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June 6, 2014 5:17 pm

Michelin-starred chef Grant Achatz

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The man behind Alinea, one of the world’s best restaurants, discusses edible balloons and his recovery from tongue cancer

There is no sous vide machine, no dehydrator, not even a liquid nitrogen tank in Grant Achatz’s kitchen. Instead, it looks a bit like a fresh-out-of-university flat share. The kitchen is, in some ways, a testament to the working hours the chef still puts in nine years after he opened Alinea, an avant-garde Chicago restaurant known for dishes involving pillows that emit lavender-scented air, peppermint snow served over pine needles, and beetroot juice drunk from a block of ice.

“I view it like a tool – it has to be useful for whatever your lifestyle is,” says Achatz, 40, of the three-storey brick home he has rented for the past four years with his partner Briseis Guthrie, who is also his personal assistant. “We both work 85 to 90 hours a week – literally, we’re [only at home] from three in the morning until 11am.”

And why the basic kitchen? “I’m cooking on this crappy gas stove, but to me that works – it’s perfect,” he says before explaining that when not at work he mostly cooks simple pasta dishes and fish wraps.

Grant Achatz at his three-storey home in Chicago©Peter Hoffman

Grant Achatz at his three-storey home in Chicago

It is springtime in Chicago, so it’s unsurprising that the city has been battered by yet another snowstorm after a long winter. Achatz (which rhymes with “rackets”) is sitting on a low modern couch next to a crackling fire in his snug front room. Outside, his front porch looks out over a garden, grey and brown against an overcast sky on a quiet street in Bucktown, a hip neighbourhood in the city’s Northwest Side.

The room combines the simple kitchenette on one side with a television room – mostly used for video games by Achatz’s two adolescent sons, who divide their time between Achatz and his ex-wife – with a baby grand piano in the middle that Guthrie plays. The wooden kitchen island is, like much of the furniture, from Urban Remains, a local vintage furniture shop, and was salvaged from a second world war missile assembly plant.

A baby grand piano in the middle of the living area©Peter Hoffman

A baby grand piano in the middle of the living area

Achatz and Guthrie have been looking for a place to buy in the area but are in no rush. Achatz likes the lack of responsibility that comes with renting, which means they can always repeat the 200-person gumbo party they threw two years ago that left the house strewn in oyster shells, hay and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer cans. “If you live in this super expensive, amazing house then you probably wouldn’t be able to do that,” he says.

Achatz splits his time between Alinea – the three-Michelin-star restaurant he opened in 2005 with Nick Kokonas, a former derivatives trader – their high-end bar, Aviary, and Next, where the menu and decor is changed every three months. Recent incarnations include menus inspired by vegan food, a Chicago steakhouse, Chinese cuisine and the legendary French chef Auguste Escoffier, who partnered with César Ritz to open the Paris Ritz and the Carlton Hotel.

Chalkboard above Achatz’s bed given to him by his partner Briseis Guthrie©Peter Hoffman

Chalkboard above Achatz’s bed given to him by his partner Briseis Guthrie

Achatz’s taste in interior design is surprisingly old-fashioned, given his extremely modern approach to cooking: vintage medical cabinets upstairs, a chalkboard above a simple platform bed, an old tailor’s mannequin in the guest room. However, the whimsy that colours Achatz’s culinary style can be found everywhere: Star Wars figurines share shelf space with a signed ostrich egg and a champagne sabre, while in his boys’ light-filled third-floor bedroom hangs a picture of Achatz as an 18-year-old, sporting a mullet and lounging in front of the cherry-red 1970 Pontiac GTO he restored with his father.

Ostrich egg with a message written on it by a friend©Peter Hoffman

Ostrich egg with a message written on it by a friend

Achatz is skinny, with a raspy voice and a wisp of beard. He talks with his hands as he sips from a pale yellow, cloudy cup of yuzu juice and water. He says he is preparing to open a third restaurant in Chicago within a year, though he refuses to be drawn on the detail.

He is also exploring a partnership with a hotel group for the international expansion of Aviary to Singapore, Tokyo, Hong Kong or St Petersburg. In October, he will transport the entire Alinea crew to Manhattan for a month-long pop-up restaurant. If it goes well, he says, he may take it on a global tour.

It is the latest step in Achatz’s attempt to transform the restaurant experience that began in 2001 when he took over Trio in Evanston, a Chicago suburb, and continues through his three Chicago establishments.

Achatz dislikes the term “molecular gastronomy” because he says it “conjures up images of Petri dishes and test tubes”. It also confirms his harshest critics’ view: that this cooking style lacks soul.

Replica of a red 1970 Pontiac GTO©Peter Hoffman

Replica of a red 1970 Pontiac GTO

He earned his reputation as a mad scientist thanks to his creations at Alinea, where the 18-course menu at present includes squab “inspired by Miro” and an edible green apple balloon filled with helium.

When his team perfected the balloon, the first thing he said was “make a YouTube video right away – get it on the internet so that . . . it’s ours”. In an industry with few safeguards against theft, the internet is a useful way to unofficially copyright recipes – one of the reasons why Achatz says it is the most important tool in his kitchen. It is also useful for self-promotion – Achatz is active on Twitter – sourcing ingredients and keeping tabs on other chefs. The advent of food blogging in the early 2000s “changed everything”.

“I could look at Mugartiz or El Bulli without going to Spain – I could know exactly what was going on,” he says.

In April, Alinea was named best restaurant in the world by high-end magazine Elite Traveler for the third year running, and also earned a number nine slot in the prestigious World’s 50 Best Restaurant rankings.

The kitchen with a table once used in a weapons assembly plant during the second world war©Peter Hoffman

The kitchen with a table once used in a weapons assembly plant during the second world war

At Alinea, Achatz still works on the line in the kitchen and, when the final dessert course is served, comes to the table and uses a palette of syrups, powders and sauces to paint the chocolate dish, Jackson Pollock-style, directly on the tabletop.

In the rarely used second-floor dining room of his house, Achatz points to six framed menus that hang between a pair of doors that lead to a small front balcony. One is a menu that Thomas Keller, his boss for four years at The French Laundry in Napa Valley, California, put together for him at his New York restaurant Per Se; another is from El Bulli, the Catalonian temple of molecular gastronomy that changed the way Achatz thought about food.

Another of the menus commemorates a meal at WD-50, a New York restaurant in the same tradition as Alinea and El Bulli. In 2007, Achatz was diagnosed with tongue cancer and told by some of the country’s leading specialists that if he did not have surgery to remove two-thirds of his tongue he would die within months. Instead, he joined an experimental clinical trial at the University of Chicago and underwent chemo and radiation therapy, which scorched his throat and stole his sense of taste.

“Everybody was like, ‘Oh, it’s Shakespearean: a chef that can’t taste’,” he says. “What really sucks is being a person – any person – that can’t taste.”

Collection of hats in the bedroom©Peter Hoffman

Collection of hats in the bedroom

The sense returned gradually, however, beginning with sweet. So Achatz celebrated with a trip to WD-50, where the restaurant’s pastry chef, a former employee, made him an eight-course menu of desserts.

In December 2007, months after beginning treatment, Achatz was told his cancer was in full remission. It hasn’t returned. He says the illness may have actually made him a better chef – more trusting and better able to delegate, but also even more attuned to the look and feel of food.

At his restaurants, Achatz aims for a sort of theatre, playing on each of the five senses to conjure memory and provoke an emotional response. This might include burning oak leaves next to a dish meant to suggest autumn, or suspending a one-bite course 14 inches from the table on a custom-made antenna.

“I don’t think people that are eating at Alinea go there because they’re hungry,” he says. “I feel like we have the opportunity to craft an experience . . . How can we best fill up that block of your life and make it as exciting and emotional as we can?”

Everybody was like, ‘Oh, it’s Shakespearean: a chef that can’t taste’. What sucks is being any person that can’t taste

Achatz has been cooking since he was five years old, starting at his parents’ diner in Michigan. He says his transition from the omelettes and meat loaf of his youth to the liquid nitrogen and steelhead roe of his present baffles even his parents.

Still, at the age of 40, the hours are starting to catch up with him. “I’m getting too old for this,” he says. “The physicality of cooking, it’s like being an athlete: you’re in and out of the oven, you’re bending down, you’re picking up heavy things, you’re on your feet for 16 hours a day, you’re using your hands. There are times when I wake up in the morning and my arms are just aching. But I wouldn’t change it – I love it.”

brass Atlas pepper mill©Peter Hoffman


Favourite thing

Achatz opts for a brass Atlas pepper mill (right) that his mother gave him after he graduated from the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. The mill, which conforms to the functional ethos he applies to his home, has acquired a dull, tarnished patina because Achatz never polishes it. He demonstrates the “good grind” on a clean, white plate – barely one turn and fine black powder spills out. “If you go like that – dude, you’re good,” he says.

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