Today at Gastronomika 2011, chef Grant Achatz announced plans to "overhaul the experience" at his Chicago restaurant Alinea. The goal, as the chef described it during an intimate talk in advance of his closing night presentation, is to "think off the plate."
He presented several ways that may materialize at the restaurant: a cellist or musician might come out and play a note or a full piece ("Can music become an ingredient?") and perhaps diners will do a portion of the tasting menu in one space, before moving to another environment that is completely different in its configuration, design elements, lighting, even aroma. Asked Achatz, "What if it were like the set of a play?"
Achatz gave as an example the night Eleven Madison Park chef Daniel Humm came into the restaurant. For the occasion, the Alinea team completely covered the party's table with leaves; they hid pumpkins within the pile. Once Humm and his guests arrived, they had to brush off the table to discover canapés inside what at first seemed like decorative fall squash. As the meal got underway, the staff decided to leave the mess on the floor of the dining room: "You expect a three-star Michelin restaurant to be pristine. But now, there are no rules."
The motivations are as ambitious as the plans: Achatz explained what he sees as the cyclical nature of fine dining, describing how a school of thought in gastronomy tends to last ten to fifteen years before it gives way to another significant shift. In the 80s and early 90s, for example, it was all about Kunz, Trotter, Keller, Boulud, which then gave way to Adrià, Blumenthal, Roca, followed by the slightly younger generation that includes Achatz, Cantu, and Dufresne. "We are now at the threshold," he quietly declared, though he assured that progressive cuisine isn't dead or ending. It's just time, he believes, to move beyond "evoking emotions simply through the dish."
Nick Kokonas, Achatz's business partner, hinted at these developments to Eater over the summer. "The temptation is to do nothing, though. It's successful, it's full every night, it has three Michelin stars, etc.," said Kokonas of the team's Lincoln Park flagship. "But whenever you fall into complacency, it gets kind of boring."
Achatz confirmed that the changes will come into place "sooner rather than later... the cellists have already been in a couple of times."