Named last year as one of Time magazine's most influential people in the world, three-Michelin-starred chef Grant Achatz has overcome cancer which left him unable to taste, and once wrote 22 days in a row to Thomas Keller begging for a chance to show what he could do. Rosie Birkett reports
"So what do you want?" Grant Achatz says in faux-exasperated Midwestern tones before flashing me a warm, wicked grin. As he settles his slight frame into his chair on the neutrally decorated ground floor of his restaurant Alinea, it's fair to say the auburn haired chef has a lot to grin about.
Last year, Time magazine named him one of their 100 Most Influential People in the World, and in Michelin's 2012 guide to Chicago, he's the only chef to hold three Michelin stars. Thanks to Achatz's scientifically rendered, boundlessly imaginative new American cooking, Alinea has been named the best restaurant in America on more than one occasion. And his new restaurant, Next, has already attracted a collaboration with Ferran Adrià. It's fair to say that Achatz is "winning".
But he's also used to fighting - as anyone who knows the story of how he continued to cook throughout his treatment and recovery from tongue and lymph node cancer, which left him unable to taste - will appreciate.
"The irony is kind of ridiculous," he says now. "But it was stage IV B which is like a death sentence, so being able to taste was almost irrelevant. They blasted me with chemotherapy and then all of a sudden I was cancer free, but I couldn't taste. It was terrible."
But rather than step away from the stove, the chef persisted, relying on the palates of his sous chefs for tasting, and finding new, multi-dimensional ways of approaching his cooking. "At first I was in trouble, but then I realised it was kind of a breakthrough, because it forced me to express myself in a different way. Suddenly things like smell, texture and temperature became huge and I was gravitating towards anything that could help me evaluate. The loss of taste made me think about the theatrics, the conceptual, the cerebral notions of food - the presentation, and telling the story, which was really beneficial."
Achatz's sense of taste gradually came back to him. "I went through the same process as a newborn baby, developing their palate, as a 35-year-old, trained chef adult," he recalls. "But it taught me so much. I understand how bitter works with sugar, and salt works with acid, and all these things - it was revelatory."
His refusal to give up goes some way to conveying his passion for, dedication to, and obsession with the trade. After all, the kitchen is all he's ever known, and food permeates every aspect of his life - he even named his son Keller after his erstwhile mentor, Thomas Keller, with whom he spent four very formative years at the French Laundry.
He is a chef who was born into cooking - a fixture in his family's casual diner restaurants in Michigan from the age of five and throughout school, before going on to the Culinary Institute of America and being awakened to the artistic possibilities of cuisine. "The kid who was cooking mash potatoes and meatloaf at the diner eventually figured out that you can create and express, and the most important thing - make people feel a certain way and evoke emotion, through cooking."
This interactive, story-led approach to food has been central to the success of Alinea, where dishes aren't served on plates but on bespoke tableware, or, in the case of the chocolate dessert - artfully assembled directly on to the plastic-covered table, for diners to eat off directly. A canapé of savoury pumpkin cake with coconut, curry, sage, chillies and ginger is revealed from beneath a pumpkin shell that sits on the table from the start of the meal - like a squash cloche. A bite of tempura-coated roast pheasant and apple jelly is served at the end of a cluster of smouldering oak leaves.
"I wanted to create a dish that exemplified what it was like to be 14, and growing up in Michigan in autumn," Achatz explains. "To me, the smell of burning oak leaves is really a quintessential smell of fall, and my dad used to take me pheasant shooting around that time of the burning of the leaves - so that's where that dish comes from."
Portraying notions of time and place in cuisine has become a preoccupation for Achatz, and is what underpins the latest opening from him and his business partner, Nick Kokonas, the former trader with whom he opened Alinea. The aptly named Next - 60-cover, buzzy, brasserie-style restaurant which opened in the city's meatpacking district last April- is textbook Achatz in its pushing of boundaries. The idea is that the restaurant, which customers buy tickets to before they dine, changes its menu quarterly to reflect a specific geographic location and point in history. So far it has hosted sell-out services on the theme of Paris 1906 (think duck à la presse and truffled egg hors d'oeuvres) and contemporary Thailand (home-made pickles and modernist riffs on Pad Thai).
"It's a different ride," he says. "It's fun - the front of house joke around a lot. We had so many offers to literally clone Alinea in New York, Vegas, Tokyo, Miami, and we're like ‘if we do that it's a lose-lose situation'. If we opened in New York and it was better than here, we'd suffer, and vice versa. So we needed to come up with some new idea - and that's where Next came from.
"When Nick first suggested having a restaurant where every three months you go wherever you want in the world, I was like ‘so now we have to come up with the menu, we have to prototype all the dishes, we have to train all the cooks and front of the house, we have to pick the beverage pairings, every three months - do you know how hard that is?' He looked at me and said: ‘You realise you've just described Alinea?' Because that's what we do here; every season we change. So I said: ‘Damn it. Let's do it.'"
And they did, with aplomb - even attracting Ferran Adrià to collaborate on an El Bulli menu which is currently running until March, showcasing 20 different dishes from the now closed restaurant's 20 years of service. Aside from shaking up the Chicago scene with its quirky concept, Achatz adds that plucking his former chef de cuisine David Beran from behind the stove at Alinea, and installing him to head up Next has also revitalised Alinea. "We're now in the midst of a creative explosion," he says. And how does he manage with both restaurants?
"It's very collaborative with David. I've set the theme of every menu. But once that's established him and I work together really closely. We divide the menu up once we've written it - and we'll choose dishes and independently create them, show each other and edit each other until we put the final stamp on the menu."
Achatz says that when he was 17, his father, a seasoned restaurateur, pulled him aside. "He said I might want to really think about being an architect or doing something else, because this business is very difficult, you work long hours, don't make much money and sacrifice a lot in your life. He really tried to dissuade me," he recalls. "It didn't work, and I'm glad it didn't work.
"It doesn't matter if you're a chef, a plumber or an attorney - everyone in their own profession is going to work as hard as they are passionate."
career highlights: Grant Achatz
1974 Born in St Clair, Michigan
1994 Graduates from the Culinary Institute of America, works with Charlie Trotter in Chicago
1996 Starts at the French Laundry in California with Thomas Keller, works his way up to sous chef
2001 Becomes executive chef at Trio in Evanston, Illinois. Wins Food and Wine magazine's Best New Chef award in 2002 and the James Beard Foundation's Rising Star Chef of the Year in 2003
2004 Leaves Trio
2005 Opens Alinea in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighbourhood with partner Nick Kokonas
2006 Gourmet magazine names Alinea the Best Restaurant in America
2008 Wins Outstanding Chef of the Year from the James Beard Foundation
2010 Alinea wins three stars in the inaugural Michelin guide to Chicago
2011 Time magazine names him one of the 100 most influential people in the world. In April, he and Kokonas open Next and Aviary
grant achatz on…
Michelin stars "The three Michelin star thing was big. Since getting them, 45% of clientele we get at Alinea is from out of the country. Not the state, the country."
Regaining his sense of taste "I went through the same process as a newborn baby, developing their palate, as a 35-year-old, trained chef adult. But it taught me so much. I understand how bitter works with sugar, and salt works with acid - it was revelatory."
Ingredients "We're incredibly local, but being in the Midwest the growing season is really short, so then we have to outsource. We have about 155 individual different purveyors - that's for everything all over the world. One misconception is because we're cooking in a progressive manner, we don't care about ingredients. We source locally where it makes sense and where we can."
His unorthodox application to the French Laundry "It was before e-mail, in 1996, and I would handwrite a letter every day for 22 days. Finally, chef Keller called me back and it was hilarious because he said, "Is this Grant?" I said yes, and he said, "are you out of your mind?" - he thought I was crazy. He asked me why I wanted to work there and I asked him to give me a chance to prove why I'd be a good fit in his restaurant. He gave me a trial and the rest is history.
Spreading himself across multiple businesses "I don't sleep, because of that. But we wouldn't want it any other way. We are continually petrified of being caught doing nothing. So that is our motivation. It's a continual push. The last thing I want is for someone to say, ‘what did you do today'. That's not who I am - it's push, push, push."
the childhood menu, currently being served at next
Sweet potato pie - campfire on your table Edible campfire - the campfire logs are made from sweet potato cooked in blue corn, vanilla and cinnamon, seasoned with powdered alcohol and lit table side. On the plate - sweet potato pie, apricot purée, pecan streusel, ginger candy, basil, vanilla marshmallow, and bourbon barrel ice-cream. Served with a side of English toffee.
PB&J - a gift from all of us at Next Liquid peanut butter and pomegranate jam, encapsulated and tempura-fried, seasoned with freeze-dried pomegranate and served on top of peanuts and pomegranate candy
Chicken soup - no noodles, a noodle of chicken A noodle made from chicken mousse, a foam of chicken butter, garnished with baby carrot, pickled pearl onion, celery leaf, parsley leaf, thyme and fennel
Fish-n-chips - drawn by a child The dish is modelled after a children's painting - sous-vide walleye with components of cucumber, tartar sauce, beer batter crumbs, and Meyer lemon
Mac & cheese - a merry-go-round of garnishes House-made macaroni with cheese sauce made from Manchego, Parmesan, and white cheddar, served around this is a pinwheel of seven flavours which include Mangalica ham and arugula, pickled apple, rock of powdered hot dog, Parmesan breadcrumbs, tomato seed packet, macaroni noodle seasoned with annatto seed oil, and Manchego custard topped with Manchego cheese
Winter Wonderland - a walk through a Michigan forest This course changes with the season to reflect the way it looks outside - roasted carrot, roasted and puréed maitake mushroom, polenta, fried broccoli, swiss chard, dirt made from rice powder and mushroom butter, served over a log filled with fresh juniper for aromatics
Hamburger - McDonald's, Burger King, White Castle… no? Flavours of hamburger - braised short rib, sauce made from toasted and puréed hamburger buns, house-made mayo, ketchup and mustard, redo onion sticks, chives, crispy mushrooms, dried cornichon, baby lettuce, and beef jus
Lunch box Nutella snack pack, wagyu jerky, apple-brandy leather, truffled Oreo, home-made Funyuns, mixed berry drink, served in vintage lunch box with thermos. (Inside is five components along with a spiked juice)
Foie'sting and donuts - lick it off the beater! Foie gras frosting served on a beater for guests to lick off, paired with apple cider donuts
Life, on the line
Read our book review of Life, on the Line: A Chef's Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat, by Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas, reviewed by chef Alex Standen