David Tamarkin interviews Grant Achatz
The top chef talks to Time Out Chicago about his new restaurants, the nature of trends, and why he likes to eat old-fashioned food.
Achatz is one of the most innovative chefs in the world, and his first restaurant, Alinea, is considered one of the best in the country. In a few months, Achatz, 36, will open two new venues: Next, a restaurant that will feature four menus a year, each one representative of a place (say, Paris) as well as a time (1912); and next-door Aviary, a lounge where Achatz hopes to push the limits of what constitutes a cocktail.
How do you think food trends happen?
Trends are cycling really quickly now, and I think that’s good and bad. It’s just really difficult to stay ahead with the Internet and people being able to literally take 30 seconds and go online and figure out what every chef in the world is doing yesterday. That’s what really perpetuates a food trend.
Next seems to place a lot of value on looking back, whereas Alinea looks forward. Is this a shift in the way you’re looking at food?
Here’s the irony in what I do: When I go out to eat, I like classic French food. I like amazing Japanese food that has such a history that it goes back hundreds of years. And I also like really innovative food as well. At Alinea, that’s our kind of guiding light—we need to innovate, we need to be original, we need to try to push boundaries. But for me as a person and as a chef, I like to eat cassoulet. I like to eat really classic Italian food. And…I always found that somewhat limiting at Alinea, that I couldn’t cook a really nice beef rossini, because people would go: What is he doing? We’re coming here for molecular gastronomy and he’s giving us classic French food!
It would, in a sense, be the craziest thing they had all night.
Exactly. And that’s where Next came from. At one point, when we were looking at the menu at Alinea critically, we said: What are we not offering? Well, we’re not offering classic food. So [at Alinea] we interjected an Escofier course midway through the meal, where we cook a course from Paris 1912, and we put it on antique china and antique silverware and antique glassware. And it was that one course where we said: We should make a restaurant like this.
According to the restaurant’s website, Next will cost between $45 and $75 a meal. Do you think restaurants are going to be getting cheaper?
I don’t think restaurants are getting cheaper. It’s kind of ironic, but people themselves are driving the cost of restaurants up. They don’t realize that. But the more educated and the more food-aware that people get, their expectations are placed on restaurateurs and chefs for quality ingredients. And the fact is, quality ingredients cost money.
At Aviary, you’ll be redefining cocktails.
We had the idea that cocktails were kind of stagnant. The trend in mixology, of course, is the speakeasy, and you have the bartender with the shirt stays and the vest. In the cocktail world, they’ve been looking to the past, back to the ’30s. And we said, Hey, we can look to the future. We’re starting with one simple question—What is a cocktail?—and ripping it apart and putting it back together. Does a cocktail have to be liquid? No. It doesn’t. Really the only rule for a cocktail in my mind is that it has to have an alcoholic component. Other than that it can be anything. It can be a solid, a semi-solid, it can be a liquid. It can be frozen, it can be hot. It can be both. So we’re really trying to approach it in the same way we do food at Alinea. And it’s exciting, I gotta tell you. Alinea’s amazing, and it’s my baby, and I’ll never leave it, right? But Aviary to me is one of the more exciting things that I’ve dealt with recently. I think there’s a lot of potential there.
Are we moving so fast that we’ll get to the point where nothing’s original anymore?
Everybody’s trying to be original. Everybody’s trying to be creative. One of the things…we’re [thinking of doing at Next] is New York circa Mad Men. I don’t watch TV, and I’ve never watched the show…but everybody tells me that era has a certain romance, a certain glamour to it—the big marquees, the big steaks…. When we put that menu out in six months, people are going to think it’s really cool because, first of all, there’s nowhere to get that right now.… And second of all, old is the new new. You know what I mean? It’s about showing people something they haven’t seen in quite some time. Months ago, we went to the only remaining classic French restaurant in New York—Le Grenouille. It’s been there since, like, 1947, and it hasn’t really changed in 50 years. We got Dover sole cooked on the bone. The waiters took it off the bone at the table.… And it felt…original. It felt unique. Because I’ve never had that before and you simply can’t find it. There’s not a place in Chicago where you can find it.
Next (953 W Fulton Market) will open in fall or winter; Aviary (955 W Fulton Market) opens this winter.