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Grant Achatz on His Writing Process, the Plans For Next, and His New/Old GTO

Photo: Alinea

Grant Achatz is everywhere these days, with a new book, Life, on the Line, and two big projects about to launch in Chicago: a restaurant, Next, and a bar, Aviary. We talked to him about his aversion to outlines, what it was like to co-write his memoir with business partner Nick Kokonas, and what's on the agenda for his upcoming restaurant Next — the second menu, after Escoffier, will be Thai street food, and eventually he wants to do a Mad Men-inspired menu.

I've heard people describe Life, on the Line as a cancer memoir, but that seems to be oversimplifying it to me. How do you want people to look at the book?
If there is an overriding theme in the book it's creativity — even in the cancer section we talk about finding innovative and creative people to help treat the illness. Otherwise, if that wouldn't have happened, I wouldn't be talking to you on the phone right now. I think if there's one common line throughout the whole book, it's "take risks, be creative in your thinking, and work hard." I think that rings through all of them, even with the treatment in the cancer section.

Would you say it's as much a history of Alinea as it is your memoir?
For sure. The people that are involved — the cast of characters, the descriptions of the food — I think it's just a great look into a specific restaurant and what it takes to make it run under all these different scenarios, whether it be cancer or being awarded the Best Restaurant in America by Ruth or Gourmet. I think it's an interesting look into a fine-dining restaurant in this country.

This book was written without the help of a ghostwriter; you also self-published 2008's Alinea cookbook. Why go off on your own? And in what ways do the books diverge from mainstream culinary literature?
First and foremost, with both the Alinea book and the memoir, even though we took a more traditional model with the memoir, we have control. With the Alinea book, that was central. We went in front of all the big publishers and gave them our ideas for the book, and they said, "No, you can't do that," "No, you can't do that." And we'd be like, "Well, the recipes have to be in metric." And they'd be like, "You can't. Nobody will buy a book that's in metric. It has to be in US standard." We want the pages to be gray and no, it's too hard to read. Or we want full-bleed page color — "No, it's too expensive."

You know what I mean? It was just like, "No, no, no, no, no" —, if we were to do that and accept "no" it wouldn't be reflective of Alinea or myself at all. It would be some diluted-down alternative. So we were like, what the heck? We might as well try to do it ourselves so that we can have control over it.

I imagine the control aspect is even more important in something as personal as a memoir.
We tried. We originally started out with a ghostwriter, and then we were very unhappy with what we were getting in terms of?it felt incredibly unauthentic. It felt like, if you're going to tell the story of your life, you're going to do it in your voice, and it should sound like me.

That's probably one of the biggest compliments regarding the book is that we're not writers. I'm a chef. It might not be amazing prose but it sounds like me. And I think that if you're writing a book about Grant Achatz then it should sound like Grant Achatz. It shouldn't be too polished, it shouldn't sound too goofy — it should be exactly like you. I think that's why we chose to write ourselves.

You say "we" meaning you and your business partner/co-author Nick Kokonas. Why did you decide to include his voice in the book?
Having a ghostwriter, I don't think that would have happened. In fact, many of the publishers told us that we couldn't do that. They said that, if you're going to write a memoir about Grant Achatz in first person, you can't have another person in the story. Luckily Gotham was open to us doing that and I think it gave us a richer book because of it. It allowed us to tell the story from a couple of different angles, and it allowed us to say things that we wouldn't usually be able to say because I am not, in fact, saying them. Nick's saying them. So I think overall it makes the book better for that.

How did you decide which sections he would cover?
The one that pops into my head is when I'm at Sloane-Kettering in New York and I call back to Chicago to tell the staff that, in fact, I do have stage-IV cancer, and he tells the story from the perspective of sitting in the Alinea dining room with the staff and clearly I can't tell that story. But there are other, less-obvious things. There are parts of the business aspect that I wrote, and then the epilogue that he wrote in my voice. So we really kind of mixed it up.

Nick Kokonas and Grant Achatz [Photo: Lara Kastner / Alinea]

What was the process of writing the book like?
For me, the process was working at Alinea all day and then, after service, after everybody left, at like two in the morning — I would write from two to four and crank out anywhere from five to twenty pages and then email them to Nick. I would get home at four in the morning and he would wake up at six in the morning — we're on really, completely different schedules — and then he would review what I sent him, make some edits, add some content he felt was necessary based on what he remembered of the story, and then he would send it back to me along with whatever he wrote that day and I would do the same. I would say, "No, this didn't happen like this," or make some minor corrections or whatever.

And that's how we wrote the whole book. We never sat in the same room together, we never interviewed each other — it was a series of emails and words flying back and forth. And then at the very end, we sat down and reordered it all and seriously, we are the worst outliners. A lot of the people that I would talk to [food writers] Michael Ruhlman or Jeffrey Steingarten would go, "Well, how did you approach it initially? Did you write a very strict outline about the story that you wanted to tell?" And I said, "Actually, no, we consciously didn't do that," because I felt it was?by not doing that you gravitate toward the stories that you feel are most important, so you're not going to put some story in there that has no relevance, so if you start writing — like literally just start writing — self-selection was the best way to form the contents.

Were there any books that influenced your writing?
Well, unfortunately, I don't read much. Because I'm still incredibly busy?so I really don't have time to pick up a book. The only three that I've really read are Kitchen Confidential, and Soul of a Chef and The Reach of a Chef by Michael [Ruhlman]. I haven't read any others.

Cookbook-wise it's a whole different story. Obviously, the French Laundry book — that I helped work on with Thomas [Keller] — was a big influence on how the Alinea book was kind of conceived and put together. The elBulli books were another kind of big one. I think those two are probably the most influential on the Alinea cookbook. Not that we were trying to mimic them or anything — just philosophically the way they approached it.

In all likelihood, I probably won't read Gabrielle [Hamilton's] book, [Blood, Bones & Butter]. However, I think we're trying to do an interesting?for some reason a lot of people are trying to pit us against each other? And it's a really easy thing to do because our food styles are really different and the books came out at the same time, so I guess that you could say that they're somewhat competitive — they're different publishers, she's New York-based, I'm Chicago-based. So some people in the media are kind of squaring us off against each other. I don't know her at all. I mean, I've eaten at Prune and it was delicious and all that. I said to our publishing team that they should set up an event where we interview each other about each other's books. I think that would be fun.

Seeing as it covers your field, I'm curious as to what you think of the Modernist Cuisine project.
I mean, what an incredible resource for cooks, years into the future. The thing with [author] Nathan [Myhrvold] — say what you will about him not being a chef or this being an intellectual exercise because there's no restaurant attached to it — I think that's all true and that's the point. There's no way in the world that a chef who was actually running restaurants could devote the time or the monetary resources to compile a book like that.

I mean, it's massive, the photography is stunning, the information in there is unfathomable as an effort. I tell everybody, yeah, he's not a chef, he doesn't have a restaurant, but look at this amazing resource that he basically put down on paper for all of us to utilize to just kind of further gastronomy in the country. I think it's a big deal. It's heavy and it's really expensive, but it's incredibly well made. So, I'm a big fan.

Your upcoming restaurant Next will change its menu every three months. How are you doing the research for that? Is there a test kitchen?
We're lucky enough to have a separate kitchen in the basement of Next that is quite large — it's almost the size of the Alinea kitchen — that will kind of facilitate the documentation for the next menu. So currently starting out, menu number two will be Thai street food — we haven't really begun our research on that because we're wrapped up in opening the restaurant, but I think probably within the next two or three weeks, we'll really have to dig into it.

We have a team of about five of us — including a couple of sous chefs — at Alinea who are going to transition to a research and development role. We just have to wrap our heads around it and come up with each menu and then test all the dishes. It's a lot of work.

Why'd you choose a project like this over something more simple?
We could have built Alinea in Vegas, Dubai, and Tokyo and New York — even a second one in Chicago. People wanted us to basically clone that restaurant? And the only thing that you get out of that is money. Right? I mean, if you open one in Dubai, sure, you're gonna make money — or Tokyo or Vegas. But that's not a compelling reason. It's boring. We wanted something that would make us think and challenge us — both culinarily and intellectually. And what better way than to go through life than being forced to study every aspect of gastronomy — not only from a perspective of different cuisines and different cultures, but also different time periods.

To me, it's the most compelling restaurant concept you can think of — I'm going to be continually relearning and exposed to all these different places and all this different food because, well, I have to. It's my responsibility.

So do you have a list of menus you want to run at Next? Are there dream scenarios? Or just see where the spirit takes you season by season?
We're going to gravitate toward the cuisines that I enjoy the most, that I would expect. We have to order them in a way that makes sense as well. So, if you think about, if I was going to do a Kyoto menu, when you think of cuisine in Kyoto, what season do you think of?

I don't know, I've never been to Kyoto. I guess Spring?
Exactly. Spring. All the bamboo shoots are sprouting and the cherry blossoms are in bloom. That, to me, is the timing that is quintessential of Kyoto. So if we were going to do a menu that is framed around Kyoto, we would have to do it when all those ingredients are in season, so then it has to be in spring. We're ordering it that way.

Now, if you think about, say if we do Germany, Switzerland, and Austria, that's a cuisine that's really heavy — rich charcuterie and game stews and goulashes — that's perfect for the winter in Chicago. You want that comforting, warm, rich food when it's 20 degrees outside, so that menu will be put out in the winter. We're sort of looking at it like that.

We definitely want to do a couple of Japanese menus, definitely want to hit South America, Mexico, Spain, go back to France after this one — maybe do a more modern French experience. I mean, it's really endless. We really want to do Mad Men-New York — what was it like to eat in New York in the 1960s? Lobster thermidor and martinis and stuff like that. I think it would be fun.

At the book party for Life, on the Line Kokonas surprised you by refurbishing your 1970 GTO from high school. What's it like to drive it again?
Unbelievable. Talk about, like, blowing my mind, you know? It's the most amazing gift ever. The fact that he did it and it was a complete secret? It just?it blew me away. It's just incredible. They took 12 guys in Southern Illinois — about 100 miles south of Alinea — and 12 guys took 61 days — 4,000 man-hours — getting that car off the frame and redoing every piece and putting it back together. It's a perfectly brand-new car right now. It's so crazy.

So it's even better than you remembered?
Yeah, it had a lot of significance for me, obviously. My father and I built it ourselves, and it taught me life lessons that helped me in the kitchen. And then it fell into disrepair and despair — drawing a great parallel to my relationship with my father during that time. And just as my relationship with my father is coming back into stability and fruition, the car comes back into my life as well.

And now I get to share ? it's not just me and my father, it's me and Nick now that can share that. And all of the guys that rebuilt that car ? They all came to the book launch party. And talk about a great group of guys that did something really amazing. So now there are these relationships that have centered around this car, and they're even greater than they were before. So it's really symbolic in a lot of ways. It's really cool.

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