By J.P. Anderson | May 11, 2015 | Food & Drink
Ten years after kicking off their partnership with the astonishing Alinea, chef Grant Achatz and partner Nick Kokonas are preparing to change the dining game once again.
Grant Achatz (left) and Nick Kokonas are expanding their restaurant portfolio, redesigning their popular dining reservation system, and reinventing their smash hit, Alinea.
It’s been a whirlwind of a decade for James Beard Award-winning chef Grant Achatz and business partner Nick Kokonas, from the heady highs of opening internationally acclaimed culinary destinations Alinea, Next, and The Aviary to the scare of Achatz’s 2007 diagnosis of and subsequent victory over stage 4 tongue cancer. As their first game-changing restaurant, Alinea, turns 10 on May 4, the pair reflects on its reconception, new projects Roister and reservation system Tock, and how their partnership has evolved over the years.
You’re celebrating the 10th anniversary of Alinea by reinventing the place. What’s the plan?
Nick Kokonas: We’ve all been to a great restaurant where you go back a few years later and it’s still great, then one day you go and it feels like you’re in your grandparents’ living room. That hasn’t happened to Alinea yet, but we never want it to happen. We’re founded on an idea of innovation and forward thinking, so we have a lot of plans.
Does your vision involve reshaping the space itself?
NK: After 10 years, any restaurant needs to be redone to a certain extent, just from wear and tear. So certainly, we are going to reinvigorate the interior. But if we start to do that, we start to say, How can we reimagine the guests experience as well?
Grant Achatz: Nick mentioned that the restaurant was founded on constant evolution and reinvention. We’ve always done a good job of that with different aspects of Alinea, whether it’s the food or the way the food is presented or the service. Now, we have the perfect excuse, after being opened for 10 years, to pull back the lens and look at the physical space, so it feels like another piece of the puzzle of the evolution of the restaurant.
You’re also opening a new restaurant, Roister. What is the inspiration for that?
NK: We have Alinea, which is ultra-fine dining, and it’s not like you want to eat at Alinea every week. Next is pretty fine dining and at a higher price point than a typical restaurant, but lower than Alinea’s. So we want to do a creative place where you can go once a week and sit down and eat a meal in an hour and still have people who respect the ingredients and bring in the best quality products.
GA: Nick and I always look at restaurants and what’s trending, and most of the time, in whatever medium you’re looking at, the innovators question the existing, identify it, and try to do the opposite. And within our little bubble, Alinea has founded itself on cutting-edge technique and ingredient manipulation, and it’s done very well for us. But what is new? What is the opposite of that? Maybe it’s an experience that’s not as long or as refined in the same way. Maybe the cooking techniques are a little more rustic or different.
What has the process of launching Tock been like?
NK: We’ve got a world-class engineering team, and we’re rebuilding everything that we pioneered with Next and Alinea and Aviary [with our ticketing system], and then these 15 other restaurants that are using it. We’re going to relaunch it in May or June with a redesigned interface, and we literally have hundreds of restaurants that want to use it. It’s a worldwide thing.
GA: I was skeptical of the concept when Nick presented it, because unlike food, where I’m pushing to go outside the box, my [thinking was] if you wanted a reservation for a restaurant, you picked up the phone and you spoke to a person. But what it’s done for me is that now it’s really about breaking down the existing model of a restaurant, and not just in terms of reservations. It’s opened my eyes to a lot of ways we can make the experience better for the guest, whether it’s how they’re seated or how they’re contacted.
How has Chicago’s dining scene changed since Alinea opened?
GA: You’re seeing more restaurants change the way they interact with guests. There are a lot of chef’s counters and chef’s tables because guests want to interact with the people who are cooking the food—they want that intimate connection. You have more open kitchens, more sushi counter-style dining, where people can see the action, talk to the chefs, hear about their thought processes.
NK: I also think the quality here has gone up. Even if you want to open a fried chicken place, you gotta get the food right.
GA: What’s also trending is that there are a lot of specialty focuses. Like Brendan Sodikoff opening High Five Ramen, and all they do is ramen. Their goal is to make the best ramen, and that’s it. Whether it’s fried chicken or whatever, it’s that specialty mentality.
How has your partnership evolved over the years?
NK: It sounds bizarre, but we didn’t know each other when we built Alinea. I felt like I was going to help Grant build his dream restaurant and then I would go away. We did a good job working together, but it was compartmentalized. Then, of course, there is that part where he almost died in the middle—you tend to get to know someone at that point. Obviously, I didn’t go through it the same way as Grant, but I have a far greater appreciation of what we have and what we do because of it. The coolest part for me is that we make about 500 people happy every night. There’s worse work out there than walking into Alinea and 30 percent of the people are from out of the country, all there to celebrate and have a great time. 1723 N. Halsted St., 312-867-0110
Photography by Peter Hoffman
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