Grant AchatzFusing art and food
"At Alinea, we intentionally play with the senses and emotions. Every chef can season with salt, sugar, and acid, but we choose to season with emotion."
After a meal at Alinea, patrons often describe their experience using words such as transcendental, extraordinary, unforgettable. I’ve always been curious why. I realise the difficulty – futility even – of trying to quantify a particular restaurant’s brilliance, but, in this case, I have a theory. After dining at Alinea, I did not, in fact, walk away feeling as if I’d consumed a singular meal; I felt as though I’d consumed a lifetime of them. The multi-sensory tasting menu transported me beyond the confines of the Lincoln Park restaurant. I found myself sitting in my mother’s kitchen; chewing gum outside the 7-Eleven; swimming in Puerto Vallarta.
Memory, emotion, art. These words aren’t typically associated with the culinary industry. For the co-founder and head chef of Alinea, Grant Achatz, however, such concepts are inextricably caught up with the creation and consumption of food. It’s also the reason why, over the course of the last decade, Chicago has become synonymous with its vibrant food scene – and its vibrant food scene has become synonymous with Grant Achatz. He is a master architect, methodically designing a culinary experience taking diners on a journey not only around the world, but also backwards and forwards in time. With humour and mystery, his food elicits visceral emotions, bringing joy and wonder back to the dinner table.
CEREAL: What brought you to Chicago?
GRANT ACHATZ: I scoured the country for a smallish restaurant that was willing to give me carte blanche. I had a very focussed vision, so I needed someone who would let me do my thing. I was only 26 at the time, so it required an enormous amount of trust on the part of Henry Adaniya to let me take the reins of Trio. I was fortunate enough to have Chicago’s media and dining public embrace my progressive, out-of-the-box cooking. Bear in mind this was 2001; experimental cuisine wasn’t as popular as it is now. Chicago has always had a history of embracing risk-takers – especially those in the arts or the culinary world. It felt right to stay.
CEREAL: How has the Chicago food scene evolved over the years?
GA: When people think of gastronomy, they usually think of either San Francisco or New York. But when Alinea opened in 2005, the culinary scene here just exploded. There was an influx of young chefs – myself included – who were ready to venture out on their own after working for some of the greatest cooks in the country. We started populating the culinary landscape with restaurants from Alinea all the way down to Schwa. I’d equate it with Nirvana and the garage bands of the 1990s. We had chefs saying that fine dining needn’t be pretentious. There was no need for a suit and tie. We could play loud rock music and still serve great food. Now, we’ve had the James Beard Awards here for the last three years, and we finally have the bandwidth of restaurants where people are making Chicago a culinary destination. The culinary energy in this town is just amazing.
CEREAL: Where do you find your inspiration?
GA: I’ve always struggled to answer that question, because I feel like I can never put my finger directly on it. There’s a lot of study – reading cookbooks, eating out, and travelling. Everything I see, hear, touch, and smell is pushed through a food kaleidoscope. If I’m listening to a song, for instance, I connect it to a menu or an experience at the restaurant. It’s the filter that I use to experience the world. I pay attention and let it all sink in.
CEREAL: Do you consider good taste to be universal?
GA: As a chef, I feel like I can make things approachable to almost anyone. But, from my travels and being friends with chefs from all over the world, I know that some elements of taste are based on where you live, where you grew up, and what you’re accustomed to. Salt and acid – which are the building blocks of flavour – are the two main adjusters.
CEREAL: Is cooking an art or a craft?
GA: Isn’t a craftsman an artist? I think, by definition, art is something that has the opportunity to emotionally affect someone – and food falls within that realm. At Alinea, we intentionally play with the senses and emotions. Every chef can season with salt, sugar, and acid, but we choose to season with emotion. We employ nostalgic elements in our cooking, through smell, or the manipulation of textures and aesthetics. We have a course on the menu right now with Hubba Bubba bubble gum as its primary flavour.
CEREAL: I loved that – it took me back to my childhood!
GA: It’s things like that, that make me smile. It’s such a powerful and personal thing.
CEREAL: Has Alinea’s approach shifted?
GA: Our core philosophy has stayed the same, but stylistically, the food has changed quite a bit. In 2005, our progressive style of cooking was still new. People were looking for shock value. We served barely anything on a conventional plate. We used a lot of stainless steel and sci-fi looking serviceware, custom made in collaboration with Crucial Detail design. But things change. Every 15 years or so, a new genre of cooking appears. Now, with the rise of locality, chefs talk about gathering produce within 65 km of the restaurant. Things are more organic and naturalistic in their aesthetic. I’d be lying if I said we haven’t modified our cooking or presentation to fit in with some of that desire, but we’ve done it in a very measured way and with careful consideration. We never want to dilute the identity of Alinea by following trends, but we have to be aware of what people are enjoying and what other chefs are doing – if solely for the sake of not doing it in an effort to not have a homogenous culinary landscape.
CEREAL: How has your battle with cancer affected your work?
GA: People typically think I’m going to say that my perception of flavour changed after cancer. It didn’t. When my ability to taste came back after a year, it was the same as it had been before. What did drastically change, however, was my understanding of how flavour works. I regained my sense of taste gradually, in the same way a baby learns certain flavour perceptions as he or she gets older. But I was a 33 year old chef, so I ended up with a much better understanding of the synergies of flavour. I don’t recommend it as a method, but the whole experience was very beneficial for me! It also changed the way I interacted with people as a leader. It was a complete role reversal. Traditionally, the chef calls the shots – everyone else in the kitchen brings the chef things to taste, and the chef signs off on it. My whole life had been that way. Then, all of a sudden, I couldn’t even discern whether something was good or not. I felt very vulnerable; helpless in some ways. I think that experience made me a better chef, a better leader, and probably a better person. It made me respect and appreciate other people and their contributions. It forced me to trust them.
CEREAL: Can you choose a favourite dish from your menu, past or present?
GA: I’d say the Black Truffle Explosion. It’s no longer on the menu at Alinea, but we still serve it at The Aviary. It will always have a special place for me. It marked the start of my style of cooking: the aesthetic manipulation; the sensory experience; the humour; the surprise. They’re all elements we’ve become known for over the last 13 years. It was my aha! moment.
- Words: Justin H. Min
- Photos: Justin Chung