Grant Achatz is a gentle man with a restless soul. In 1999, he was working for chef Thomas Keller at the French Laundry, in Napa Valley, widely considered one of the best restaurants in the country. But Achatz felt that something was missing.
"While I respected the idea of flawless repetition required in the pursuit of perfection," Achatz says, "I grew bored easily."
Returning to Napa from a short pilgrimage to northeast Spain's El Bulli, the blazing star of modernist cuisine helmed by Ferran Adrià, Achatz proposed a light, refreshing caviar appetizer to be served with Champagne on a summer menu. Keller had requested an alternative to his famous "oysters and pearls," oysters served in a classic warm sabayon sauce studded with tapioca.
Achatz suggested a cantaloupe mousse topped with a spoonful of black caviar. Prosciutto-wrapped melon, a favorite with Champagne, was his inspiration. The melon mousse would highlight the caviar's texture; a Champagne gel would form a moisture barrier between the mousse and the caviar, with a thin slice of melon at the bottom "to keep it all from melting on the plate."
Keller accepted the idea but warned Achatz that once the mousse was on the French Laundry menu, it would be seen as a Thomas Keller dish. "That's OK, Chef," Achatz replied. "Plenty more ideas where that came from."
The ideas flow in torrents at Achatz's signature restaurant, Alinea, named after the backward-P typographical mark used to indicate a new paragraph. Achatz sees the restaurant as a new thought. Since its opening in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood in May 2005, the restaurant has startled and delighted diners with its stark design and seemingly endless range of inventive dishes.
Alinea was born of food, wine and friendship. In 2001, Achatz left the French Laundry for Trio, a highly regarded restaurant in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Ill. Nick Kokonas, a financial derivatives trader, dined at Trio and shared the fine wines that he had brought from his home cellar with Achatz after closing.
Impressed as much by the young chef's engagement with wine as by the revelatory cuisine, Koko-nas agreed to build Achatz his own restaurant and in fact closed his finance business altogether in order to focus his full attention on Alinea.
And the Alinea Group continues to spawn hits. A second restaurant, Next, opened in 2011; three times a year, its concept is transformed, with a completely new menu and fresh decor. It and the adjacent Aviary, a modernist bar, occupy the up-and-coming Fulton Market neighbohood of Chicago. A block away, the more casual Roister is slated to open in late March. In all, Kokonas says, the restaurants have 212 employees, and revenues for 2015 approached $24 million.
Beyond the kitchen, Achatz has authored books including the coffee table-size cookbook Alinea (2008) and several e-books based on recipes and stories from the changing cuisines at Next. And he and Kokonas wrote a tandem autobiography, Life, on the Line (2011).
Recently, after running Alinea for 10 years and with its lease set to expire, Achatz and Kokonas reached a sort of crossroads. "We could have wrapped it up and focused on Next, the Aviary and Roister," Achatz says, "but Alinea is energizing." They renewed the lease for another 10 years and closed the restaurant in January, February and March to renovate it from the inside out.
Achatz can usually be found at the center of the activity. His long, sandy hair and bright eyes play against a certain gauntness to his 5-foot-9-inch frame. He looks younger than his 41 years; a scraggly mustache sprouts from his upper lip, and a soul patch wanders south to his chin. Speaking carefully and quietly, he exudes a Zen-like calm whether developing ideas for new dishes with his key chefs or discussing details of an upcoming project with Kokonas.
The chef has used each restaurant as a vehicle to express a different set of ideas, employ a different set of tools and, ultimately, create a wholly different culinary experience.
His kitchens have always stocked the full arsenal of liquid nitrogen, colloid powders and precision machines associated with what is known as molecular or modernist cuisine. Yet while the techniques may be untraditional, the food at all the restaurants is product-driven; Alinea works with more than 50 farms in the Midwest.
A menu last spring began with two spherified truffled eggs and a few morsels of soft-textured dried salsify camouflaged by a tangle of twigs and branches covering most of the table, a sly homage to the trendy foraged cuisine of Scandinavia. A floating taffy balloon arrived 22 courses later. Filled with green apple-scented helium, it had one table after another dissolving into high-pitched, helium-induced giggles. For the final course, Achatz emerged from the kitchen, spread a sheet of white plastic over the table and painted it with melted chocolate and fruit sauces, adorning it all with cut-up fruit.
Achatz can see why Alinea has often been compared to El Bulli, at least in the early days. Looking back after a decade, he is struck by how show-off-ish some of his cuisine was. "That's what was happening in gastronomy then," he says with a shrug, citing pacesetters such as the Fat Duck, in England, and El Bulli.
Though some critics saw the modernist movement as a pox on cuisine, Achatz takes a more philosophical stance: "It's important to take those risks," he asserts. "It can influence gastronomy for years."
Alinea has matured, Achatz says. "I think we have our own voice and identity here. Our creative philosophy is, ‘Do the impossible.' Whether it's a food concept, plating, service, everything, if you figure out a way to accomplish them, you're unique. Floating food, like the green apple balloon, is a really great example. I've wanted to do the taffy balloon for years, but technically we couldn't get it to work." So he kept going back to it, fine-tuning until the balloon stayed afloat consistently.
"The chocolate presentation is another great example," he remarks. "People have so much fun with these. And it's dessert, so everyone looks happy."
At Next, Achatz takes a different approach: Instead of trying to push boundaries, he puts a modern spin on a specific cuisine, sometimes from a particular time and place. The opening menu, titled Paris 1906, comprised dishes codified by Auguste Escoffier. Presentations were classic, with wine pairings focused on traditional French bottlings. Behind the scenes, however, the kitchen used sous vide and other modernist techniques to intensify flavor and capture more nuanced textures.
Thailand, Sicily, Japanese kaiseki and El Bulli were among the diverse inspirations that followed. More recent concepts have included a nod to the Chicago steak house, a modern Chinese menu and a take on Paris bistro cuisine. Closing out 2015, a menu entitled Terroir focused on regional dishes matched with white Burgundy, Loire Valley Chenin Blanc, Friulian Schiopettino, German Riesling, Champagne, Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet and Hungary's Tokaji.
Though some critics predicted that Next would spread Achatz too thin as a chef, he believes that the restaurant has in fact been a godsend, both for him and for his team. "Forcing ourselves to explore the geography and history of other cuisines has made us more educated about gastronomy in general. When you're forced to delve into kaiseki or Thai street food, you become more well-rounded."
The Aviary is a celebration of cocktail culture, offering drinks and snacks that are made with the same focus on ingredients and sense of adventure that turned Alinea into a reference point for boundary-defying cuisine.
Roister, Achatz says, will reflect the same attention to high quality products and stimulating preparations that the other restaurants are known for, but in the more laid-back environment of a brasserie.
Achatz shared one example, which suggests the menu will riff on traditional American diner dishes are well as French bistro fare: a pancake dish with a pat of foie gras butter on top, the maple syrup balanced by a gastrique for an acid component. "That would be a killer dish with an oaky Chardonnay," Achatz says. He's hoping it will bring some respect back to oaky Chardonnays, a style he says he loves.
Much of the food at Roister will be fired with wood on a grill or in an oven. When it was suggested that some sort of smoked meat might enhance the pancake, Achatz agreed enthusiastically. "That's what we are going for," he said.
Although there will be 14 seats upstairs and 12 at the counter downstairs for those who want a tasting menu format, most of the restaurant will be loud, boisterous and à la carte.