Grant Achatz currently holds a total of four Michelin stars, three for his flagship restaurant, Alinea, and one for his ever-changing themed restaurant, Next. Both restaurants are located in downtown Chicago, which is also home to Achatz’s high-concept cocktail bars, The Aviary and The Office.
Known for his innovative molecular cuisine and interactive, theatrical presentation, Grant Achatz remains one of America’s most original and exciting chefs after over twenty years on the culinary scene. He has won several awards, including The James Beard Foundation Award for Rising Star Chef of the Year, 2002, The Jean Banchet Award for Best Celebrity Chef, 2007, and the James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Chef, 2008, while his flagship restaurant, Alinea, was named Best Restaurant in America by Gourmet Magazine in 2006. It makes frequent appearances in the S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants, and topped the list of Elite Traveler’s Top 100 Restaurants in the World an impressive 6 years running, from 2011-2016.
Achatz began his culinary career working in his parents’ Michigan restaurant as a teen, before enrolling in the Culinary Institute of America, from which he graduated in 1994. His training was completed in some of the world’s best restaurants, including a spell at Spain’s El Bulli, under molecular maverick Ferran Adrià, and four years at Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry, rising to the position of sous chef after his first two years. Achatz credits his time at The French Laundry with teaching him ‘how to cook and how to live life,’ and even named his son, Keller, after his former mentor.
At the age of 26, Achatz became executive chef at Trio, in Evanston, Illinois, where his cooking caught the attention of future business partner, Nick Kokonas. In 2005, Achatz and Kokonas opened their first restaurant, Alinea, in Chicago’s Lincoln Park area. The name, 'Alinea' means ‘off the line’, which Kokonas explains is a play on words, referring both to the atypical, esoteric nature of the cuisine, and, more literally, to restaurant food coming ‘off the line’.
Achatz quickly gained attention in the culinary world, delighting critics and diners alike with his innovation and sense of spectacle. He has become known for creating iconic dishes that are part gastronomy, part theatre, such as the Table Dessert, an abstract artwork of different textures and colours, plated directly onto a tablecloth in a series of swirls, dots, sprinkled powders and aromatic puffs of alchemical smoke. Other ingenious dishes include Salad Centrepiece, a perfect miniature forest of green salad shoots still growing in soil, and Apple Balloons, edible apple-flavour balloons filled with helium.
In 2007 a cruel twist of fate saw Achatz diagnosed with stage four cancer of the tongue, which led to him briefly losing his sense of taste. For a while, the recommended treatment was amputation, but thanks to innovative new treatment from the University of Chicago, he made a full recovery and has been cancer-free since 2009. It seems particularly fitting that an experimenter like Achatz should be saved by embracing innovation, and he claims that recovering gave him renewed drive to succeed, telling interviewers that, ‘I was on fire with an amount of energy I never had before. I got a second chance and did not want to screw it up.’
In 2020, as the entire world faced challenging times in the form of the coronavirus pandemic, it seemed that Achatz, along with business partner Nick Kokonas, would persevere yet again. The ongoing crisis hit the hospitality sector hard, with many restaurants closing their doors to the public in order to protect staff and diners. But Achatz and Kokonas came up with an idea that enabled all staff, that are able, to return to the kitchens of Alinea - Michelin star takeaway. In May, the restaurant even prepared a special six-course tasting menu in honour of their fifteenth anniversary, featuring a version of the iconic Table Dessert, which diners were taught how to plate at home by Achatz himself, via Instagram.