By Gary Duff | December 29, 2017 | Food & Drink
Michelin-star chef Grant Achatz chatted with us about his latest New York City restaurants, The Aviary and The Office, and why he decided to bring his culinary talents to the Big Apple.
What made you want to open your latest spots, The Aviary and The Office, in New York City?
GRANT ACHATZ: Well, I think there’s always been a level of proving yourself in New York. I have, obviously, a lot of industry friends there. They were like, “Oh, yeah, you’re a big fish in a small pond. If you really want to establish yourself, you need to come to the big city and do it in New York.” So there was that. I think it was a perfect storm of opportunity for us, partnering with the Mandarin Oriental in that iconic space with that view overlooking Central Park. I’m very close with chef Thomas Keller and he’s in the building. It all seemed to fit for the time and place, honestly.
I've always found you to be a chef that has a succinct vision for what each of your restaurants is supposed to be and mean. What do Alinea, Next, Roister, The Aviary, and The Office respresent to you?
GA: For Alinea, it’s always been about constant creativity and evolution. That would be the hallmark of that restaurant and still is, just constantly reinventing and evolving. Next is a shape-shifter. We thematically choose to do the four menus a year but the restaurant dramatically changes, both in its personality, service, and food and beverage offerings. Roister, the newest one to come online, is kind of the anti-Alinea in that it’s, by intent, not super refined. It’s loud, it’s kind of rustic, it’s boisterous. With The Aviary, I’ve always looked at it like the Alinea for drinks. It was always about taking that approach to thinking outside the box, in terms of flavor combinations, and rethinking the vessels that you put cocktails in, and taking that creativity to the extreme. And The Office, it’s a traditional speak-easy style bar, and I just liked the juxtaposition of The Aviary and The Office, especially because they’re right next to each other. There’s this great yin and yang that I think really compliments them both and makes them stand out in a different way. I think, without that juxtaposition, they would be less successful on their own.
There are plenty of chefs that make great food, but at some point there's got to be something beyond that that turns a good chef into a great chef, no?
GA: I hate to keep going back to the creativity, but for me, that’s what I want my legacy to be. That’s what I want people to think of me and say about me when I’m gone or after I eventually retire and stop cooking. I’m 43 now. Alinea’s been open for over 12 years and I’m just very proud of the fact that we’ve kept pushing in terms of the creativity. It would be awesome if 35 years from now, young cooks coming out of culinary school flipped open the Alinea cookbook or watched something like the Chef's Table Netflix documentary and said to themselves, “Throughout his entire career, he just never stopped pushing the creativity.” To me, that’s what it’s all about.
There was a period of time where you worked for one of Chicago's best chefs, Charlie Trotter, but it wasn't the greatest environment for you to thrive. Did you feel you needed that setback to recognize a great opportunity when you came to work for Thomas Keller at The French Laundry?
GA: I think that was very much the case. Thomas Keller is just a hard worker, right? I remember he would be the first one in and the last one to leave. He would dive into the pot sink and scrub pots and pans, mop the floor. Nothing was beneath him. Charlie had a very different management style. I never ever saw him cook and he was kind of like a dictator, in a way; arms crossed, standing at the front of the kitchen, giving orders. It was totally different. I think, for me, it was disheartening at Trotter’s because I always dreamed of learning, shoulder-to-shoulder, with a great chef, and I found that with Thomas at The French Laundry.
Are there areas at Alinea or your other restaurants you still want to explore creatively?
GA: Most definitely. We’re in the midst of construction here in Chicago, because our goal is to create a world-class music venue hand-in-hand with Alinea's food. I think, even in New York, when you think of some of the iconic music venues—whether it’s, I don’t know, the Village Vanguard, or the old Stork Club, or whatever it may be—typically, you can go find great music or great food, but it’s really hard to find them both in the same venue. That’s always been a very interesting challenge for us conceptually because there’s so many factors. Think of a bustling restaurant, a lot of musicians in particular are very picky about their venues and acoustics.
For us at Alinea, it’s just relentless. I like to say our driving creative model is fueled by figuring out what the impossible is and then trying to achieve it. I think of the helium balloon as a perfect example of that. We said, “How can I make food float? That sounds impossible. How do you make floating food edible?” Then you throw that gauntlet out there, and then you just figure it out. That’s the principle of Alinea.
What's on your horizon for 2018? I heard there's a cocktail book in the works.
GA: Well, I typically say nothing because, [Laughs] if I’m in Chicago, I’m still in the restaurants every day, maybe 12 to 14 hours a day cooking, just like I watched Thomas Keller do. We have The Aviary book coming out. That’s kind of a big project that we’ve been working on. The possibility of potentially taking The Aviary and The Office to some of my favorite cities in the world such as London, Tokyo, and Barcelona, would be awesome. So you just never know what the curve that’s going to come up on you is going to take you.
Photography courtesy Christian Seel