Identità Expo

Grant Achatz, perpetual motion

An interview with the great chef from Chicago, a tumour in his past and a mine of ideas and projects ahead


An intense close up shot of Grant Achatz, 41, originally from St.Clair, Michigan. In 2004 he opened Alinea in Chicago, 3 Michelin stars and 26th in the World's 50Best (after his position at number 6). In April 2011 he also opened Next and cocktail bar The Aviary. In the autumn, Roister will open and in 2016 Alinea will change looks in Chicago and will also be a pop-up restaurant in Miami and Madrid

Besides lists and acknowledgements, in order to truly understand the value of Grant Achatz two facts could be enough. The first is in his biography, and you can get more details in the best-seller “Life, On the Line” (on sale on Amazon), written by the chef from St. Clair (Michigan) together with his partner since the early days, Nick Kokonas. In 2008 he had a cancer in his tongue diagnosed. Experts suggested the complete removal of the organ with following radio and chemotherapy. They even gave him two years left. He did not accept the solution and trusted an experimental protocol launched by the University of Chicago. At the end of an exhausting series of treatments, in 2009 they told him every trace of the illness had disappeared.

The second note is a quote we read in large letters in the website of his flagship restaurant Alinea: «People like to think the creative process is romantic. The artist drifts to sleep at night, to be awakened by the subliminal echoes of his or her next brilliant idea. The truth, for me at least, is that creativity is primarily the result of hard work and study».

Achatz did not express a different concept when opening our interview, on the occasion of the S.Pellegrino Young Chef of The Year award for which he was summoned as juror, beside other global fine-dining giants (Gaston Acurio, Massimo Bottura, Yoshihiro Narisawa, Joan Roca…).

The tweet by Grant Achatz (second from the right) on his experience in the jury of the S.Pellegrino Young Chef last Friday

The tweet by Grant Achatz (second from the right) on his experience in the jury of the S.Pellegrino Young Chef last Friday

In the past, you moved your team from Chicago to the Eleven Madison Park in New York. We recently read about new pop-ups for Alinea in Miami and Madrid. Can you give us more details on dates and content?
Unfortunately not. People don’t understand how difficult it is to move your restaurant to a distant place for some time. There are a thousand variable at stake: logistics, moving people and ingredients, the creation of the tasting menus, costs, sponsorships… Only once most details are defined we will be able to communicate everything.

Why a pop-up in Spain and not one in Italy too?
Because no one in Italy ever asked me to.

Do you feel any connection with our country?
Yes, the first time I came here for culinary tourism was in 1995. Then one of the themes/tasting menus at our Next that I hold dearest is the one we dedicated to Sicilian cuisine. There were bucatini with bottarga, clams with oranges and fennel, cassata and cannoli. It was a big success.

As for Next, you were the first to sell seats in advance, like in a theatre or a classic music concert. What is the state of the project five years later?
We didn’t have the success we hoped for because people still have prejudice: it is hard to uproot centennial habits. For us though, it is still a great solution, in fact it is the future. Even for a country like the United States where the no show problem is certainly not resolved by asking the credit card number when people make a reservation on the phone. In the case of a no show, a client can still block the charge.

STAR. Grant Achatz in Milan

STAR. Grant Achatz in Milan

Next, the format of the Aviary bar ready to spread around the world, the opening of the new Roisters in the autumn. The Achatz-Kokonas machine cannot stay still. Is it true that in 2016 you will also change the looks at Alinea?
Yes, even though it is not necessary because the restaurant runs perfectly. It’s a question of motivation, which we must always keep high. We will spend half a million dollars to rewrite many details.

In the dining room or in the kitchen?
The experience as a whole will change. It will be different yet always focused on our two main concepts: fun and delicious.

A few days ago Joan Roca explained to us how the next great revolution in the kitchen will not be accomplished by chefs nor producers but by all the people who give life to a restaurant. What’s your opinion?
I totally agree. Hundreds of people work in the Alinea group. An organization of people who today have great responsibilities, on all levels. The future of our profession is in their hands.

Rubriche - Zanattamente buono

Gabriele Zanatta’s opinion: on establishments, chefs and trends in Italy and the world


Gabriele Zanatta

born in Milan, 1973, freelance journalist, he's been working as a co-author and coordinator of both Identità Web and Identità Golose World restaurant guidebook for the past 7 years
twitter @gabrielezanatt