It’s about 12 hours after the big ceremony when I sit down to chat with Grant Achatz. The Alinea kitchen has already been cleaned and groups of small teams are busy prepping to host the James Beard Foundation’s (JBF) dinner. The remnants of their tenth anniversary party a few nights prior have all been washed away, no sign of the sabered Champagne, the bouncing buzz of celebration felt inside the kitchen as the clock hit midnight replaced with an unfaltering sense of concentration. They’d made it, made it together, a restaurant that opened with a bang in 2005 was celebrating with a bang 10 years later, then straight back to work.
Achatz has had a little time to reflect on the occasion, a big event for any restauranteur, even bigger if you’ve spent it sat directly under the spotlight. A constant stream of tasting menus, now up to 88 covers a night, no matter the night, an endless stream of covers consistently and creatively delivered, it’s an achievement for any chef and one that most would be happy to relish - not Achatz, in fact, he seems more worried that guests eating at the anniversary dinner didn’t quite receive the true Alinea experience.
“As a chef, as a restaurateur, you go; what is the priority? Is it that you have people share a birthday party for a restaurant or that people coming into your restaurant on any night have the best possible experience?”
I tell him he’s allowed one night, one celebration to let his hair down but in a move that says a lot about the chef and exactly why he has been so successful in the past ten years, he quickly pushes my suggestion aside. “Some of these people had never been to Alinea before, some people had been waiting ten years and happened to pick this day that we were doing this weird thing, so their impression of this restaurant is their experience on a night when we were doing something a little bit different. I really want people to know Alinea for what it is but then I question myself and say; maybe this is what it is.”
And it’s the holistic ‘experience’ the chef constantly speaks about that is set to become a large part of restaurant’s future as the team get ready to close Alinea at the beginning of 2016 for a major redesign and reconceptualisation.
“We’re going to rip it right apart, aesthetically it’s going to be very different. When you think about the undertaking of taking a restaurant that is completely full every night, it’s bananas - why change it? Nick and I have talked about it for over a year and at times we have both argued the point that; look, the restaurant is full every night, the team is great, we’re able to pay them well, be creators and be influencers. Why tear it apart if it’s not broken?”
But following the status quo is not what keeps you at the forefront, something Achatz understands well. “We don’t want to become a museum of ourselves, the guiding philosophy of this restaurant since day one has been ‘keep it going’” and it's this approach that will be the driving catalyst for what the chef says is going to be a major redesign. “We’re taking influence from old European aesthetics, so where Alinea was very straight line, minimalist decor, we’re going to take influences and modernise from old Parisian town houses and old architecture in Barcelona. That’s going to be great, getting rid of the hallway, we’re talking between 600,000 and one million dollars in renovation but to me it’s all about the experience.”
He explains further that he’s sitting in a unique place that many restauranteurs never reach. “We get to wipe the chalkboard clean which very few restaurants ever get to do…when does a restaurant have the opportunity to change the experience?” It’s an opportunity the chef plans to take full advantage of. “One of the things that has bothered me with my style of cuisine is the ‘spoiler’ - people in the dining room seeing what happens before it comes to them - bummer, right? They see before how it works. So, contrary to everything I have been taught which is the very traditional institution of bringing people in slowly over a long period of time so the kitchen doesn’t get overwhelmed and you can provide the best possible experience for every diner...we need to question that. ”
The chef says a number of ideas are being played with at the moment as to how the 'spoiler effect' can be kept intact for diners, private booths are out of the question, but perhaps a menu planned in stages could work, as he puts it: “Grouping people and unleashing them into the experience at the same time. Setting whatever stage you want them to see and then letting them interact…In theory we could send people through the different rooms of the restaurant but what if, hypothetically, one room was dark, one room was bright, what if one room smelt of a certain scent to go with a certain course, what if one room had live music that was choreographed with food, what if we projected something on the wall? What can we do that will allow the team to collaborate, create and curate certain experiences throughout the evening where we can move you around. It’s thinking off-the-plate.”
“There might be a room where there are no tables, there might be a fire in the middle of the room or it might be pitch black and you have to find the food. Elements of art gallery theatrics but we still want to make it a restaurant, at some point you’re going to sit down at the table and have food", he laughs.
During the months of January and Febuary 2016 while this reconceptualisation takes place the plan has always been to take Alinea on tour. We broke the news last year that Achatz was planning to open Alinea in a temporary location in New York as a pop-up restaurant but we can finally reveal that this idea has always been part of a bigger plan to take the restaurant on tour and host pop-ups in locations all over the world. He says him and business partner Nick Kokonas are now close to putting pen to paper on two contracts, one that’s sure to excite the food lovers of Europe.
“Right now, we’re about to sign contract with pop-ups in Madrid and Miami…the contracts for these will come before New York, there’s a question mark at the moment with the New York project but Madrid and Miami are happening soon. We don’t have exact dates or exact locations, even which one will come first but we’re expecting January or February 2016.”
The chef says this will be a full restaurant move, seeing the whole team rock up in the countries to help transport the full Alinea experience, but it will be as much about research and development for Alinea’s future as it will be about feeding the thousands of fans they have around the world. “Even in Miami we hope to be inspired by the culture and the ingredients.”
Sitting down to chat with Achatz just days after he celebrated the monumental anniversary, it’s hard to imagine him slowing down, becoming a face or a name above a door or even leaving the kitchen. It feels that right now, at a time in his career when many chefs would be slowing down with one foot out of the kitchen, Achatz is staying put, sticking right behind the stoves as he turns the heat dial way past 11. “As we expand, as we grow, we open Roister - we do Aviary in London, New York, Singapore, Tokyo, Hong Kong - whatever we end up doing, I don’t ever want to feel that I can’t walk behind the line at any of the restaurants. To me that’s really important, it’s what I should be doing. Alinea turning ten and us doing a complete reconceptualisation of the restaurant in Janauary and Febuary is one of the most exciting things ever, this is my thing."
“I thrive on being that cook and having that energy and…”, he stops and looks at the ground, he’s in a reflective state and a little sad at me questioning if he has considered stepping away from the line and into a more culinary ambassador style role - a path that many chefs seem to take. “Recently I’ve been reflecting on a lot of the people who have come through here, when I look at the list of the alumni, cooks that have gone on to do amazing things, you can’t deny the sense of pride. It kind of freaks me out a little and makes me feel I have certain responsibilities and you have to be more mature and do certain things. You look at Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, Albert and Ferran Adria, Andoni Luis Aduriz, Juan Mari Arzak - the people that are the forefathers of cuisine as we know it, the people that are the pillars, they still do everything with such class.”
Speaking about his early mentor and now close friend Thomas Keller, one of the guests attending that evening’s JBF dinner, he smiles: “Thomas is probably going to be a little bit pissed tonight, he wants me to sit down, but I want to be in the kitchen. I want to cook for these people, for all of these people.” Could you ever leave the kitchen? He shrugs, evidently unsure how to answer, then says something that seems to explain immedietely his reluctance to even speak about the idea. “In a way it feels like a departure from creativity.”
Video interview with Achatz in 2014.