes are going to have wider acceptance when they are conceived…every dish can’t or shouldn’t be a black truffle explosion. When we craft a meal we look big picture and bite by bite. When someone…anyone, makes a negative comment about a dish it gives me insight to the reason. If the comment is something that I agree with, like the tingling qualities of the tarragon wafer…I think to myself…good the dish was prepared as we intended it and the displeasure of that particular dish was based on person taste…but if the comment points to a technical problem…like limp bacon…than I make sure the dish is being executed in the manner it was conceived.

As far as being motivated by the media…in an obscure way yes….but really it is our own motivation and their scale. We all have goals; in some cases these goals are achieving a status given out by certain media types or organizations. So when the restaurant opened I told the staff we will not stop until we get four stars from the Tribune and Chicago Magazine. That simply means we wanted Alinea to be in the best class possible. In the same way that when Michelin comes to Chicago we will be pursuing a three star level. But really it means little, because in fact we pursue that level daily…whether a critic is in the house or not.

What has been the biggest surprise for you at Alinea?

See up-thread

What's been your favorite Alinea dish thus far?

Tough call…like picking the favorite of your children. My favorites thus far include:

Pear-Celery-Curry

Beef A-1

Pheasant with burning leaves

From Alex:

Dry Caramel

Matsutake Cake

I too would love to know which other chefs in town you admire and what you typically cook in non-professional venues.

See up-thread

--

Grant Achatz

Chef/Owner

Alinea

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Chef,

How closely have you stuck to your "plan" from the time you graduated to where you are now?  Did you even have a plan?  Was it simply a matter of working for the best and seeing where that road would lead, or is it important to have specific goals/plan/timeline, etc? 

Thanks.

Brett:

When I entered school I knew I would someday own a restaurant, at that time I told myself I would do it before my 30th birthday. I didn’t quite make it, missing by about 9 days. I also knew that I wanted to cook at the highest level. Upon leaving school I realized that in order to combine those two I still needed to learn a great deal. So as you know I worked for the best. I think it is beneficial to have a plan and some written goals. Accomplishing them is almost not the point….but it forces you to think about it, and makes you realize what you need to do next more clear.

--

Grant Achatz

Chef/Owner

Alinea

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If you could buy any piece of equipment what would it be???

A large mortle and pestle arrived this morning via fed ex.

To what purpose(s)?

Chef, thank you for what has so far been a very illuminating session. How do you envision those restaurants in S.F., Shanghai and Chicago? It struck me in your responses that at least one of them would be a sort of repository for your dishes. Is that, in fact your vision or is it something else? Do you see Alinea as always being the flagship of any future restaurants like Jean-George is J-G-V's?

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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Greetings Grant,

I still have fond memories of my virtual NY style hot dog.  Ever thought about a cheesesteak?  Or scrapple?  A taste of home for a visiting Philly lad.

I've always appreciated your whimsical side.  Brings a smile or two to the meal amidst the wows.

No, no cheesesteak or scrapple inspiration.

Yet.

Holly Moore

"I eat, therefore I am."

HollyEats.Com

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1) Any suggestions on how to better train my palate and learn the language of palate?  I _know_ homemade stock is better than canned broth (an extreme example), but have trouble finding the words to describe the difference to others.  I've tried the most common response, "just eat a lot," for many years now and that's not quite working.  How do you know what's balanced between acid, meatiness, salt, etc?

When I entered school I knew I would someday own a restaurant, at that time I told myself I would do it before my 30th birthday. I didn’t quite make it, missing by about 9 days. I also knew that I wanted to cook at the highest level. Upon leaving school I realized that in order to combine those two I still needed to learn a great deal. So as you know I worked for the best. I think it is beneficial to have a plan and some written goals. Accomplishing them is almost not the point….but it forces you to think about it, and makes what you need to do next more clear.

2) How worried are you about running out of new methods?  After sous vide, dehydration, deep freeze, transglutaminase & friends, etc., how difficult is it to find new options?

We are not worried about running out of ideas based on techniques or additives. There are plenty of avenues of creativity to pursue.

3)Has Alinea had any disasters yet (that are now fun to tell)?

Not really.

--

Grant Achatz

Chef/Owner

Alinea

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Chef Achatz, the use of liquid nitrogen in a kitchen, enzymes to make protein noodles, as well as sous vide, are things that I, as a chemist, am really interested in. 

What is the next technique we're going to hear about?

If you are the chemist you should tell us!

--

Grant Achatz

Chef/Owner

Alinea

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ChefG

Is Alinea the be-all and end-all of your world, or do you see yourself creating a mini-empire, like yout Trio predecessor? If the latter, do you see it Chicago focused, or world-wide?

See up-thread.

--

Grant Achatz

Chef/Owner

Alinea

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A question on guests taking pics. When I asked at Trio the maitre d' said the restaurant preferred pics not be taken in the dining room but offered to take my camera back to the kitchen, a terrific compromise.

What is Alinea's policy on pics in the dining room. Do you have any concerns with either someone using pics to rip off your creativity or posting pics that represent your dishes poorly because of the photographer's skill? What are your thoughts on the arguement that food presentation represents the chef's art and should not be reproduced without permission?

In case you aren't aware of it, there has been a recent discussion on eGullet about a DC area chef who sent a lawyer letter to a food blogger ordering him not to post his pics.

Holly Moore

"I eat, therefore I am."

HollyEats.Com

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A question on guests taking pics.  When I asked at Trio the maitre d' said the restaurant preferred pics not be taken in the dining room but offered to take my camera back to the kitchen, a terrific compromise.

What is Alinea's policy on pics in the dining room.  Do you have any concerns with either someone using pics to rip off your creativity or posting pics that represent your dishes poorly because of the photographer's skill?  What are your thoughts on the arguement that food presentation represents the chef's art and should not be reproduced without permission?

In case you aren't aware of it, there has been a recent discussion on eGullet about a DC area chef who sent a lawyer letter to a food blogger ordering him not to post his pics.

I'll save Grant the time on this one.

Alinea's policy is that guests can use cameras so long as they are not interfering with the dining pleasure of other guests. Practically, that means that we forbid the use of flash. Some have complained that good pictures cannot be taken without flash, but there is ample evidence on this website and others to the contrary. Disable flash and snap away.

We would hope that the public can tell the difference between a poorly executed photo and a poorly executed dish -- so I don't think Chef is too worried about "bad pictures" as I have heard others complain.

And as for "ripping off" the creativity -- Alinea has operated almost from day one to be as "open source" as possible. We don't see the harm in letting others know what is going on here.... and in fact encourage review of the menus and dishes, as well as the interior design, etc. We have a few ideas to bring this idea to the next level -- and hopefully we begin to realize those this year.

We did see that thread about the threatened lawsuit. Personally, I think it is absurd -- but I don't know the whole story and whether or not the guest was "difficult" in the dining room. In other words, I think it is crazy to sue over the photos, but my guess is that there must be extenuating circumstances. You would be amazed at how irate some people can get when you ask to refrain from flash photography. Still, a lawsuit over food photos taken by a guest seems downright silly.

Edited by nick.kokonas (log)
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Chef Achatz,

Now that you have eliminated menu 2 and are just doing the 12 course and Tour are you planning on creating any new menu variations (spontaneous menu, prix fixe, etc.) or will you leave it with only the two current options?

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Chef Achatz,

Now that you have eliminated menu 2 and are just doing the 12 course and Tour are you planning on creating any new menu variations (spontaneous menu, prix fixe, etc.) or will you leave it with only the two current options?

For now it will be the two menu options. As Nick said less than 10% of guests were ordering the 6 course option…but that option was always there for them. Often times when guests would make reservations they would state they would be doing the 6 course menu as they felt 12 would be too much food. This happened frequently with larger parties. The reservationist would take note of that, and the kitchen would prepare accordingly. 8 times out of ten those people would end up ordering the 12 course menu. Hopefully this is a baby step towards only having one menu….which would be a personal goal of mine. The internal bet right now is by having only the 12 course and the tour at roughly 26 courses….will the number of tours ordered per night increase or decrease?

--

Grant Achatz

Chef/Owner

Alinea

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Chef G,

    I would like to get your views on the current status of "restaurant collaboration" in the US. As many restaurants in Europe (Spain predominantly comes to mind) are forthright about sharing their discoveries, I too see this happening more and more in the US (Use of various hydrocolloids, glueing enzymes, more and more attention put forth to sous vide cookery. etc.) amoungst many of the more "experiemental chefs" (I apologize for this term) Does this in your mind, have the ability to help or hurt the gastronomic community, insomuch as I obviously feel this community in themselves are constantly helping one another, pushing the boundaries of gastronomy, but can also see it causing a hinderance: i.e. the cart pulling the horse with many chefs using these techniques as a crutch as it were, rather than (what I feel you and your staff and certainly Wylie and staff do) having something simply taste delicious.... I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

Also, please say hello to Stupak for me

THanks

I can’t say that I see a restaurant collaboration happening anywhere. Specifically here in the US, while I think the group of chefs you are referring to (myself, Chef Cantu and Dufresne) consider ourselves respected peers….we don’t meet or chat regularly about new ideas, techniques or ingredients. Nor do I feel that relationship exists in Spain or any other country. Certainly if someone were to stage or work at Alinea they could ask anything and an honest answer would follow, we don’t hide anything here from anyone…..

Aside from a few “Culinary Conferences” overseas …which are nothing more than demos by a variety of chefs, there is no sharing or brainstorming to further this style of food that I know of. That is a romantic idea though.

Some say the opposite about these venues…using it is an opportunity to state claim to a new idea/technique. If Chef Adria demos a new technique at Madrid Fusion than it is stamped. Is it with the intent of sharing or laying claim?

What if there was a true collaboration amongst chefs? What if two or three great chefs got together and created a concept around their unique culinary voices? They partnered in a restaurant that somehow showcased the personalities of these chefs but at the same time managed to seamlessly merge the styles into a single experience? That would be exciting.

--

Grant Achatz

Chef/Owner

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Chef,

reading that you have aspirations of opening other restaurants in places such as Shanghai and San Francisco, how do you envision yourself being a part of these other restaurants? I know that you are known as being very hands on in the kitchen, taking part in almost everything from hazing the externs, to breaking down the kitchen, to cooking, to brainstorming. How do you envision yourself being a part of the other restaurants if you cannot be as involved in it as you are Alinea at this time? Would you be afraid that others could execute your visions as well as you could yourself?

Also, as recently reported, sadly, Trio is closing. Board moderator ronnie suburban suggested the idea of a 60 course dinner with the other chefs to celebrate the times. You think you'd be up for it?

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