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It’s showtime in Manhattan for Grant Achatz this week as he completes a “personal goal” with the opening of The Aviary restaurant in New York, a huge dining space on the 35th floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel.
“Since The French Laundry and opening Alinea, there’s always been a mythical thing with New York as the best culinary city globally,” explains Achatz just hours after opening night, "to be a part of that fabric is always something I’ve aspired to do.”
The Aviary is a powerhouse that kicks out a distinct combination of cocktails and cuisine, Achatz and his long time business partner, Nick Kokonas, have been operating the same venue in Chicago for seven years but, apart from one-offs and pop-ups, this is their first opening outside the city.
“I’ve always bucked against the idea that you have to be in New York,” explains Achatz, “I joke with my chef friends here, they’ve always poke and prod at me, ‘you’re a big fish in a small pond in Chicago, if you really want to prove yourself you have to come to New York’. Come on, I always say, Chicago is serious and we have great restaurants, but they’re right, New York is a world stage. I’m not downplaying Chicago in any way, I think the city is amazing and it’s culinary power has been growing increasingly, especially since getting the James Beard Awards. I think the restaurants there are amazing, it’s just become very apparent here that at any moment you can have Pete Wells, Will Guidara, Daniel Humm, Kate Krader, all these folk just popping in, we don’t get that in Chicago.”
On top of the extra spotlight and surprise of VIP guests, the New York opening is also very different for Achatz because it’s the first time in his career he’s been asked to produce an all-day menu. “We’ve never even considered doing a breakfast or brunch menu, it was only the hotel that told us that everyone wants to come to our area and look at the view, it would be foolish on both of our parts if we didn’t afford that opportunity. At first I was super apprehensive but when I started to think about it I started to think that creatively this could be kind of cool. Then what really flicked the switch was being in Melbourne, the breakfast is so good there. The irony for me was that I came originally from a breakfast place, I started in a diner, and I never thought at that time food could be creative. Now our whole brand is about being creative and I have to apply this to breakfast. It was fun writing the menu.”
“We’re not going to change the world but it’s certainly not poached eggs on English muffin with Hollandaise and ham, but it might be a riff on that. It’s very Alinea-fied breakfast, we’re still in a hotel, a very high-end hotel in Manhattan, some people still want to come down and have breakfast. How do we provide that opportunity but also identify it with the Alinea brand? So, what I did was start by going through everything you would typically find at a breakfast establishment: what is the Alinea version of omelette? What is the Alinea version of eggs over easy? What is the Alinea version of oatmeal? You have all these categories and you just kind of twist them, somehow approachable, somehow breakfast food but with the hallmark of creative cooking."
One wonders how this might translate to dishes? But with items on the upcoming breakfast menu carrying titles such as ‘Not Quite Avocado Toast’, you get a small idea of how the menu, when it launches in the coming months, will look.
“By my own admission, it’s obligatory to have some pancakes but I hate having heavy, drenched, syrup-soaked pancakes,” says Achatz. “Our thought was, ‘what is the alternative?’ Easy, you make super light, fluffy pancakes - what about even making a pan cake? In my mind the pancake is basically a vessel for flavour, it’s a medium, you either throw syrup, fruit, cream, bacon, eggs on them. They’re basically a vehicle for all those other things. So, what if we take that idea and push it? Make something that’s kind of like an Angel Fruit Cake, something like an English Pound Cake, something big, fluffy, light, luxurious. Something that doesn’t resemble an American pancake at all, but we give you this giant Lazy Susan that has everything: a garnish of bacon, whipped cream, caviar, eggs that have been steamed with a cappuccino steamer so they are super light, fruit, syrup - all of these condiments and you just customise.”
And what about those faux avocados? “Well, we also poke at things," explains Achatz, "I like avocado toast, I think it’s awesome, but how does Alinea treat that? We come up with interesting ways to manipulate the avocado, but then we also say, ‘wait a minute, do we even need avocado?’ What is the next avocado toast? My mind immediately goes to young coconut, I feel like that texture, it’s healthy, lends itself to breakfast. So then I’m looking at using young coconut, let’s just have a little bit of avocado in there, maybe a little avocado pudding? Maybe we make with no avocado at all? That’s kind of how we are thinking at the moment.”
New Yorkers and its visitors to the city will be happy to finally sample Achatz outside of Chicago, but the rest of the world can also get a little excited as Achatz explains the plan has always been to expand the operation to other locations. “We always knew that The Aviary was the concept we could scale, we never anticipated scaling Alinea or Next but we always knew that Aviary had that potential. For us, this is an opportunity to really test that idea, we’re entering basically the hardest city in the world. Despite the fact that we’re looking at Tokyo, London, Singapore, Hong Kong and all of these other far flung places, some of which we don’t even speak the same native language, we always felt like New York would be the hardest one to crack. I feel this is kind of a testing ground for us to enter other cities.”