Beyond the best

Grant Achatz has had an eventful career by anyone’s standards. He talks to Tina Nielsen about the highs and lows

Grant Achatz’s career seems to be made for the movies. The young and talented chef, named the best in the US, was diagnosed with tongue cancer and given little chance of survival, but was saved by radical treatment. Along the way, he lost the ability to taste and was forced to rely on other chefs to judge the food he cooks.

You couldn’t make it up.

Achatz’s cancer diagnosis came two years after he and business partner Nick Kokonas had opened Alinea, his first restaurant, in 2005 and everything was going great. “It was like I was on this rocketship, this trajectory and then the brakes were put on really hard,” he says. “We were doing all these cool things with food and getting loads of attention and then you just get cut off at the knees.”

It was a cruel turn of events for the chef and represented a complete role reversal. “Traditionally what the chef says is the gold standard but I was in a situation where I couldn’t do the most basic thing of what a chef normally does, which is evaluate the food,” he explains. “I would cook something but then have to put it in front of my sous chef and ask ‘is this good?’.”

Looking back, eight years after being given the all clear, he is philosophical – he now believes that the cancer was good for him. “It interrupted me for a year and a half and the interruption was good because it didn’t allow me to fizzle out; it slowed everything down,” says Achatz. “It put everything in perspective and it changed my way of viewing my interaction with staff and the diner’s experience.”

He names the cancer as one of the determining factors in a career path that has seen him pass through the kitchens of The French Laundry in Napa Valley and Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago. He also had a brief stint at elBulli in Catalonia, Spain, a seemingly compulsory entry on every successful young chef’s CV. Today he has three successful restaurants to his name: in addition to Alinea, there’s rotating concept restaurant Next and cocktail kitchen Aviary. Next up will be the more casual Roister – all co-owned with partner Kokonas and employing 300 people.

Having grown up in a restaurant – his parents owned a diner in Michigan where a young Achatz launched his culinary career cracking eggs when he was five years old – there was only ever one aim in his mind: to become a chef. A great chef.

Was the ambition to reach the stage he is at now – one of the best in the world, aged 41? “That was definitely the hope and the expectation I put on myself, but you can never know,” he says. “You certainly cannot proclaim that you are going to be the next Thomas Keller or Heston Blumenthal, but you can hope and you can chase that goal down.”

Thomas Keller looms large in his career as a role model and a father figure – according to Achatz he has been the most direct influence on his career. “At The French Laundry he taught me all the techniques and how to manage, but Thomas was also the first person to show me that cooking can be emotional; that it can be funny, intimidating and exciting,” he says. “Up to that point I’d thought ‘OK, you are going to cook to perfection’, but I didn’t understand the fact that you could entertain people with food.”

He was at The French Laundry from 1996 to 2001, a crucial time for the restaurant. “I watched Thomas push and push and get all these accolades and being the most creative he’d ever been in his whole career,” he says. “It was not until I found The French Laundry that I really thought it was possible to work at the highest level and be happy.”

If any more evidence was needed of the influence Keller had, consider the 2016 programme for Next – the autumn menu is called ‘October 28th, 1996’ and will celebrate the 20 years since Achatz’s first day at The French Laundry by recreating the menu.

Five years after joining Keller’s kitchen, Achatz surprised many when he decided to leave the best restaurant in the world to make wine. “Until that point, cooking had always been the focus in my life – I grew up in a family restaurant, went to culinary school straight out of high school, then I went to Charlie Trotter’s and then The French Laundry. There was never a conscious choice to be a chef,” he says.

It was not an easy decision to make and he admits he was “super scared” to leave his comfort zone. “I had put Thomas Keller on such a pedestal and he was my mentor; it was frightening to think that he might not approve,” he says.

Though he enjoyed his stint as an assistant winemaker at La Jota winery, stepping away from the restaurant made him realise that cooking was his true love and he returned to The French Laundry after a year. “When I came back into the fold I was on fire,” he says.

It wasn’t the first time Achatz walked away, surprising those around him. Aged 21 he’d joined Charlie Trotter’s restaurant in Chicago with great expectations, but ended up leaving after just four months. “Charlie Trotter was the pinnacle, the tip of the triangle of American gastronomy and as a young kid my whole focus had been to work for the best and then become the best, but when I got there I just didn’t feel the connection,” he says. In his book Life, on the Line he describes the experience as challenging and ultimately unrewarding. It still appears a brave decision for somebody so hungry for success to leave what could be the making of a young chef.

“When I walked away I thought I was a huge failure. I had wanted to work in one of the best restaurants in the world and I didn’t like it,” he explains. “I started questioning my goals – if this was the best, I didn’t want it. That was a terrible feeling.”

The natural step after embracing the creativity of The French Laundry and learning so much was for Achatz to set up on his own and he began the search for a venue to create his own food.

The place to do this would be a small restaurant on the outskirts of Chicago called Trio and it would turn out to be another pivotal turn on his path. “It was a huge step for me because I wasn’t cooking for another chef; I was no longer a soldier for Thomas Keller and I could do whatever I wanted,” he says. “It was an informative and opportunistic time for his development. “I was 27 years old and I did a lot of silly things with food, for shock value,” he says. “But I got to understand that the bells and whistles weren’t all that. It was fun and it was great but it wasn’t about the guest experience.”

Trio became even more significant in Achatz’s career when a semi-retired trader called Nick Kokonas became a regular guest in the restaurant and fell in love with the food. He approached Achatz with a business proposition to open a restaurant together. It paved the way for their first restaurant, to be called Alinea.

Alinea opened in Lincoln Park, Chicago in 2005. The following year Gourmet magazine pronounced it the best in America and countless accolades have followed. The three Michelin stars came in 2011, Elite Traveler has voted it the best in the world for four years running and it has featured on the World’s 50 best restaurants list since 2007. Achatz himself was rewarded with the James Beard Foundation’s top award of Outstanding Chef in America in 2008.

The ever-changing creative, playful and precision-based dishes have wowed critics and customers alike. “The whole concept was always constant evolution and not having signature dishes – constantly pushing forward – and I think we have done that very well,” says Achatz. He doesn’t like the term molecular cooking that is often used to describe his food, preferring instead to call it progressive American. “We are using globally influenced ingredients and techniques that are looked at through a very progressive looking glass,” he explains.

Ten years down the line and after serving 200,000 people, Achatz and Kokonas have closed the restaurant for two months for renovation while staging Alinea pop-ups in Madrid and Miami. They have big plans for the new space. “We are looking at closing off each room, which gives us an opportunity to curate the environment and play with sound, smell and light,” he explains.

With three successful Chicago establishments, and another – Roister – in the pipeline, Achatz finds himself in an enviable situation in a city that is at the centre of an interesting culinary movement. It’s partly financial. “I have a lot of friends in San Francisco and New York and it is ungodly expensive to open restaurants there. We pay one quarter of the rent that very well known chefs in New York City pay for their restaurants. That is 75% less, so you can serve the same food, you have an audience that is willing to accept and embrace creativity and it is affordable. That is why we are having this influx on young chefs who want to set up in Chicago,” he says. “The other thing is that, whether you are talking about restaurants, architecture or music, Chicago has a history of embracing creativity and risk-taking.”

Whatever Achatz does next, it’s likely to include both of those. No wonder he calls Chicago home.

Tina Nielsen

Photo: Eric Wolfinger


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