"There's something I want to show you," says Nick Kokonas as he welcomes me into his home in Chicago's Old Town. He leads the way through the living room, past his two sons and a Patrick Hughes painting, and into the backyard, which has recently been turned into an impressive garden project. He's excited. It's Monday, the one day of the week that the three restaurants he co-owns with the chef Grant Achatz — Alinea, The Aviary, and Next — are all closed. And so, he has some time to chat.
Here, in part one, Kokonas discusses his role, assesses Achatz's development as a chef, and describes how it might be time for a few radical changes at Alinea.
What's a day — or a week — in your life like? What's your routine?
I do not have a routine, which is the way I like it. What I tend to do in a typical week is 90 percent email, essentially. I know that sounds kind of boring. When people who don't know me ask what I do for a living, I tell them I'm a writer... I write one hundred emails a day.
What I actually do is hard to define, because things come up at any given moment. Today I had two inquiries for people that wanted to do atypical buyouts of the restaurants — one of Next and one of Alinea. Someone wanted a personal speaking engagement for Grant, and I handled that as well. We don't have a dedicated PR person. We have an agent at CAA, but most of these direct inquiries we handle ourselves. We try to be open-source, direct, and I think we're rewarded by it because people can get a hold of us.
Has it gotten more difficult to maintain that with the two new businesses?
After Next opened, it got more difficult. It never was that bad before: about 25 or 30 emails to deal with directly. Now there's times when I have a couple hundred coming in. Sometimes I'll even miss stuff for a week or two, which never used to happen. It's getting less easy to manage all of that.
Another part of what I do is sort of look at the big picture of how the restaurants are operating in terms of cost versus sales — the business side of stuff; this is what we did last month, this is what our goals are, this is what we can improve on, this is where we overspent. I've got a guy who works with me on this stuff, and we take snapshots of how things are going. We're not wildly rigorous about all of that, though.
How do you mean?
We never go, "Well, we spent too much last month and we need to get rid of a certain dish because it costs too much." I think most restaurants would do that, but I can't remember a single time when we have. The goal of Alinea is to be the best restaurant in the world, so if you start worrying about minute-to-minute and month-to-month costs, you're probably not going to be the best restaurant in the world. Within really broad ranges, if a better product comes out, we get it and don't look at the price.
The rest is more creative. What are we going to do next? Both in terms of Next and Alinea and their menus and how we can conceptually improve the guest's experience. I've been described in several places as a "culinary Medici," and that's just so wrong. It evokes this image of me just cutting checks, which is inaccurate.
Do you consider yourself a restaurateur?
I always think of a restaurateur as someone who wants to build restaurants and expand. I am an accidental restaurateur, at best. I never worked a single day in a restaurant until Alinea opened, so I had no idea what to do. I knew how to build businesses, and the real estate development for Alinea was new but familiar in many respects. But when it converted over to service and producing food from an active, working kitchen, I was like, "Okay, I'm done. I built it. I'm finished." I remember on Alinea's second day that I told Grant that I was pretty much out of there. And at that moment he said, "I need you to go to table 14 and make sure they're doing the silverware right because you're the only one that understands how that stuff is supposed to be done." So even though I didn't know how to do service at the three-star Michelin, formal French level, I did know that the knife should be at the right facing left and that the fork should be the other way — Martin, Grant, and I had fought about, discussed, and come up with that. I stuck around Alinea for a few months nightly, and I can get away with clearing a table. But I'm probably the least prepared person in the entire restaurant to do that. It's hugely rare.
Now, though, if I'm standing there at Next, people know who I am, which by design wasn't the case at Alinea in the first four years. If I walk into Next these days, everyone knows. And there's the perception that if the owner is there or Grant is there something better is happening. Which isn't true.
Right, some people have wondered if you and especially Chef Achatz might be spread too thin. Why would you argue that it doesn't matter?
I don't think it's crucial to that individual table. On a given night for a given table the quality of food and service doesn't matter at that moment. It does matter in the creative sense: if Grant went away for six months and was filming ten TV shows, there would be no way to keep it up. Like anything else, if the people who care the most aren't there, things begin to fall through the cracks.
Grant's been at Alinea every single day and night for the past two weeks. I think as soon as we got Next up and running smoothly, his attitude became that we had to rip Alinea apart and do something different.
What are you thinking of doing?
I don't know quite what we want to do. We went from three menus to two menus to one menu, and now we can do whatever we want creatively. We have an audience that loves it and keeps coming back, and we're full every night. So why don't we try to do some of the other stuff we've always talked about doing? At the same time, you worry that some things might push the dining experience a bit too far.
What are those things?
Let's say if you arrived at a restaurant and didn't sit down. What if the first twenty or thirty minutes of it was more interactive and you didn't just have things passively brought to you?
When we do events outside of the restaurant, Martin Kastner creates a bunch of custom service pieces that can serve 100 people at a time. It's not a plastic cup with a plastic spoon. It's more of an art installation that people interact with. Obviously, we're not worried about serving that many people a night at Alinea, but what if we created a portion that was more of a gallery setting? It's another way of having people interact with their food and the dining experience. In fact, when we were building Alinea, we didn't necessarily want tables everywhere. Now we've built the restaurant and we want to create a compelling experience for people. It might require taking out about 14 or 16 seats.
The temptation is to do nothing, though. It's successful, it's full every night, it has three Michelin stars, etc. But whenever you fall into complacency it gets kind of boring.
Who from the team is pushing that change the most?
It's Grant. He gets dissatisfied with the status quo faster than I or even the public would. The analogy that I would use is the rock band whose first album is really, really good; it has thirteen great songs on it that have been worked on for years and years. The band goes out on tour, and pretty soon they just hate those tunes. But most of the public hasn't seen them live yet. So, do you get rid of black truffle explosion because it has diminishing returns for the people that have been here multiple times?
Or the yuba.
Yeah, and if you don't serve those, there'll be the people that get disappointed. I think up until this point we didn't have the outlet, but now we could purge that dish from Alinea permanently and move it to the Aviary. I think Grant would hate that idea, honestly, and we probably won't do it because it would cost $10 — it's a very costly little bite.
Let's talk about how you influence Chef Achatz. There are recent additions to the Alinea menu that are clearly inspired by Joan Miró, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Piet Mondrian. You collect art and have introduced him to places like The Tate in London. And even though you've tiptoed around the question of whether or not you serve as an editor to his creativity, it's hard to experience those dishes without thinking you rub off on him in some way.
I think all of that is true. I had a broad liberal arts education and I think that my strength in general is that I'm a jack of all trades, master of none. I studied philosophy, I was a derivatives trader, I've eaten very well and view food in the same way I do art or architecture. The front hall at Alinea was my idea. It's Chartres Cathedral inverted. If you're not exposed to that you might not have those ideas or be able to contextualize.
I think the visual arts are ahead of the culinary arts, at least visually speaking. One of the things that drives me crazy is the people that think that the practitioners of molecular gastronomy are actually manipulating things at the molecular level. It has nothing to do with it. Hervé This' point was that it was molecular in its composition. Molecular gastronomy does not refer to scientific manipulation of atoms and molecules. So you look at molecular gastronomy and it's really compositional — and I'd argue that most chefs, even those that bill themselves as practitioners of it, don't know what that's what it really is. There are a bunch of guys who aren't Wylie or Grant who don't bother to read the fine print.
So I think the answer is "yes." A number of menu items at Alinea, the impetus for the ideas came from me.
The dessert that's prepared on the silicone sheet at the table. My original idea was to have a huge porcelain dish brought to the table and to have the chefs, who have this intuitive ability and talent for plating, do it in front of the diner. It's beautiful to watch.
I think I'm the only guy that really gives Grant shit. When he comes up with an idea, I'll be the one who pushes him and says, "I don't know about that, but it's a good first thought." I'm not saying that I'm always right, and he always says he'll ignore me, but I think that at the end of the day it seeps in. And the opposite is true, too, as I was saying with the Alinea thing. I'd probably be content to just roll over the Alinea menu for a couple of years, only making the seasonal changes and letting it run. But he's going to say that that's insufficient to our original goal. I agree with that, but from a business side it's the worst thing you can do. You're taking something that's working and going smoothly, and now we're talking about taking around 14 seats out of an already small restaurant. It's tough.
In your opinion, how has he developed as a chef and how would you assess where he is now?
That's a tougher question. When I was eating at Trio I thought it was by far the most exciting restaurant in the world. There was this young chef who not only wanted to take risks but felt like he had to take risks. It was really fun. And back then the internet wasn't as big, so the element of surprise was major. You walked in there and had no idea what was going to come out next. Now that he's well known, the second we do a menu at Next or Alinea, it's dissected on the internet. That's also positive, because it makes people want to see it.
So, to answer your question, I think that whenever you achieve a lot of your goals at some point in your life — no matter what they are — it's difficult to come up with new goals. I think that to a certain extent he's achieved more than he anticipated and faster than he anticipated. Anybody who does that realizes that the end wasn't the point. The goals were the point, and you just need some new ones. Let's say we get to number one in the world on that list: so what? Sure, I have an ego and I'd like it. But then what? Are you going to shut down the restaurant? No.
I think that the change for him is that he's recognized that the process is what's fun. I don't think that he really cares if he gets another award. He's enjoying the creative process, pushing the edge and knowing that there's the possibility for failure when you're creating something new. Three or four years ago he didn't know that. Of course he almost died in the middle, too, which gives you a bit of perspective [laughs]. As they say in Spinal Tap, "Perhaps too much perspective!"
Tomorrow, in part two, Kokonas talks about Next, The Aviary, and The Office.