Grant Achatz, 32, is the executive chef and co-owner of Alinea, in Chicago. A Michigan native, Achatz represents the third generation of restaurateurs in his family. He enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America immediately following high school and, after graduating, moved west to work in the kitchen of Thomas Keller's esteemed French Laundry and, later, as an assistant winemaker. At the age of 27, he was named executive chef at Trio restaurant, in Evanston, Ill., and his avant-garde culinary creations won him local and national acclaim, including a rare four-star review from the Chicago Tribune. In May 2005, Achatz and a talented team of collaborators opened Alinea, the success of which has cemented the young chef's place as a leader in the "new gastronomy" movement in the United States, an experimental style of cooking whose genesis is commonly attributed to Ferran Adrià of northern Spain's El Bulli restaurant.
From a telephone in his high-tech kitchen, Achatz (rhymes with "packets") recently spoke to Wine Spectator Online about old Champagne, difficult foods and the importance of thoughtful pairings.
Wine Spectator: How did you become interested in wine?
Grant Achatz: Well, it started when I first took the job at the French Laundry, in 1996. I was naive. … I thought that I would find time to work at a winery. … Obviously that wasn't the case. [Laughing] At the French Laundry, you're working 16 hours a day. After about two years working there, my interest [in wine] piqued to the point that I decided to leave cooking for a period of time, to try making wine. For a year, I was the assistant winemaker at La Jota Vineyard Company.This was in 1999. It was a fabulous experience, and really opened my eyes to not only making wine … but really just developing the palate.
WS: What were your responsibilities?
GA: Well, the beautiful thing was, it was such a small winery, and there were only five of us working there. We would plant, prune, harvest, crush, pump, rack—the whole deal.
WS: What was your next step?
GA: I went back to the French Laundry for another two years, and during that period, I kept up a strong interest in wine. … The French Laundry is based on tasting menus—similar to what we do at Alinea—of substantial length. At French Landry, at that time, everybody wanted bottles or half-bottles with their meal. That frustrated me. When you have a menu that's anywhere from seven to 20 courses long, one bottle of wine simply just doesn't work with every course … How can you make the experience that much better, that much more focused? Well, you can sit down with every bite of food, and taste it with a group of sommeliers, discuss it, and decide the best possible pairing for that particular dish. And you do it 20 times if it's 20 courses. But not too many people are willing to subject themselves to the time and financial commitments to do that.
When I took the position at Trio, I was again working in a tasting menu format. That's when I first met our current wine director and general manager here, Joe Catterson. He loves the great classic wines, but he's more interested in the synergy between wine and food. At Trio is where we really started to understand and commit to a wine-pairing program. It really plays to the nature of my cooking—foods that, in the scope of an experience, are intended to jar, and in some cases are sweet and savory at the same time. There are notes of acid and fruits in the savory foods, and savory items in the desserts. So it's impossible to select a bottle or a half-bottle and walk your way through an entire tasting menu. … If the wine and food don't pair well together, the food's not going to taste as good, and the wine's going to taste terrible. So we've dedicated ourselves to it at Alinea. It makes the experience that much more enjoyable for the guest.
WS: With a tasting menu, you're pouring 11 to 14 wines per person. How do you prevent your guests from becoming completely inebriated before the end of the meal?
GA: Well, some of those courses are literally one forkful of food, so we'll pour just one little gulp of wine. It's not like we're giving 14 4-ounce pours—people wouldn't be able to walk out the door! [Laughing] Also, the experience generally lasts between three and six hours, so it's not like having 14 glasses of wine over the period of an hour or 90 minutes.
WS: A meal at Alinea could last up to six hours?
GA: Oh yeah, if you order the 24-course menu with wine pairings, and it's a large table that has a lot of conversation, sure.
WS: Do you also offer bottles and half-bottles?
GA: Our wine list has over 650 selections, so you can certainly purchase that trophy wine if you want it. A lot of times, people will select something from the list and we'll incorporate it into their pairing program. We'll either modify the food slightly, or we'll encourage you to have that bottle off to the side, and you can treat it almost like a course of food.
WS: Are there categories of wines that work particularly well with your food?
GA: The pairing program right now is dominated primarily by Italy, but it runs the gamut. What Joe really likes to do is look for that obscure varietal or producer or country to show people something that they've never had, or that they can't go to their local wine shop and pick off the shelf. It's in constant flux, because the menu changes on a monthly or bimonthly basis. … We might bounce between white and red within a progression, and you might have red meat with white Burgundy. We let the food dictate where we're going to go.
WS: What's an example of a pairing that was sort of unusual or surprising to you? For instance, white Burgundy with red meat—did you actually do that?
GA: Yes, it was a venison dish, which you would think wouldn't work, but when you really break flavors down and look at them for what they are—venison, being game, has a high mineral content, and the garnishes with the dish were light and herbaceous and kind of honeyed, and the meat was poached—it just made sense.
WS: From your work at La Jota, were you able to take away ideas from winemaking and apply them to your work as a chef?
GA: One of the most important things I came to realize is something that I actually heard [former La Jota owner] Bill Smith say. We were in his personal cellar. He had a vast collection of Dunn Cabernet from Howell Mountain. I was looking at the 1984, and he said, "Why don't you take it home for dinner?" I tried to refuse and he said, "Why not? It's just grape juice!" It's something that really becomes apparent when you're the one pulling the grapes off the vine and crushing them and pumping the juice into barrels.
WS: I understand that you use a wine press in your kitchen?
GA: Yeah, it's a good way to extract the maximum amount of liquid out of any given food. People think it's just for crushing fruit, but we've used it for shrimp and lobster—literally just squeezing the essence out of it.
WS: There are certain foods—artichokes, asparagus, cauliflower—with a reputation for being difficult to pair with wines. Do you personally find these foods difficult, and how do you approach pairing wines with them?
GA: I don't think they're inherently difficult. If you asked a hundred cooks how to cook an artichoke, they'd all basically tell you to drown it in lemon juice. If you were to taste an artichoke for what it is, then it's not difficult to pair with a wine at all. … There is no impossible pairing, and I don't think there are wine-unfriendly foods.
WS: What are your favorite wines to drink?
GA: It depends on the occasion, but certainly Champagne, in particular old Champagne, is one of my all-time favorites. The other night a table [at Alinea] offered me a glass of 1969 Krug. It was oxidized in a good way, really caramelly, and it still had nice effervescence … I also like non-vintage Champagne, I like rosé Champagne, and the classic vintages, like '90.
WS: You've become very well-known for cutting-edge presentations and techniques. What are you currently working on at Alinea?
GA:We've got some techniques that we're excited about, like what we call a "sauce sheet." We produce the sauce to its normal viscosity, then spread it out very thinly on a piece of plastic, and freeze it, so the sauce becomes rigid. Later, we place it atop the food until it warms up and it kind of envelops the entire composition that's lying underneath it. Tool-wise, we're always looking for tools outside what's commonly found in restaurants. We have a company here, close to Chicago, called Polyscience, that's produced some unusual freezing tools. We can freeze things to -40° Celsius. And we use vaporizers to produce aromas that we capture in pillows and dispense them at the table, to enhance the dish. It's a lot of fun.