From Controversy to Closure: Covid Reality Bites for Grant Achatz

From Controversy to Closure: Covid Reality Bites for Grant Achatz
14 July, 2020

Photo by: Courtesy of Alinea Group

The amuse bouche in question was actually a rather harmless coconut custard with freeze-dried raspberry, Szechuan and cayenne pepper, and was designed by Achatz to evoke emotions in his diners in the wake of the pandemic. In hindsight, the chef said he wished he took the time to post a photo and describe the context for the dish before being taken down by “haters”.

“I do think I should have explained myself prior to letting other people speak for me that had no idea. That part I regret,” Achatz said, adding that the dish was a result of “a deep dive to make the experience of the food reflect everything that we’ve gone through.” Far from being disrespectful, he wanted people to sit up and take notice of the devastation of the virus and face it head-on, rather than ignore it or use it for political or economic leverage, as he believes has happened in the US.

“A lot of people in this country are choosing to pretend it doesn’t exist. That was infuriating to me. The division in this country and the way people are quick to follow news that is not true, or that they don’t understand, or that they didn’t take the time to check. It’s just so unfortunate.” 

Alinea was one of the first restaurants in the US to understand the gravity of the pandemic and anticipate the impact on the industry, implementing stringent safety measures for both staff and guests ahead of state warnings. “During that whole process we approached the pandemic with an immense amount of rigour and discipline, and essentially here in the US established a protocol that the entire restaurant industry would follow,” Achatz said.

“Anyone that knows me at all knows me well enough that they would never in a million years think that the intent of that whole scene was to make light of the pandemic or the people that are suffering from it. That to me is the most surprising thing out of all of this. If I offended someone by recounting a situation that they’ve had being affected by Covid in any way then, of course, I don't want anyone to feel like that and I would apologise to them.”

Frustrated, saddened and scared by professional, personal and political repercussions stemming from the coronavirus pandemic, Achatz said: “I just felt it was my duty to say something about how the global pandemic has not only hurt restaurants but every single person on this planet in some way.” 

Achatz believes the ferocity of the online backlash was perpetrated by a group of former employees with an axe to grind, and who have never even experienced the pop-up. “What they missed was a very important part of this story,” he explained.

The amuse-bouche is served to diners as part of the experience before they arrive at their table. Diners have their temperatures taken, then walk through a dimly lit hallway lined with frosted glass panels filled with coconut-scented fog while eerie music plays. The idea is to evoke feelings of sadness, isolation and fear, reflecting how people have felt over the last 4 months of the pandemic. “It was a new experience, it made you question everything about what was around you,” said Achatz.

At the end of the hallway, the coronavirus-styled snack was served. “We made it kind of spicy, with some cayenne and curry, because it felt like spice was like the evil, the scary, the painful, the hurtful element of the virus. Then on the palate was Szechuan peppercorn. Thinking like, this is raspberry, then weird, and everything about this shouldn’t be in my body. So from a culinary building block that’s what we did.” 

Guests then had a ‘medicinal’ absinthe cocktail before boarding a lift to a hub of energy, with people dining and enjoying themselves outside on a sunny rooftop. “Basically they made it through, there's optimism and hope at the end,” he explained.

The temporary closure of the AIR pop-up might be beyond his control, but as for the amuse-bouche, it’s a valuable lesson learned. “We go through this thing, and the thing that I regret the most is not taking a photo and posting it on my Instagram and telling the story like I just told it to you,” said Achatz, revealing that the controversial dish will remain on the menu - when AIR finally reopens. 

The rigours of running three-Michelin-star Alinea, alongside a mini-empire of restaurants in the Alinea Group, aren’t normally quite this intense. But these aren’t normal times. With a rising death toll, extended lockdowns and political divisions stirring up tension throughout the country, the febrile atmosphere makes social media fertile ground for anyone with a beef to stir up trouble.

But when a staff member actually contracts coronavirus and a restaurant has to close, reality bites. The coronavirus has not gone away, and neither have the challenges it poses for the restaurant industry in America. 

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