In his search for the impossible in the restaurant world, Chef Grant Achatz continually draws international attention to the Chicago culinary scene. His restaurant, Alinea, currently ranked 9th in the world on the 2014 list of the 50 Best Restaurants, has made even the most cynical on the East and West Coasts of the U.S. take note.
In the podcast below, Chef Achatz talks about some of the criteria that helped push him to the top. In speaking of the work ethic in the kitchen for him and his team he said, "We bleed for making [Alinea and NEXT] as good as we possibly can and we are all scared to death of failure. It permeates the creative process and the execution on a daily basis of what we do. Every day when we walk through the door, we are trying to be the best we can be. And if you fall anywhere short of that, it's a problem."
With take-no-prisoners vision, three Michelin Stars and seven James Beard awards, I was surprised that, on the Alinea website, Chef describes the food rather simply as 'fun and delicious." I probed him on this. "Happiness and elation come into our experiences in the restaurant. It is almost more of our priority to make people happy than it is to make them satisfied gastronomically," he told me.
But the dining experience at Alinea isn't all about fun. It is also about taking chances and self-discovery for the chefs, as well as the diners. Chef explained that not everyone is excited to try exotic dishes in the ways that Chef intends them to be discovered. It is often a telling experience for the diner to learn what they will and will not try. "There are varying reactions from diners. Some are offended. Some giggle. Some refuse," Achatz explained, and that seemed OK with him. "If we dictate how you feel, we are robbing the experience from the guests. We talk about emotion in cooking... crafting an experience that is like walking through the Art Institute and being moved by a certain piece of art. That's our goal with a lot of this stuff - pulling on their emotional triggers, making people feel... and then they get to eat it!"
Above all else, Chef and I discussed how having tongue cancer in 2007 and losing his sense of taste for almost a year informed him as a chef and made him better at his art. In a wild turn of misfortune becoming fortune, Achatz's sense of taste returned one taste at a time: sweet, then salt, then acid and so on, highlighting for Chef the nuance and balance between each. It turned out that this would be a rare opportunity that most chefs wish they had the chance to experience, if they didn't have to have cancer to do it.
Enjoy this relaxed and natural podcast with Chef and Restaurateur Grant Achatz, and feel free to leave any comments below. In addition, look for Chef's newest restaurant, Roister, set to open on Fulton Market, next to his second restaurant, NEXT, in late summer.