Grant Achatz: “We are close to another big change in the gastronomic sector”

The American chef explains his vision on gastronomy at this moment and his role as a business associate with Nick Kokonas, in an interview with Gastroeconomy in which, additionally, we review his three businesses in Chicago: Alinea, his headquarters, positioned as the ninth best restaurant in the world and in May, celebrates ten years; Next, and The Aviary. Aquí puedes leer la versión en español de esta entrevista / Here you can read the Spanish version of this interview.

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In 2015, Alinea celebrates its tenth anniversary. 2004 was its starting point: that year, the business project that contemplated the plan to open this American gastronomic space was conceived. That business project evolved into a company in which  Grant Achatz (St. Clair, Michigan, United States, 1974) and Nick Kokonas (Chicago, 1968) are partners since then; and where, in addition, they agglutinate their other two concepts: Next, and The Aviary. It is headquartered in Chicago, a city that this gastrobusiness duo has placed on the world culinary map upon positioning Alinea as the ninth best restaurant in the world.

“In 2004, we embarked on the project to build Alinea with a meeting and a handshake”, summarize Achatz and Kononas in the corporate presentation via the business group’s website. Exactly a year after that meeting, Alinea opened its doors. “Along the way we questioned nearly every aspect of a restaurant – from the moment a guest walks in, to the tables, centerpieces, and serviceware, to the menu upon egress,”adds this chef-entrepreneur duo, who list two adjectives they aim to achieve in the customer experience: “fun and delicious”.

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Evaluation of a decade

In ten years, Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas have positioned Alinea as one of the top restaurants on the planet, and also opened Next and The Aviary; while chef and entrepreneur have written and produced two books (“Alinea” and “Life, on the line”), in addition to imparting lectures and presentations throughout the world on “culinary arts and business innovation” (for example, in Madrid Fusion, on whose stage he appeared for the first time in 2007).

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In parallel, they have been leaders in the advancement and development of the global gastronomic sector in this decade, in which additionally, there has been a radical change in the role of the cook. “I think that, even when we opened Alinea, which will celebrate 10 years in May, already then the popularity of the chef, the culture concerning cooking, was crazy. It has happened in a very short time. Now, with that popularity, cooks, we should be models of conduct; we should speak with other chefs, but also, with the public. They consider us ambassadors, not only of the food of our restaurants, but of all foods. [The public] expects us to know the practices of sustainable agriculture, livestock farming and fishing. So we must know them, we need to be educated and to talk about it with people, because they will listen to us. They won’t necessarily listen to a politician; they will listen to the people they associate with food. It seems to me that this is something that has changed drastically in the last ten years,” argues Grant Achatz, in an interview with Gastroeconomy last March in San Sebastian, after the presentation of a campaign for Oceana with a score of international chefs, as a commitment to the protection of the sustainability of the oceans.

Achatz takes stock of the change that has occurred in world gastronomy during the past few years, “from the leadership of France to that of Ferran Adrià. I like French cuisine; I think that all we like it in a certain way, but it seems to me that everything has evolved and changed. Now, the priorities and the importance reside in the ingredients, the food and the experience; not in opulence, possessions and objects, but in feelings and emotions. This has allowed incredible chefs to offer surprising experiences in a room like this one, which never would have happened before, because there had to be chandeliers or magnificent Bernadotte porcelain, and all those things. Now, all that doesn’t matter; because a chef can create those emotions and experiences with food, without opulence. And I think that gastronomy has really changed. In the United States, we see it constantly”, argues the American cook in the interview.

Gastroeconomy_GrantAchatzNickKokonas2In the evaluation of this decade, there are great achievements in the trajectory of Achatz and Kokonas in the form of awards and recognitions. Apart from the advance in the world ‘ 50 Best list ‘ and its three Michelin stars, Alinea was elected America’s best restaurant by “Gourmet Magazine”, while Achatz was distinguished as one of the best new chefs in America by the magazine “Food & Wine” in 2007, Best American Chef by the James Beard Foundation in 2008 and one of the 100 most influential people in the world by ‘Time’ magazine.

But, in this assessment, there is also a hard story starring Achatz, turned into a story of overcoming: in 2008, Cook was diagnosed with stage IV tongue cancer. Almost all the specialists recommended the complete amputation of his tongue. But Achatz, who was given a maximum of two years to live, chose to undergo an experimental program of radiotherapy and chemotherapy at the University of Chicago, which caused him to lose his sense of taste. He did not resign himself to his fate and kept his gastronomic offer running at full performance. To create dishes for Alinea, he relied on his team and, even more, on his sense of smell and on the faith in his collaborators’ palates. Since 2009, there is no trace of the disease, Grant Achatz, thereafter, gradually recovered his sense of taste.

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Alinea

The business group of Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas sums three concepts: Alinea, Next, and The Aviary. On the one hand, Alinea, opened, in 2005, has 64 seats and functions without a menu, with a format of a tasting menu, consisting of between 18 and 22 dishes, at a price ranging between $225 and 275 (excluding drinks, or taxes, and gratuities) [between 209 and 255 euros]. With three Michelin stars, it represents, in practice, the headquarters of the chef, where he executes his most gastronomic and radical, cutting edge cuisine offering.

On ‘ The World’s 50 Best Restaurants in The World’ list, Grant Achatz’s ‘mother house’ entered in 2007, ranking 36; in 2008, it advanced fifteen positions to number 21; in 2009, it ranked tenth; in 2010, it was number 7; in 2011, sixth; number 7 in 2012; a year later, it was ranked 15; to advance again in 2014 to ninth place. In 2012, the gastronomy sector observers predicted a powerful Achatz advance to the Top 5, while, for now, his record is that global sixth position in 2011. “Alinea is not a restaurant; at least not in the conventional sense”, announces its website. “We continue to push us ourselves and our patrons to rethink what a restaurant can be”, they add. Fine, but what is Alinea? “It is very difficult to define Alinea’s cuisine, because we don’t want to define it; we want the patrons to define it. It is another difference with respect to the era of French cuisine that we talked about before. They always defined their cuisine, they’d tell you how you should feel or how it should be. Now, the patrons make the decisions and choose how they feel and how it is. That is what we try to do in our restaurants. I don’t know if there’s a word, but that’s how it is”, elaborates Grant Achatz, in the interview with Gastroeconomy.

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Next

Opened in April 2011, Next is Grant Achat’s ‘second’ brand, which operates with a menu that varies according to periods of time (ranging from three to seven months) and is developed around a particular argument. With 62 seats, this space started with the ‘Paris 1906 ‘ menu, which ran from April to June 2011 and is even documented in an ‘ebook‘, with images and information about the dishes, the service and atmosphere of this experience. This iBook ‘format’ has sold thousands of copies and became the second best selling book on Apple’s’best sellers’ list for a while.

From July to October 2011, Grant Achatz unveiled at Next the menu ‘Tour of Thailand’, which witnessed the following menus: ‘elBulli‘, from February to May 2012 (after the close Ferran Adria’s space as a restaurant on 30 July 2011, Achatz decided to devote Next’s menu to the Cala Montjoi space, where he worked); ‘Sicily‘, from June to September 2012; ‘Kaiseki‘, from September to December, 2012; ‘The Hunt‘, from January to April 2013; ‘Vegan‘, from May to December 2013; ‘Bocuse d’Or’, from August to December 2013; ‘Chicago Steakhouse’, from January to April 2014; ‘Modern Chinese’, from May to August 2014; ‘Trio: Jan 20, 2014 ‘, from September to December 2014; and ‘Bistro‘, valid until this May 10. Next varies the price of its menu depending on each proposal.

For example, the next format, conceptualized as ‘Tapas Menu’, will be priced from $70 to S110 (from 65 to 102 euros).

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The Aviary

Located next door to Next, The Aviary is “a redefined cocktail bar” or a “über-modern bar”. It functions as Next’s bar, with Micah Melton in charge and with a capacity for 66 customers. It’s offering is comprised of cocktails and snacks, presented in different packs. According to its creators “The Aviary is where cocktails and service are given the same attention to detail as a four-star restaurant; where the bartenders are trained as chefs; where the produce and herbs are carefully sourced and procured fresh daily;[…]where drinks are made quickly and consistently in a state-of-the-art drink kitchen.”

Next has one more space: The Office, a ‘speak easy’ or clandestine space located in a basement, which can be accessed via invitation or prior reservation for groups of up to 26 people.

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Achatz’s day to day in Chicago

In their group, Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas have a team of 170 employees, according to the information the chef provided to Gastroeconomy and that is the sum of the professionals that work in Alinea, Next and The Aviary. His staff is key in the organization of Achatz’s day to day. “I have a great team; some have been with me for nine or ten years, since we opened Alinea. We have to delegate a little. When I’m in Chicago, I spend most of the time in Alinea, but spend three or four days in Alinea and then one or two in Next and The Aviary, which are side by side, so I count them as one.”

Although the chef sees the relevance of being at his restaurant, he also defends the importance of world travel for cooks. “I believe that travel is important, not only for my inspiration, to see other things and what’s being done in other places; but also in that it benefits the company that I am abroad and participate in certain acts. Also, it benefits the sector in coming to an event like this [the launch of Oceana campaign in San Sebastian], where we are exhibiting our position and affirming that we support this, which is something important”, he adds.

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His tenure at elBulli

March 7, 2015. Grant Achatz exits the García Restaurante’s kitchen with a candy helium balloon in hand; he walks toward a round table and delivers it to Ferran Adrià, whom he considers a key teacher in his career as a chef. On several occasions, the chef from Chicago has openly admitted that his tenure at elBulli proved to be very influential in his career. “Here, I learned that I didn’t know anything. When I returned to the United States, cooking was neither one thing or the other. The most important thing in my life has been to learn at elBulli, the courage to do different things,”said Grant Achatz on July 30, 2011 (year in which Alinea was ranked sixth best restaurant in the world), on the occasion of the closing of the Cala Montjoi space (here you can read the post with the messages from the international chefs sent the last day in the history of elBulli)

The Chicago chef portrayed in this manner, the relevance of the ‘Bulli era’. Almost four years later, Grant Achatz predicts changes in the world gastronomic sector. “My philosophy, my theory, is that every 15 or 20 years there is a big change; and, looking back, that pattern continues. It seems to me that we are near another great change [in the gastronomic sector]; I do not know what it will be, but I think we’re at that moment. There was a small change with the explosion of the new Nordic cuisine, perhaps I could call it a partial change; but I think that we will see something drastic soon. I don’t know what it will be, or how it will be”, he asserts in the interview with Gastroeconomy.

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From the tribute to Ferran Adrià to Oceana

Achatz participated last March 7 in the tribute dinner to elBulli, in which Dani Garcia convened a group of colleagues to cook in a historic event, converted to a tribute to Ferran Adrià, with one argument: without the architect of the gastronomic revolution registered in Cala Montjoi for two decades, nothing of what happened after (including cooks and all those/we who are dedicated to professional activity related to the gastronomy) would have happened, or at least, it would not have been equal (Here you can read the Spanish and English versions of the summary analysis of the tribute to elBulli, held last March 7 in Marbella). In the dinner, Achatz created two dishes: Pork, octopus and eggplant to the style of southern Spain, for the preparation and presentation the chef brought from Chicago the hundred wooden bases in which he served the creation, as well as one hundred kilograms of ‘bichotan’ (a type of Japanese coal), with which some bonfires were lit in the dining room to finish the pork; and Apple balloon inflated with helium (which, upon inhaling it’s interior air, changes the diner’s voice). “Grant Achatz is one of the most ingenious cooks that exists today. He is an incredible person. And I say this when, I usually try not to go out on a limb”, said Ferran Adrià, at the end of the dinner.

March 17, 2015. Ten days after the tribute dinner for elBulli, Grant Achatz is still in Spain. This time in San Sebastian where he’s spent a few days with Andoni Luis Aduriz as his host (their Instagram and Twitter accounts give clues on their movements, such as the two chefs’ “pintxos” route through the old part of San Sebastian). A few days earlier, Achatz was in Barcelona, for example, in one of Albert Adrià’s spaces, such as Bodega 1900 and Tickets. At his San Sebastian date on March 17, he posed first thing in the morning with a score of cooks at the Playa de La Concha, in the context of the presentation of a campaign for Oceana, in which top chefs from the entire planet show themselves in favor of the protection of the oceans and commit themselves to work on aspects such as the use of discarded or undervalued fish in their kitchens. “In my restaurants, we’ve been using for a long time now, molluscs which have been reared in a responsible manner: oysters, mussels, clams, i.e., shellfish and molluscs which feed on algae by filtering ; so we are doing the right thing, we will continue to do so and on a greater scale,”said Achatz, in an interview with Gastroeconomy, at the end of the presentation of the Oceana campaign at the headquarters of the gastronomic university, Basque Culinary Center.

Such a commitment to use small size fish sounds paradoxical in the Spanish market, where you find in that marine ‘family’ some of the local gems, such as anchovy. Achatz has visited Spain ten times in just ten years. “Thanks to my trips to Spain since 2006, I appreciate small fish more, since I come here, I eat them and I love them: sardines, anchovies, that kind of fish.” For this reason, I’ve been using them in my restaurants more often, because I come here and I like them very much. “I will continue to do so more and more”, says the Chicago chef.

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“No We are not scientists, but cooks”

From Spain, Grant Achatz left with experiences and conclusions applicable to his work at Alinea or Next. “I think that the most important thing I can do now with all that I’ve learned these last days is to know the products that I can remove [from my offer]; not add, but remove. I think that Ferran has spoken, sometimes, on this topic, about the education, that chefs must learn. We do not know, we are not scientists, but cooks“, says the chef, who applies this argument to the Oceana campaign. “These past days in Spain, we’ve learned how the population of small fish is being reduced because it’s being used to manufacture food for salmon and farmed prawns, and how prawns are notably destroying coastal areas, mangroves where they are bred; in a few years they finish them, they destroy them. And we didn’t know anything about all this; at least I didn’t know. So now I can remove some fish from my offer.” In his opinion, “Sometimes in removing a product, we are, in fact, giving. That’s my focus now: Increasing the good, which we were already doing, and being aware of what the harmful elements are and remove them”.

One of the criticisms of the Oceana campaign is the use of the participation of great chefs as an image and marketing tool, without generating a commitment that involves a real support in the protection and sustainability of fishery resources. For Achatz, “Having twenty chefs present is not going to change the oceans. However, legislation is necessary, all kinds of reform should be implemented and achieved with our collaboration. With this Oceana initiative, the role of chefs is popularized even more and will give us a platform where we can stand up and speak”. The chef defends the role he could develop in the US market. “Here we are, Daniel [Humm, partner at Eleven Madison Park in New York] and I to represent the United States and we have a voice there. So, when we return to our country, if we position ourselves with this type of practice on fish and its treatment, other chefs, such as our friends, are going to listen to us and word will spread”.

Hence, he defends the role of chefs as trendsetters and, why not, as engines of social change. “They say there are innovators and trendsetters; and it is true that many people in New York are going to follow Daniel and a lot of people in California, because I worked there a long time, and in Chicago they are going to listen to what I have to say. This extends to all chefs, such as David Chang, Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud, now that they see Daniel and I here and they keep this in mind. So I think it is very important and that it is a very good way for this to continue. And there are also the governments, they must do their part. Probably, the most important are the policies and reforms,” he maintains. And he adds: “In general, today, customers are younger and they’re going to be more informed and more concerned about the quality of the oceans. That’s a good thing, because our audience is more specific. They are going to listen to us and trust us more, either because they are younger or because the popularity and importance of chefs have increased, or both. As I’ve said, I think that if we say something, they’re going to listen to us“.

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Alinea celebrates ten years

In a few weeks (in May), Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas will celebrate the tenth anniversary of Alinea. Their company moves forward, without discarding options to grow. “We are passionate defenders of innovation so much as of the culinary arts, as of business, and we will continue to develop new restaurants and businesses, and occasionally do consulting when attractive and unique opportunities can be created”, explained Achatz and Kokonas.

The ‘made in Achatz & Kokonas’ reservation system’

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To their credit, the Achatz and Kokonas chef-entrepreneur duo, have achieved a business milestone: they have devised and implemented a software for its booking system, based on the purchase of a previous ticket, which serves as a downpayment or final payment at Alinea, Next and The Aviary (it is a system similar to which, in Spain, Albert Adrià’s now defunct 41º and DiverXO have used). Why was this ticket system created?Alinea had three people answering the phone six days a week responding to hundreds of calls much more numerous than the reservations we had available. It was a disappointing and frustrating process for our clients and for our own team. In 2012, we switched to the ticket system to add transparency to the process”, explains the group, which adds more arguments in the case of Next:”In contrast to a à la carte restaurant with many clients, without a prior reservation and dozens of menu options, Next materializes the creation of a unique gastronomic experience at a very attractive price. “By eliminating the ‘no show’ (customers who have booked and do not arrive, nor notify), requiring prepayment and varying the price according to the time and day [the system that applies to Next], we are able to create a predictable and stable flow of customers, allowing us to offer a much more complete experience of than would be possible with these prices”.

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In the case of The Aviary, “the tickets allow us to guarantee the reservations and better understand how long the customer plans to be with us that night”. In this cocktail lounge annexed to Next, the customer must choose between 3 packs of cocktails and snacks upon purchasing a ticket for the reservation. For example, a ‘package’ of 5 ‘passes’ totals 5 cocktails with 5 snacks ( ‘small courses’) respectively ‘paired’. In any case, the customer can order additional food and drinks when already seated sitting down at the locale. However, the pack of 3 cocktails does not include snacks. The downpayment works as a deposit made to the customer’s credit card.

In any case, the ticket works like the purchase of an entry on behalf of a customer and as the payment of an advance: on paying for it, the client secures the reservation and the downpayment is included (it is like a deposit) in the price of the menu at Alinea (14 to 20 dishes). Of course, that money is non refundable, nor can the reservation be changed to another day, “just like for a sports event, a concert or a theater show”.

 

Of course, this ‘ticket’ is transferable: the customer can sell his/her ticket, although never for a value higher than that paid, since that would be illegal, as warns Alinea, which, in addition, says: “Any ticket purchased in the secondary market is at the risk of the buyer; we are not responsible for counterfeit or illegal representations”. In the case of Next, its Facebook page announces daily tickets for sale, as well as for The Aviary, where, in addition, between 50% and 60% of the seats are left free each night for customers without reservation.

Gastroeconomy_GrantAchat_Aviary-6En todo caso, el cliente tiene un margen de 15 minutos en Alinea y The Aviary y de 20 minutos en Next de margen para llegar respecto a la hora de su reserva; si llega más tarde, pierde el pago del ticket. Las bebidas se pagan siempre en el momento de la comida.

In any case, the customer has a margin of 15 minutes at Alinea and The Aviary, and a margin of 20 minutes at Next to arrive at the time of your booking; if he/she arrives later, the payment of the ticket is lost. The drinks are always paid for at the moment of the meal. To buy a ticket for Alinea, Next or The Aviary, the customer must create an account with a password, which will allow him to operate in the ‘Ticket website’, created by Achatz and Kokonas’ company. The system provides details such as a diner’s option to sell his ticket if he can not use the reservation. Additionally, Alinea provides options for ‘last minute’ reservations created, for example, for foodies visiting Chicago: they are advertised on their Facebook page and on their Twitter account, and sometimes include tables available for that same night or week (‘Same Night and Same Week Tables’ ).

With 64 seats, at Alinea, the largest table has a 6 person seating capacity, so if a customer wants more seats, the only option is to book the restaurant completely on its its closed days (Sunday or Tuesday night). With 62 seats and an estimate of about 20,000 people per year seeking reservations, at Next, for tables of 7 to 10 people, there is an option: the private, The Room. With 66 seats, in The Aviary, for tables of more than 6 people, the customer must contact the establishment via e-mail.

A week before the lunch or dinner, Alinea, where you can book between two and three months in advance (depending on availability as it is posted on the web), contacts their customers to know their preferences, allergies or dietary restrictions..

The résumé of two associates

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The son of restaurateurs (his parents managed a ‘diner’ in Michigan), Grant Achatz studied at the Culinary Institute of America. Recently graduated, he worked with the late Charlie Trotter, before spending five years (most of the time as a sous-chef) with Thomas Keller at The French Laundry. Also, he has worked at La Jota vineyards in California and carried out a brief ‘stage’ at elBulli, which proved to be crucial in his career and led him to seek his first position as executive chef at Trio in Evanston (Illinois).

As partner, co-owner and co-founder of Alinea, Next and The Aviary, Nick Kokonas is responsible for managing the marketing, business development and strategy for the current and future operations of these three businesses. Until his partnership with Grant Achatz, this businessman had no ties to the gastronomic industry. Although he studied Philosophy at Colgate University, it seems that, above all, he has always had an entrepreneurial spirit. After creating multiple companies and working in the Chicago Stock Exchange through Third Moment Trading, his own company that came to have 15 employees and then merged with another New York firm. In 2002, he left the resulting group of this merger while, in recent years, he devoted himself also to invest in IT ‘start-ups’ . As a customer in Trio, he met Grant Achatz: after a dinner in 2002, the idea of partnering developed; it was the seed of Alinea. This ‘outsider’ of the gastronomic sector proved to be an innovative manager in the culinary business. He gives lectures on entrepreneurship and innovation.

Photos provided by: Grant Achatz and Dani García Restaurante.

Acerca del autor



"Soy economista de formación y periodista de profesión. Mi vocación es escribir, casi de lo que sea. Por una promoción profesional, empecé a escribir sobre gastronomía como vía de escape y, tras unos años, es a lo que decidí dedicarme, con el portal GASTROECONOMY como principal proyecto. Me encanta comer y escribir y sostengo que, en el sector gastronómico, hay mucho que contar desde la seriedad, el rigor y la profesionalidad. La palabra 'foodie', que formó parte del subtítulo de este 'site' en sus primeros años, hoy me da alergia. En todo caso, el lujo es poder escribir, algo que me encanta y que me enseñaron a hacer en mi casa y en el diario económico Expansión (www.expansion.com)”.

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