Innate curiosity and devotion to precision and control, traits he shares with his mentor Thomas Keller, have brought Grant Achatz from his parents’ restaurant kitchen in Michigan to international attention and acclaim. As chef and co-owner of Alinea, Next, The Aviary, and The Office in Chicago, Achatz has been recognized with multiple kudos. His James Beard Foundation awards include the 2003 Rising Chef Award; 2007 Best Chef: Great Lakes; 2008 Outstanding Chef; 2012 Best New Restaurant; and 2012 Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America. Alinea has been awarded three Michelin stars since 2011 and ranks at number nine on the 2014 S.Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Achatz has published two books. Alinea is about the creation of the restaurant, and My Life, On the Line, includes his battle with stage-four tongue cancer and his subsequent remission.
An enthusiastic proponent of molecular gastronomy, Achatz created a kitchen “laboratory” at Alinea. “When I had the opportunity to build my own kitchen, I thought, hey, let’s wipe our heads clean of conventional kitchen design,” he recalls. “We analyzed the food and style of cooking and built around that.” The Aviary is a drinks restaurant where cocktails and service are given the same attention to detail as food in a four-star restaurant. Bartenders are trained as chefs and the produce and herbs are carefully sourced and procured fresh daily. The Office, located below The Aviary, is a speakeasy and exclusive club. Drinks are served in actual period-piece antiques with homemade custom ice that is either hand chipped or formed in Japanese press molds.
Next opened with the premise of changing the entire menu every three months, with each menu having its own time period and theme. Patrons buy all-inclusive tickets with their reservations. The number of tickets sold dictate how much Next can spend on its food budget and, more important, spread diners evenly throughout the week so the kitchen and staff can ensure a leisurely pace for patrons. The system has been so successful that Alinea adopted the practice in 2012.
For every innovative chef, there’s a strong grounding in the fundamentals, and Achatz credits his alma mater for instilling that in him. “I entered the CIA at a very young age with no fine dining or classic training,” he says. “The school gave me the foundation that is required to execute the cooking style that I now use.” He feels fortunate to have been a part of the bold new food industry that has taken shape in the last 20 years. “I graduated in 1994,” Achatz says, “and a lot has happened since then—the rise of The French Laundry and Per Se, and what they represent for American cuisine; the proliferation of progressive cuisine led by Ferran Adría and Heston Blumenthal; the role of the celebrity chef taking hold in American society. It remains a very exciting time to be in this profession.”
Achatz is now giving back and leading the next generation of culinary stars. He is a member of the Bocuse d’Or USA Foundation Culinary Council and is providing mentorship to the 2015 team, led by fellow alumnus Phillip Tessier ’99. He recently celebrated Dave Beran’s 2014 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef: Great Lakes win. David is executive chef of Next.