When Grant Achatz came up with the name Alinea, it was because he liked the definition – the beginning of a new train of thought. And that is exactly what he has done a few weeks ago when Alinea 2.0 reopened after months of refurbishment.
He was asked why he was ripping apart a restaurant that worked so well. “Why fix something that is not broken? But Alinea is the beginning of a new train of thought. We have to just create a clean slate. Can we eliminate what we have been doing over the past 10 years and start afresh,” he says.
That is exactly what they are doing.
Netflix second season of Chef’s Table starts with Grant Achatz. The American chef is known to be one of the most inventive chefs in the business today and one of the many chefs who got ‘inspired’ by Ferran Adria of el Bulli.
Alinea, the restaurant in Chicago does not need any introduction. It has three Michelin stars and has been a permanent fixture in the top places of the 50 World’s Best Restaurant lists.
The documentary series, directed by David Gelb, starts where it left with brilliant photography and a compelling narrative.
Achatz believes that there should be no rules when it comes to creativity. “Rules. There are no rules,” he says and you can see why.
As a chef, he draws inspiration from other disciplines and he questions everything from why you should eat with a fork or a spoon to why you have to eat from a plate just because that was how it was done in the past.
Achatz asks questions like how he can make things float or whether he can make something invisible.
“The leading chefs in the world know they can make delicious food. We have to take it a step further. At Alinea we are actually trying to curate an experience,” Achatz says.
He wants the guest to have a sense of wonderment and to constant ask what is going to happen next. “I want guests to expect the unexpected. We start with a fantastic product and twist it along the way. It is a kind of a mind game,” Achatz says as he deconstructs a tomato and turns it into a strawberry.
He knew he wanted to be a chef from a young age but for his father food was something that needed to be hot and served fast. For him, it was nothing more than a pay check.
Achatz loves the intrigue, loves the twists and turns that he and his team create in the kitchen. “The guest has the aha moment when they feel that they have discovered something. It is like being a kid and opening a present at Christmas,” he says.
The start in a professional kitchen was not so promising. He had left Charlie Trotter completely broken only to find a job with Thomas Keller of the French Laundry where he rubbed shoulders with the master and he dedicated himself to learn how to cook like Keller. It was here that Achatz became passionate about the pursuit of perfection.
Thanks to Keller, he managed to go to Ferran Adria for a week and on his arrival was asked to dine in the restaurant. “It felt like I was on Mars. I was excited to go down the path of exploration. I knew I had to leave the French Laundry so that I would not be confined by rules,” he said.
The opening of Alinea with his business partner Nick Kokonas came after the latter experienced his cooking at Trio. It was here that Achatz discovered that he had a white dot on his tongue which was later diagnosed as a very serious form of cancer. At first he was dejected and was sure he would die gracefully refusing treatment but when a university approached him to carry out an experimental clinical trial his fate changed. He was given a 70% survival rate and in two days he went from accepting the fact that he was going to die to going for chemotherapy.
It was not an easy period. During the 12 weeks of chemotherapy, he would wake up at 5.30am, then go to he restaurant to do the restaurant preparations, go for a second round of chemotherapy and then be ready for service.
In the process, he lost his sense of taste and the doctors could not tell him with a sense of certainty whether we would be able to taste again.
His colleagues say that being sick taught him how to be a chef. “He was creating food without even touching it.”
He recovered his sense of taste slowly and Achatz says that this was similar to how children learn to taste. “When we are born we have a very limited ability to perceive flavour. I got the experience of a childn and my whole world as a chef changed. I was on fire with an amount of energy I never had before. I got a second chance and did not want to screw it up.”
Like the episodes in the first series, this is a must watch for food lovers. Prepare to be amazed. Prepare to be tempted to book a trip to Chicago. And if you are in Europe, you will be ruing the fact that you missed the chance to experience Achatz’s magic which he replicated at a pop-up restaurant in Madrid while the restaurant was being refurbished.