Grant Achatz moved up the aisle of the plane, his carry-on draped over his gaunt frame. It was October at Reagan National Airport, a rare moment of calm for Chicago's top chef, whose wary eyes belong to a man older than 36, and whose life has been blessed and cursed with incident. He was traveling with his two young sons, and they had just visited with the parents of his girlfriend, food journalist Heather Sperling. They were headed home to Chicago, trudging through the cabin of the plane toward coach, when his younger son, Keller, swung his backpack into a well-dressed man in first class.
He smacked the guy in the head. Achatz saw this from the corner of his eye, and he sighed and turned to apologize. The man was Charlie Trotter.
"Hello, chef," Trotter said.
"Hello!" Achatz replied, embarrassed, stammering out something rote like, "You know how kids are."
"But Charlie's looking at me like, 'Yeah, and yours just hit me in the head,'" Achatz says, recalling a moment almost too lyrical to be believed (though Trotter confirms the incident, with a chuckle), so rich in meaning that it could be a metaphorical one-act play about the Chicago fine-dining establishment: The culinary guard had changed.
Almost 25 years ago, chef Charlie Trotter and his eponymous Lincoln Park restaurant dug deep into classic European restaurant tradition, lent it a slight Asian minimalism and put fine dining in Chicago on the map. In the mid-'90s, Achatz, a Michigan son fresh from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., set out to work for him. And he did so, unhappily, for less than a year. According to Achatz, Trotter told him, essentially: If you don't work for me for a year, you haven't worked for me for a day — never use me as a reference. (As for Trotter, he confirms that, yes, a cook "needs to work for me several months before they can learn anything or contribute in any meaningful way.")
Achatz moved to Northern California and went to work at the French Laundry in Napa Valley. There, they called him "golden boy," and he was made sous chef at 25, working alongside a man often called the best chef in America with the best restaurant in America, Thomas Keller.Click image for more photosThe kitchen at Alinea is awash in white and chrome and equipment you rarely see in most kitchens, rotary vaporizers and liquid nitrogen tanks. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Tribune)Keller became his idol, his mentor and the namesake of his youngest son, and he even catered his wedding (though the marriage to Angela Achatz, a former director of group sales at the French Laundry and the mother of Achatz's children, lasted only a few weeks). Four years after he started at French Laundry, Achatz returned to Chicago and found fame as the chef at Trio, in Evanston.
Then, about a decade after his time at Trotter's, Achatz opened his own restaurant, a radically unusual spin on fine dining named Alinea. He opened it a few blocks from Trotter's, and Trotter, interviewed by The New York Times, called Achatz's brash, intricate culinary pyrotechnics "nonsense upon stilts."
Soon after, Alinea was also called the finest restaurant in America. The attention never slowed: Achatz's $60 self-published cookbook went on to sell 50,000 copies. The sad poetry of his life — "Acclaimed chef gets tongue cancer!" — became the stuff of "Oprah" appearances and New Yorker profiles. His avant-garde dishes — bacon dangling from wires, venison served on fireplace kindling — were satirized in a Diet Coke commercial starring "Top Chef" judge Tom Colicchio. Alinea became a celebrity magnet, attracting U2, Oprah Winfrey, Barbra Streisand; one night a last-minute table request from Jay-Z and Beyonce was denied. Last spring the prestigious San Pellegrino list of the 50 best restaurants in the world put Alinea at No. 7, the highest spot for any North American restaurant. And this spring, his new restaurant, Next, on Fulton Market, is unquestionably the year's most anticipated opening.
The biggest news, however, came in November, a month after Achatz and Trotter met on that plane. Alinea received three stars from the editors of the Michelin Guide — arguably the most important restaurant honor in the world, and one shared by only 92 other restaurants in the world. Trotter, whom Achatz had vowed to unseat ("like in a high school football locker room grudge, where you identify the top dog and decide to take him down," Achatz says), received two.
It was as formal a passing of the culinary crown as it gets in Chicago. Achatz had arrived.
Indeed, for at least the next year, chances are you won't be able to avoid Grant Achatz (whose name rhymes with "rackets"). If everything goes as planned — restaurant openings being infamously tentative — he will open Next, a dining room of unprecedented ambition, its menus inspired by places and eras (Paris 1906, Sicily 1949, etc.) and completely revamped every three months.Click image for more photosGrant Achatz and his business partner Nick Kokonas, chat in the kitchen at Alinea. Kokonas, until he met Achatz in 2001 at Trio in Evanston, was a successful Wall Street trader. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Tribune)Next to Next will be Aviary, a bar serving inventive cocktails upstairs, classics downstairs. Both are on Fulton Market and slated to open in March. Construction costs will total around $2.2 million, Achatz says — a figure, he adds, that doesn't reflect the million-plus dollars of equipment and discounts that suppliers have lined up to offer him.
Then there's Achatz's memoir, "Life, on the Line," coming out March 3. It's being adapted into a feature film, probably with director David Dobkin ("Wedding Crashers"), and possibly starring Leonardo DiCaprio. There's a documentary in the works, and maybe a TV series on the history of food, tied to the concept of Next. Achatz and business partner Nick Kokonas are talking to the Museum of Contemporary Art about an Alinea-inspired exhibit in 2012; and there's even some discussion of a Next-branded food truck, assuming the city ever passes a food truck ordinance.
Still, chances are, the one thing you probably know about Achatz — and with dinner at Alinea costing $195 a person, it's likely not his food — is his cancer.
He was diagnosed in 2007 with stage 4 tongue cancer. There is no stage 5. Today, the cancer is in remission. But people don't realize that, he says: "They think I lost my tongue and I have no sense of taste and I still have the lesions."
Elizabeth Blair, his oncologist at the University of Chicago Medical Center, says, "No evidence of disease in two years has been a good sign. His risk of recurrence is low. But we never say never here." When they first met, she says hyperbolically, his mouth was so cancer-ridden that if she'd been shown a 78-year-old man with the same prognosis she would have given the 78-year-old man better odds of survival.
Achatz was told that joining Blair's clinical trial and receiving experimental treatment would give him a 70 percent chance of living beyond five years. The tongue stayed. His taste returned. And yet cancer didn't do to him what people expect it to do to hectic lives. He did not slow down, work less or re-evaluate.
He ramped up.
He became more ambitious. Curtis Duffy, who was Achatz's chef de cuisine at Alinea (and is now the chef at the Michelin two-star Avenues on the Magnificent Mile), says: "I think Grant feels fortunate, and that's why he hasn't slowed down. I've had many conversations with him over the years about ambition, and where do you reach that point where you say, 'Enough is enough — I'm satisfied with what I've accomplished'? I'm not sure you want to get there. If you do, why are you still cooking?"
In fact, in the time I spent with Achatz, I heard a number of variations on "I want to be the No. 1 chef in the world." It's something he has been saying since he was at the Culinary Institute of America, a list of career goals tucked in his pocket. Back then he associated being the best with being most famous. Today that aspiration has an urgency. It's the sound of a man pushing against the laziness that praise and sympathy can breed.
"So I'm about to die," he says. "Do I stop? Decide I spent 20 years on something not important? I enjoyed my life before cancer. What do I do? I don't change a thing."
Naveen Sinha, a lanky Harvard University graduate student, is sitting with me in the lobby of the Charles Hotel in Cambridge, Mass., a few weeks before last Halloween. We have been waiting for Achatz. He was invited to deliver a pair of lectures at Harvard for a course that uses food and the kitchen to explain fundamentals of physics and engineering. Sinha, dispatched to pick up Achatz, is writing his thesis on the science of chocolate, he explains; he says he follows all of Achatz's blog posts and his Twitter feed, and has watched all of the videos on YouTube of Achatz working in his stainless-steel chemistry lab of a kitchen. Then Achatz walks into the lobby, wearing sunglasses.
"Wow," Sinha says.
Achatz looks like a rock star, or a thinner Ethan Hawke, in black jeans, boots, a soul patch on his chin, handsomely exhausted, skin taut, his neck seemingly elongated, painfully visible reminders of weight loss and cancer treatment.Click image for more photosChef Grant Achatz laughs during an inspection of the space that will become his next establishments, Next and Aviary in Fulton Market. As of last count, 15,000 people had signed up to be informed when tickets were available for dining at Next -- yes, they will only accept tickets, not reservations. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Tribune)
We meet and head across town, to the basement of the Science Center. Achatz and his assistant, Christian Seel, drop a pile of cardboard boxes on the floor of a lab behind the lecture hall and slice them open. Inside are hundreds of Chinese takeout boxes. A few students from class arrive and begin stuffing the containers — 1,000 containers — with treats from Achatz.
An instructor sidles up to the chef. She informs him with a huge grin that people have been in line outside the building for his lecture since 4:30 p.m. The lecture starts at 7 p.m. Achatz gives her a smile and shakes his head in amazement and keeps working. She tries small talk. He's conducting a more intimate session in the morning for a smaller group of students, and so she asks: "Ready to lecture tomorrow?"
"Am I ready to lecture?" he asks, then goes back to filling the containers in silence.
He's serious and methodical, and a little chilly. That said, for a chef who serves 23-course tasting menus that last four hours, he seems to cringe instinctively at the faintest whiff of pretense. When I ask him if it's intimidating to lecture at Harvard for the first time, he doesn't answer. He rolls his eyes and looks at me as though I'm an idiot. Dave Beran, the executive chef at Next, told me Achatz is the most professional and talented chef he has ever known, "but to be honest, most of the cooks are pretty scared of him." Martin Kastner, a local artist who designed the table settings at Alinea and the restaurant's logo, told me: "Ultimately it's always a professional relationship with Grant. He's a great guy, but there's always a pull-back."
Says Henry Adaniya, who hired Achatz in 2001 to run the kitchen at Trio in Evanston, "I remember one of the first things he said was if he didn't have a family, he would work 24 hours a day. I believed him. He was working 20 hours a day.Click image for more photosChef Grant Achatz stands in the kitchen of Alinea, just before preparation for dinner. For a busy kitchen, it is also a remarkably quiet kitchen, everyone moving quickly and dodging each other without a word. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Tribune)There's a white heat of ambition there. He's wound tight. There's more solidity to his personality now. It's more settled. But he is not lacking intensity." Says Blair, "Grant is not a laid-back guy, which I think is why his cancer got so big. He was so preoccupied with being a chef."
One night, while staff presented him with test dishes from the Next menu, a soft-poached quail egg wrapped in an anchovy was placed before him. He looked at it a moment, then pushed it toward me. "Don't you want to try it?" I asked. "No. I know what it tastes like," he said quickly, and left it at that.
He prefers to let his food provide the emotion. He says one dish in particular has made guests shed a tear — a tempura-style fried pheasant nugget skewered on a branch holding burning oak leaves, its curling smoke evoking a crisp autumn day. It reminds Achatz of his childhood, outside Detroit.
He explains this during the lecture, which first touches on the science behind what he makes, then becomes a kind of charming magic show. There are audible sighs. He shows a video of a dish placed on a pillow; the server punctures the pillow with a pin and the pillow sinks beneath the plate, releasing an aroma of nutmeg. A few people quietly moan, awed. Achatz instructs them to reach beneath their seats, where they find the takeout containers. He tells them to take out the plastic baggie inside. They do. The bags seem empty. Open your bag, he says. The lecture hall, which smelled of students sneaking a quick dinner of McDonald's fries, transforms in a few seconds. He'd filled each bag with the unmistakable scent of a fresh-cut lawn.
It's a demonstration of how something as simple as an ordinary, recognizable fragrance can alter the mood of a room, solicit feelings, jog memories, and, when employed in a restaurant setting, maybe influence what a diner tastes. The aroma rolls through the hall to applause, and Achatz, at last, smiles.
The night before Achatz receives three stars from Michelin, we speak on the phone. A leaked list of Chicago restaurants and the stars awarded each had been circulating, and he sounds astonished by the news, and conflicted. "If this list is right, Trotter, the guy who put Chicago on the map, he gets two stars, and the guy who he told would never amount to anything, that guy gets three stars? Trotter implodes? He fizzles?"
The next morning we meet at Achatz's Bucktown town house. We drive and wait for the call from Michelin. The thought of Trotter still weighs on him. He feels a mix of respect and revenge, but catches himself before it curdles. "I've done a poor job of embracing this stuff in the past," he says. "I want to enjoy this."
When Achatz landed outstanding chef of the year at the James Beard Foundation Awards in 2008, soon after his cancer diagnosis, he knew a lot of people would assume he got a sympathy vote. He was right, but there's real insecurity here too: Later, I jokingly ask if he is becoming Trotter — a figurehead, benign in public, cold in private — and he says he thinks he already is Trotter, that he is constructed from the parts of three people: himself, Keller and Trotter. He says he knows that other chefs think he's pretentious, that his dishes are contrived, clever, soulless. He shrugs.
Sperling, his girlfriend, the editor of the Chicago edition of the "Tasting Table" food blog, says: "Grant is hugely competitive, and I think sensitive about not being taken seriously. I think that he worries that smart people, people he admires, wouldn't find some of his ideas valid, intellectually, and of course, no one like that would think that."
The Michelin call comes.
He answers, then hangs up and turns to me and says, "Should I call Charlie and say, 'Are we even now?'" He drives in silence for a while, thoughts playing on his face, a smile creeping in, his phone buzzing with well-wishers.Click image for more photos Achatz and his girlfriend Heather Sperling watch his son Keller, 7, play UNO at home on a Monday night, when Alinea is closed. When we called Achatz to arrange pictures of his home life, he replied: "I don't really have much of a home life. I'm at the restaurant most of the time." (Zbigniew Bzdak/Tribune)Later that day, the second-floor dining room at Alinea is packed with staff and cameras and a documentary crew. Despite the occasion, everyone is quiet or whispering, and despite this being late morning the room is dim, the subdued lighting casting an auburn glow, fighting the sunlight behind drawn curtains. It's like standing inside a caramel. Jean-Luc Naret, director of the Michelin Guide, is holding court, his lean, silvery suit so smartly tailored it seems to float around him.
Despite the piles of accolades, moments of self-congratulation at Alinea are rare. After Gourmet magazine named it restaurant of the year in 2006, Achatz and Kokonas handed out $20,000 in tips to the staff. More surprising, Beran tells me, is this afternoon gathering at Alinea (and later a party at the Drawing Room) to celebrate the Michelin honor. Generally, immediately after racking up another important accolade, Achatz prefers to get back to work, designing new dishes.
Achatz stands before a TV reporter. She lowers her microphone to his face. "Grant, you expected —"
"I didn't expect," he interrupted. "I don't expect."
She smiles, then, taking another track, "Grant. Being a cancer survivor. That has to be the biggest accomplishment."
"Not really," Achatz says, his mild annoyance sounding close to politeness. "It's not an accomplishment. You either live or die."
He leaves the reporter and takes a seat across from Beran and says with a wave of his hand that if they had not received three stars, "all of these people would not be here." He means that if Alinea had received any fewer than three stars, he would not have allowed the Champagne, the cameras, etc. He would have been embarrassed and angry — and, though he denies it, he would have been surprised. He wrote down receiving three stars from Michelin as one of his goals; he wrote this down five years ago, before there was a Michelin Guide for Chicago.
Kokonas calls him over. Achatz stands wearily. Kokonas raises a flute of Champagne. The table is covered in bottles. "To Chicago!" Kokonas cries. "To Michelin! To good food!"
Then after a moment, silence. Achatz, restless, speaks first. "OK, now what?"
Part 2: Achatz's Next act
Thursday night. Taco night at Alinea.
But the rice is as red and dry as Southwestern clay. The pulled pork — well, now, that's wonderful, succulent tangles of dark, moist pig. But the plantains are bland, pale yellow manhole covers. And the tortillas lack much distinction. Of course, you will never eat this at Alinea. You will never be invited to taco night here, where the 23-course dinner is your cheapest option, at $195 a head (before tax and tip).
On this Thursday, tacos are the late-afternoon staff meal before the Lincoln Park restaurant's celebrated dinner service begins: A cook pops into the dining room and tells chef Grant Achatz that taco night is on. Achatz stands and walks briskly to the kitchen, where a dozen staff members in pressed whites wait patiently, plates clutched to their chests. He walks to the front of the line and mumbles that the food looks good and loads up his plate.
He seems to relish, if only for a moment, the ordinary — then it's back to planning his new establishment, which is so audacious that only a taco night at Alinea sounds crazier.
His next restaurant is called Next, and it sprang from the antsier impulses of a chef who gets bored easily. Achatz first thought of it as a relatively modest bistro with extraordinary ambitions: Every three months Next would feature a new menu inspired by a different place and era — for instance, Prohibition Chicago for three months, then "Mad Men" New York for three months, then postwar Sicily for three months. But, in keeping with Achatz's innate restlessness, in the year since he announced Next, the project has morphed and expanded and gotten crazier. Next is still planning to serve authentic period-themed bistro menus ("Four-star dining at three-star prices," Achatz promises), but now that vision is somewhat closer to the opulence and invention of Alinea.
"We decided that no matter what it looks like in the end," Achatz said recently, "it's not going to be Epcot."
Once he and his business partner, Nick Kokonas, found the location and signed a 15-year lease, the details came fast: It would be on Fulton Market, on a corner storefront large enough to accommodate another of their brash ideas, a cocktail lounge next door called Aviary that wouldn't have a bar or even traditional bartenders, only table service.Click image for more photos Chef Grant Achatz tours the construction zone in the basement of Next, his second restaurant.(Zbigniew Bzdak/Tribune)As for Next, it will seat 62, but only parties of two and four (with one chef's table for six). Drink pairings must be made in advance, and your tip must be paid in advance. The tasting menu will be eight to 10 dishes, but prices will vary; Wednesday nights will be cheaper than Saturday nights. And, oh, you say you have dietary restrictions? Food allergies? Next probably will not accommodate dietary restrictions or allergies.
And yet, with three Michelin stars to Achatz's name and many critics convinced that Alinea is now the best restaurant in the United States, Achatz and Kokonas are in an enviable position: They can do what they want. Or at least they have the encouragement to try. They've turned down the Chicago Gourmet festival. They've turned down offers to cook for Chinese President Hu Jintao. ("Serve the president of China in an hour? We don't do anything in an hour," Kokonas says.) They bankrolled the $2.2 million Next and Aviary partly themselves and partly through investors, whom they lined up without much effort. The Viking oven company even provided $100,000 ranges at next to nothing (plus an agreement that Viking can mention in its marketing that Achatz uses its stoves).
"Confidence brings things," says Thomas Keller, the famed chef at the French Laundry in Napa Valley, Calif., and Achatz's mentor. "The more recognition, the more it breeds confidence, which allows you to try things you wouldn't have had the courage to try earlier."
Take, for instance, Next's reservation system. There are no reservations. If you want to eat there, you will have to buy tickets through Next's website. So far, 15,000 have signed up to be notified when tickets go on sale. At first Achatz wasn't sold on tickets — just as Kokonas wasn't initially sold on the idea that Alinea, across from the Steppenwolf Theatre, should serve three-hour meals, ensuring that guests would never make a show. But Kokonas was adamant about selling tickets — nonrefundable tickets. He even hired a designer to build ticketing software. He wants to avoid the narrow profit margins Alinea runs into, he says: "One table of four cancels, we lose a chunk of revenue that night. Two tables cancel, we lose money."
The local restaurant scene mostly admires their guts. "Being in business is risk," says Rich Melman, founder of Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, which owns restaurants as varied as the Michelin three-star L2O and the fast-casual Wow Bao. "I've thought of a lot of ideas, but (selling tickets) has not been one of them. I like it. It's unique. And Grant is so heralded, that takes away some of the risk." Says Chris Pandel, chef at The Bristol in Bucktown, "Financially speaking, it's clever. It may be cavalier to be that inflexible, but if anyone can make it work, it's Grant."
Says Jeff Pikus, a former Alinea chef de cuisine who runs the kitchen at Maude's Liquor Bar: "Of course, you wouldn't open a restaurant like Next. But why you wouldn't is what makes Grant and Nick who they are. It's a matter of resources and will and talent. So, yes, I think they can get away with it."
Upstairs at Alinea, Dave Beran, the stoic 29-year-old chef whom Achatz has tapped to run the kitchen at Next, places before him a silver-plated egg holder. Inside is an eggshell with its top removed; the shell has been filled with salt cod, chopped truffle, custard.Click image for more photosGrant Achatz chops in the kitchen at Alinea. One of his mentors is the great chef Thomas Keller, who said: "I look back on my career and I look at Grant, and you see how people have progressed, and how can you not be proud? I see him as really the next generation of chef, and I am proud to have had a hand in that." (Zbigniew Bzdak/Tribune)This is oeufs benedictine. Achatz slides it to me. "Dig in, get all the layers at once," Beran says. I do. Achatz watches intently. It's rich. Halfheartedly, I begin to argue, "OK, but these French techniques, all that cream ... "
"Is it delicious?" Achatz asks.
"It is, but — "
"If it's delicious, who cares?"
Beran comes back with fillet de sole daumont. At the center of the plate is a small, rolled white fish, surrounded by dollops of a thick yellow sauce normande. It is as oppressive-looking as the dishes at Alinea are known for being delicate. It also appears, as Achatz exclaims, "old." But old in an intentional way, "old" being partly the point of Next, which will deliver a historically accurate experience. Or, rather, probably it will. The first menu is Paris 1906, a tribute to chef Auguste Escoffier, who simplified the preparation of haute cuisine and is considered the godfather of French gastronomy. Which, of course, is quite removed from the rotary evaporators and liquid nitrogen tanks at Alinea, where constant, radical invention is expected, where the kitchen is decorated with sketches of dishes he has imagined making one day and pockets of "pineapple leather" get filled with Chinese sausage.
"I'm not worried about the opening," Achatz had told me earlier. "A second restaurant is always a risk. 'He's spreading himself too thin,' they'll say. 'What's happening to Alinea?' I expect all of that. But this restaurant — what we're trying to do here is absurd. It's insane."
Consider the table settings. To serve an early 20th century French menu, he requires appropriate early 20th century tableware. This meant sending his staff antiquing around the Midwest. They visited 115 stores until they found what Achatz was looking for. And so every three months they will have to find new table settings to match the new menu. And every three months Achatz and Beran will also have to dig into history and come up with a menu that is not only authentic to the time and place it evokes but also delicious. Achatz says this, smiles grimly and gives a dark chuckle.
In late January, Achatz and Beran did a run-through of an evening at Next — the first of about 10 dress rehearsals leading up to the expected late-March opening — and from the looks of concern and heated arguments, between him and his guests, and among the guests, fundamental questions remain about Achatz's second act. Yes, he had promised a large, multicourse tasting menu for less than $100, but food costs are looking formidable. And is the concept too intellectual? And do you make 100-year-old dishes as historically accurate as possible even if it means the food is not as good as a refined adaptation?
When Achatz and Kokonas opened Alinea in 2005, they often discussed how much they could get away with discomforting guests and doing things their own way. It was a $2 million risk. This new place, Kokonas says, was initially inspired by the opposite, by something he told Achatz: "People want to see you cook normal food." And yet, six years after Alinea, there are awards, expectations. "I think you go old school," Kokonas said at that first rehearsal, sitting beside his wife, who rolled her eyes. "Butter the (expletive) out of everything. Let them wake up at 3 in the morning puking up food!"
It was hard to tell if he was joking or being a fundamentalist about serving what he insists should be the super-rich classic French that no one serves anymore. Achatz placed his hands on his hips and listened in silence. Then he asked a good question: Am I opening a restaurant here, or a museum?
The day in 2007 that Achatz learned he had stage 4 cancer of the tongue, he went back to work. He drove to the restaurant straight from the doctor's office. He worked through the day like a zombie, he recalls, turning artichokes and thinking about his two sons and his employees. Alinea served 1,870 dishes and 98 guests that night. Kokonas drove in from a golf tournament in Michigan, and Achatz made him a traditional French meal, not at all similar to the molecular-gastro gymnastics and unexpected juxtapositions Alinea specializes in, pears with eucalyptus, roe with plantain. Achatz made him duck breast with morels. Quite different, but quite comforting.
Kokonas took a bite. "No one makes French food this good in this city," he said. "We should open a French restaurant." Achatz said they would get bored in three months. A year later, at Kokonas' house in Old Town, they were cooking Italian for their kids. "We should open an Italian restaurant," Kokonas exclaimed.
We'd get bored in three months, Achatz said.
Kokonas and Achatz met in 2001, at Trio in Evanston, where Kokonas was a regular and Achatz became chef after leaving the French Laundry in Napa Valley. At Trio, which closed in 2006, Achatz came to national attention, landing on Food & Wine's best new chefs list and winning a James Beard award for rising star chef of the year. That acclaim led to Alinea.Click image for more photosChef Grant Achatz, girlfriend Heather Sperling, an editor of the Tasting Table food blog, and his children, Kaden, 9, and Keller, 7 (left), look out from their home into the snowy night.(Zbigniew Bzdak/Tribune)The details of its birth are laid out in "Life, on the Line," Achatz's memoir (due March 3), which he and Kokonas wrote without a ghostwriter. They're so tied at the hip that Kokonas is co-author, and the narrative splits into a he-said-he-said.
They make a quirky pair. Achatz is 36, from a middle-class family that ran diners around Detroit. Kokonas is 43, a former Wall Street currency and equities commodity trader from Northbrook. Achatz is the picture of the brooding artist. Kokonas is fast-talking, cheerfully caustic, his graying hair a swooping, preppy wave. When the Grant Achatz movie is made, Robert Downey Jr., one cook cracked, should play Kokonas; indeed an adaptation of "Life, on the Line" is deep in the planning phase, says director David Dobkin ("Wedding Crashers").
On a January afternoon, Kokonas and I stand in the unfinished basement of Next, which still smells of sawdust. The Quebec design firm he'd hired is giving him a headache: "I'm standing here arguing with these French Canadians, saying, 'Just tell me, when can you make it happen?' I go into full stock-trading mode. They're telling me it's not physically possible to do anything sooner than I want. I'm saying, 'Look, you guys don't get down here, I do it myself.' They say, 'You willing to take that bet?' I say, ‘If I have to.'"
We walk upstairs and stand in what will be the doorway of Next. He pulls out his cell phone and shows me a picture of the large sculpture that will dominate the dining room. It's waiting in a nearby warehouse and resembles either the skeletal rib cage of a whale or the hull of an unfinished boat. "We decided that our restaurants have to tell a story," he explains. "This one is about travel, so what do we do, pile up suitcases by the door? The idea here would be that you are a point of embarkation and this sculpture, this beam, once served a purpose and it's been there for a long time, or something."
"Remember," he says finally, "this is the entertainment business. That's the business we're in. You know how we are. No one has to eat this way."
And yet they have turned down easy money — specifically, offers to start Alinea outposts in New York and Las Vegas. “The story there would be money,” Kokonas says. "That's not a story." Says food writer Michael Ruhlman, "What's uncommon with them is the motivation. It's not that they're irresponsible. I truly don't think they care much about the money. They're way too busy to care. Grant's mind is too restless to make money its focus."
One day while we were at Alinea, Achatz said, "People think accolades drive us." He then described a couple from Los Angeles who had come in the previous night. He pointed to where they sat. They sent the kitchen a note complaining that their food was salty. He cringed at the memory. "Those people will not go home saying they had the greatest meal of their lives. Which means, if they go to Trotter's, L2O, Schwa, we become No. 2, or No. 3." This is what worries him, that slight, off-chance possibility that a customer would leave Alinea wondering if the emperor is wearing clothes.
"Pretense is something chefs on his level struggle with," says Ruth Reichl, former editor of Gourmet magazine. "They are thinking about the hunger of guests on one hand, worrying on the other about the elitist quality of food 99 percent of the population will never try. I don't know of a big chef who doesn't worry."
For a long while, as he went through cancer treatment at the University of Chicago Medical Center, Achatz had a very specific worry. He feared, if he did survive the cancer, that his sense of taste would be withered. A year later, after the cancer went into remission, that sense returned slowly, in waves. First, sweet came back, then bitter, then salty. But something had changed; that sense of taste seemed more delicate now. "Anything too spicy or sweet short-circuits my wiring," he says. "It sounds ridiculous, but I pay more attention to the way food tastes now."
A couple of months ago, for the first time at Alinea, the kitchen began a tasting table, allowing a few chefs to sample the dishes before service begins. As he explains this, Achatz's voice falls somewhere between Christian Bale's raspy Batman and the Joker's devilish purr. He didn't always sound so hoarse. The treatment scorched his throat.
This scratchiness seems to bug him, though for reasons that have little to do with physical discomfort. It's a constant reminder of what has become the narrative of his life, and he seems anxious to move on, to cook, nothing else. Often Achatz is found serving dessert at Alinea, a lavish finale prepared not at tableside but on the table: A silicone mat is fitted over the wood, then chocolate is smeared and dribbled across it with Jackson Pollock-esque verve, red-wine-pickled blueberries are dropped, brulees torched and, at last, a frozen chocolate mousse is placed in the center and cracked, sending curls of cold fog wafting out. And every night, as he does this, his face tight in concentration, he hears the same thing. Someone at the table looks up at him and asks: "How are you feeling?" It's polite, and it gets old. But someone always asks.
Achatz always answers. In a steady voice, he says: "I have a cold. How are you?"Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun