When a man like Kokonas talks about restaurants, chefs listen. The seasoned restaurateur and creator of the Tock booking system has spent years watching restaurant traffic like a hawk. “I’ve looked at it every different way,” he told Achatz. “I think this is going to be a big problem. We have to get ready now.”
Even if Achatz didn’t quite yet believe the restaurant world was about to fall apart, he decided to act with Nick’s words of warning ringing in his ears. “I’m like, 'of course I’m going to do 500'. And then in my mind I’m like, 'holy shit, 500 seems like a lot'.”
Within three days, the team was kicking out pre-bake beef Wellingtons, Robuchon mashed potatoes, gravy, horseradish crème fraîche and creme brûlée desserts in tin foil boxes. Five hundred dinners sold out from the moment the online ordering system went live, and they sold out every night for the entire 14-day menu run.
Photo: Alinea pastry®Courtesy of Grant Achatz
“The menu thought process was, what would I like to eat, and what feels comforting for me to cook and eat? Immediately for me, of course, it was French food, iconic coq au vin, all those sorts of things.” Alinea transformed into a take-out joint overnight. A queue of cars lined the kerb, and gloved and masked front-of-house staff welcomed diners hidden behind steering wheels. A slick back-office operation managed the strict timings on orders from a dining room that now looked more like mission control, with a task force of expeditors armed with iPads.
People who just one month before had laid crisp linen, shined silver and all manner of gastro-gadgetry on the table, were now packing tin foil containers, piping into plastic cups, tapping on screens and dispatching from the concrete in the car park.
Photo: Alinea Brigade®Courtesy of Grant Achatz
Fast-forward seven weeks, and what Achatz first saw as a "blip-on-the-radar" business interruption or novelty project became a lived reality without an end in sight. “We thought we’d do a menu or two. In the beginning, I remember being so naïve about it, but it’s here to stay forever in some ways. In the short to medium term, this is real.”
In May, Alinea turned 15 years old. But this pandemic wasn’t going to ruin anyone’s birthday celebrations. If the diners couldn’t come to the party, Alinea would bring the party to them. They created a special six-course take-out tasting menu, including the restaurant’s iconic tabletop dessert.
One of the most photographed dishes in the world of gastronomy - a grand finale of chocolate artfully arranged on a special tablecloth before awe-struck diners - has been the stuff of legend. Now it was being packed into containers and let loose to be scattered on dining tables across the city of Chicago. A chef with 30 years’ experience and three Michelin stars was suddenly trying to teach intimidated home cooks what to do with five ramekins and a bunch of paraphernalia via Instagram video.
Achatz had initially been sceptical. “I thought there’s no way I’m taking the risk of putting Alinea’s reputation out there for people to put their food in a microwave at home,” he said. But then he discovered a demand he didn’t know existed. People wanted Alinea ‘to go’. And so he embraced an idea that would see one of the world’s best restaurants have its 15th-anniversary dinner packaged in take-out containers.
Photo: Alinea Caviar Oysters®Courtesy of Grant Achatz
For the anniversary, Achatz said the team shifted up through their kitchen gears in a “serious and dramatic way”. The smells and sounds coming from the kitchen reminded him of the old days, as the team nimbly pivoted back from French comfort food to the level of the craft they loved to cook at. “This whole thing was like a magnification of the very essence of Alinea and what we set out to do 15 years ago.”
Meanwhile, people at home were getting creative. Alinea was inundated with photos of tables draped in linen, the best wine glasses were out and quarantine date night with Alinea food at home was born. “There was a very emotional, visceral thing that was happening,” said Achatz. They had managed to re-create the magic of the Alinea dining experience at home.
It was happening the way Kokonas had called it when the management team had gathered for the crisis meeting in that empty restaurant building all those weeks ago. For Achatz, the choice was simple: “If we rally together and embrace it, this is going to be great. If not, then we’ll be powerless. Together we’re going to be amazing. This is a creative group and we’re going to animate.”
As a result, team morale at Alinea has never been so high, and neither has the momentum to keep going been so strong. “This moment will be iconic,” said Achatz, knowing that these last few weeks of collective toil and triumph will forever be a part of the Alinea legend. “Yeah, it’s really cool, you hear it all the time, when people go through these shared experiences. We were lucky, we furloughed everyone and then three days later we hired back 37 per cent. Then a couple of weeks later we were at 60 per cent and now every employee that chooses to come back is back full-time with the company.”
The prospect of a future re-opening after the coronavirus spike has got Achatz equally excited. “It’s a creative opportunity, a jumping-off point. We might be serving stuff out of plastic containers but it’s still Alinea. And that’s yours, that IP [intellectual property]. You own that. Whoever the chefs are, whatever they’re doing. That’s theirs, that creativity.” For a chef who enjoys working with the creativity of constraint, instead of cranking out 130 covers a night, there is suddenly the chance to become an 'enigma'. “To have all those creative juices flowing, I have this whole property that’s still here, everything’s the same, but my guests are 60 per cent fewer and it’s a great creative range.”
Photo: Pea Soup To Go®Courtesy of Grant Achatz
Ok, so Alinea had some luck on its side. Chicago is a dense urban space where people drive a lot, so take-out is a natural progression, unlike in New York. But Achatz also pointed to the resilience of his team. “I would say that we were adaptable to provide in a time of need based on a situation, but also creative enough and strong enough to say ‘but we’re still Alinea’.
“I feel like this is it. A lot of people are going to go through a lot of pain and have their lives changed forever, but I feel like the opportunity is as much positive - a completely global awareness and clean-slate mentality that we’ve never had. We have it in pockets, but this is so widespread and sweeping and affecting everybody, it might be an interesting reset for everyone."
Now that diners have experienced three-Michelin-star food for $35 at home, instead of dining in for $300, will they still want to dine in when things get back to normal? What happens when an iconic dessert is given to the masses to recreate at home? If people can do it themselves, will they still see the value in the restaurant experience, will it still be as special? Or will they appreciate the expertise and artistry of culinary professionals even more? Nobody knows the answers yet.
Nearly two months on from the “weirdest, craziest and strangest” meeting of his life, Achatz is ready for a whole new kind of new. Nick Kokonas was right. Everything about Alinea has changed and everything about life has also changed, perhaps forever.