At the start of yesterday evening's talk with Alinea's chef Grant Achatz and business partner Nick Kokonas at the Institute of Culinary Education, New York Times staffer Amanda Hesser recalled a meal she had had years ago at Trio, a restaurant in suburban Chicago that resembled "a retirement home." Despite the fact that the cabbie was less than pleased about making the drive, she insisted on going and found "life on those plates," thanks in great part to the fact that Achatz was running the kitchen. These personal anecdotes seem to always dominate in discussions of Achatz's food, and it was no different at the New York stop of the Life, On The Line book tour.
While there's a good chance that Achatz and Kokonas have answered the same questions before, there were some moments of note.
Early on, citing the example of Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich, Hesser explored the relationship between the partners and the question of whether or not Kokonas serves as "an editor to [Achatz's] creativity." Jokes aside, it was clear that Kokonas does have an influence: Achatz explained that chefs can be "territorial," in the sense that they like to put ideas out into the world that aren't fully formed — what the duo pejoratively refers to as "first ideas." Conversely, it's also clear that Achatz is involved with more of the business side than people would believe: Kokonas recalled how Achatz had presented him with a 27-page business plan — including spreadsheets — back when they met at Trio. Now there's no choice but to be involved on the business end when there are 65 employees for a 64-seat restaurant.
Hesser brought up the interesting subject of Achatz's training. Even though he studied at the Culinary Institute of America, the chef didn't do the traditional staging in Europe or spend much time in Asia. Achatz claims that he does feel somewhat insecure about it, but that cooking, especially after one has a strong foundation, is about taking "any influence you have" from any source and expressing it "without mimicking or duplicating." That being said, the chef acknowledged, as usual, the impact of Thomas Keller's mentoring, especially the foresight he had in encouraging Achatz to go to elBulli. "He's skillful but also very intuitive into people," said Achatz of the French Laundry giant.
There was also some discussion of the oft-overlooked Martin Kastner of Crucial Detail, the design company that since 2002 has developed the wares and much of the aesthetic of Alinea. Achatz explained that he is "a hidden quiet resource that defines our identity." That will continue to be the case at new projects Next and Aviary, as Kastner is developing new and innovative glassware and vessels for the bar.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the talk was the duo's insistence on the fact that fun lies at the core of their endeavor. As was the case at his family's diner, Achatz believes that his restaurant is about making "delicious food that evokes emotion." Granted, it may inspire a completely different and possibly intimidating feeling, but he feels that compelling resonances are there. Most of all, these comments seem aimed at disarming criticisms of progressive cuisine as being soulless and cold. Kokonas went as far as to describe their ideas as "silly," which could be one of the most effective ways to counter the argument that their style is pompous or showy.
On the issue of sustainability and the locavore craze, Kokonas addressed the misconception that Alinea doesn't emphasize ingredients. He explained that the "baseline given of any great restaurant" is sustainable, organic, and local whenever possible, but that he "doesn't want to read every farm name on a menu." He also made the case for sites like Yelp, saying that he doesn't quite understand why chefs despise them. According to him, "it's a great resource" which he and Achatz use to find constructive criticism and adjust. Every night, Kokonas sends at least two emails to user critics thanking them for their input.
And finally, the two men addressed the controversial issue of Charlie Trotter. They clarified that the seminal Chicago chef was fair in telling Achatz that he couldn't put his experience at the restaurant on his resumé after only three months in the kitchen. The chapter wasn't written to exact revenge but to actually draw a parallel to Achatz's experience with Keller. They have "nothing but respect" for him, but acknowledge that the experience was a disheartening one for the developing chef.