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Grant Achatz: "We Built a Restaurant"

Grant Achatz: "We Built a Restaurant"

As Grant Achatz and his team get ready to open Alinea Madrid we sit down with the chef to find out why this has been one of his biggest projects yet.

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“It’s not our environment, it’s not like we’re used to, we don’t even have an exhaust hood in the kitchen. We’re using this smoking gun for one of the dishes with cinnamon and I look up and see all these smoke detectors and I think, ‘oh, shit - what if we trigger that and the sprinklers go off? What if it’s too noisy? We’re in an open kitchen with brand new equipment and the oven doors have these huge magnets on them and when they close it’s a big whack.”

I’m sat with Grant Achatz on the night before he’s set to open for the first week of his long awaited Alinea pop-up in Madrid - something he’s been planning forover a year now and something, that in less than 24 hours, opens to the world. The above are the thoughts he says are keeping him awake at night.

For five weeks, Achatz and 43 of his staff members from the Alinea restaurant in Chicago have taken up residence inside the NHCollection Hotel in Madrid. The first week of the project, which is now complete, involved split dinners between chef David Muñoz at the DiverXO restaurant and Achatz and his Alinea crew - a crazy set of evenings that saw guests literally swap seats, restaurants and settings half way through their meal. A four-hands dinner like no other and a perfect way for Achatz and his American team to get to grips with European dining habits, requests, ingredients, a largely Spanish speaking clientele and all the extra cigarette breaks they demand.

Then, for four weeks only, from January 19th - February 6th - Alinea Madrid opens, bringing with them the classic dishes that have made the restaurant famous all over the world and masterfully mixing them together with their own, unique take on Spanish cuisine.

Take a tour with the chef and our journalist Ryan King... 

Along with the 43 staff from Chicago - split 50/50 between front of house and the dining room - there’s 16 custom built tables cut to the same specifications of those found at Alinea, 62 designer chairs built to mimic those back in Chicago, 320-square meters of carpet covering the floor, wall and ceiling - an open kitchen at the heart of the dining room covered in 120-square metres of vinyl flooring and kitted out with brand spanking new equipment - there's even a 1920s Speakeasy Bar for customers to relax in style before and after dinner. It’s taken hundreds of man hours and thousands of screws to build what is essentially a brand new restaurant created by the famous Spanish designer Lázaro Rosa-Violán - on the one condition that it would only be there as a temporary space. Calling this a pop-up seems disrespectful - like calling the Great Wall of China a simple excersise in stacking bricks - it just doesn’t do justice. 

“It’s like opening a new restaurant”, explains Achatz, “and opening a new restaurant is never easy.” They’ve transformed what was once a typical hotel breakfast canteen into a space that any chef would pay to inhabit - something even Achatz, the chef who sits at the centre of it all, seems a little shocked about. “We flew here in October to what was the space and I kept saying, ‘it’s a cafeteria’ and they were saying, ‘don’t worry, it will all change’. When I arrived a few days ago there was a little bit of carpet down but there were no lights, no paint, just carpet - it was still really hard to tell what it would look and feel like and I just thought, there’s no way they’ll have it all done.”

“It wouldn’t feel personalised if we hadn’t gone to these lengths - when we did the Eleven Madison Park swap we brought all our service-ware and our food, but it still felt like EMP, when we leave this place in four weeks they’ll rip it all out.”

Achatz admits candidly that the food is actually one of the simplest parts of the plan, “that all comes together easily - the logistics are crazy”. They’ve called on local suppliers for products, worked to understand the different meaning of urgency in Europe compared with The States and begged or borrowed whatever they didn’t have - “we visited Mario Sandoval’s restaurant and borrowed his rotary evaporator for a month.”

“The hardest things are the things you wouldn’t expect. All of the equipment and ingredients are completely different to what we’re used to, so we have adapted many of our cooking techniques. For example, for us, having a high speed blender is critical, they don’t have it. Something as simple as acetate - plastic sheets that we use to dehydrate things, they were really flimsy so in the dehydrator they would shrivel up and shrink - not durable like the ones back home.”

“We want to bring Chicago and Alinea here, or at least part of it, but we also feel very strongly that we want to pay homage to the amazing ingredients we can find here in the market and some of the culinary influences to my food from when I had my stagiaire at elBulli. Some of the dishes you’ll recognise straight from Alinea, some are riffs of quintessential Chicago dishes like our hot dog and then some, the ‘Jar, Can, Jar’ dish is a direct influence from the prevalence of preserved ingredients that you find here in Spain; white asparagus, canned seafood; mussels and clams.”

Though it’s challenging, for Achatz, who says his time spent at elBulli back in 2000 was a pivotal part of his career, returning to Spain to actually open a restaurant is something he seems genuinely excited about. “It’s really cool to do the full circle. I’ve come at least once a year since 99 to Spain. I’ve always loved it - it went way beyond elBulli - it was a big part of it but I’ve had so many great meals in this country. Last time we were here doing research for Tapas Andoni Luis Aduriz took us through all the old parts of San Sebastian, it’s so inspiring, we don’t have that. I wish we could have the ability to have that type of environment back at home.

It’s a relatively new development to see chefs undertaking tours of this magnitude, we’ve had René Redzepi and Noma in Japan, the Roca Brother’s tour of Latin America and Heston Blumenthal in Australia. Chefs now, no matter where they’re placed in the world, have a global reach and Achatz says something like this would just not have been possible five years ago. Tickets have sold quickly and there’s a waiting list for those still hoping to have the chance of tasting Alinea on European shores.

As well as feeding a growing audience and expanding the Alinea name, there’s a highly practical element to these tours. Alinea in Chicago is currently undergoing a massive refurbishment, a full rip out and totally new design, and the tour, which will arrive in Miami just 10 days after they leave Madrid, allows Achatz to maintain his crew, to pay staff members that have been by his side for 10 years, to keep them close. After all, it’s many of these staff members who immediately make the space in Madrid feel like Alinea, before a plate has ever been served.

I ask if fans can expect more tours like this? If we really are at the point of a world tour from a chef and his crew? “We want to see how Madrid and Miami goes first, it’s really nice to do them - great for the team, great for inspiration - it’s twelve degrees in Chicago today so to get out of Chicago in the winter is nice. Nick Kokonas (his business partner) and I were saying that every January, February and March we should do something like this. Get away from Chicago and take the opportunity to bring the team.”

We spend the rest of the chat speaking about that team, how all efforts are made to keep them at Alinea and how tours like this will eventually influence the food his young chefs go on to cook in their own careers. We touch on the idea that chefs are now travelling further and further for inspiration, about students taking stagiaires all over the world, how emphasis is changing and how the lines between Haute, Modern, New Nordic, Hyper-Local, French, Italian and Asian cuisine are blurring. We think about that culinary crossroad, the point at which all these ideas are meeting and melting together and we ponder what type of Global Gastronomy that might bring about in the future.


With special thanks to the NHCollection Hotel and Luis Gasper for pictures.  

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