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Alinea Chefs Grant Achatz and Mike Bagale on Creativity and Collaboration

This week, Eater launches a four-part interview series exploring the collaborative creative process at Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas' Chicago restaurants Alinea, The Aviary, and Next, as well as the collaboration among them. Part one of the series explores Alinea today as it is guided by executive chef Mike Bagale.

Chef Grant Achatz's three-Michelin-starred restaurant Alinea has been a leader in culinary innovation worldwide since it opened in Chicago back in 2005. Dishes such as the "black truffle explosion" and a dessert that's plated directly on the table's surface have become icons, and even Alinea's unique menu format has been copied by restaurants across the world. But now that Achatz and business partner Nick Kokonas have opened Next and The Aviary — with more projects on the way — the chef says he has begun to delegate control of Alinea to talented members of the restaurant staff.

Now leading the charge at Alinea is former sous chef Mike Bagale, whom Achatz considers to be the restaurant's new executive chef rather than the more traditional chef de cuisine. In late October, Eater met with both men to discuss how they work together to reinvent Alinea, break the rules, and pursue the impossible.

How long have you been at Alinea?
Mike Bagale: I started on August 5th, 2009. I was a chef de cuisine of a hotel in Florida. I responded to an ad that chef had placed looking for chef de parties. It was a tryout. I flew up here to try out for a job that I honestly didn't think I was gonna get. I just wanted to see the environment that he had created here, but realized while I was here that it was something that I did want to do. I was offered the job, took the job, and then up until this point have been very ecstatic to be working in this environment. It's something we push every day to do. It's something that's always evolving, that keeps me interested.

Why did you decide to promote chef Bagale to chef de cuisine?
Grant Achatz: It was a natural fit. I mean, the creativity, the presence in the kitchen, the leadership qualities. You can look for many things when you're looking for a leader. There has to be a maturity, there has to be — especially with Alinea — a creativity, and the staff has to trust him. Everybody downstairs and the front of the house really believes in what he does and what we put together.

There's a great sense of community. The other day, he procured these amazing shrimp from Hawaii and texted us down the street [at Next and The Aviary] and said, "We have a bunch of shrimp if you guys want some." There's just a great sense of a bunch of really creative, really driven, really passionate people that are working together. I think that's the most important thing. You can have a great quarterback, but if you don't have the wide receiver to catch that ball, it doesn't matter. If you don't have the great running back to hand off to and him to blaze forward 10 yards, it doesn't matter. So now we have this team in place that I feel is super talented. It's going to allow us to go further within the restaurants that we have now and expand.

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Alinea, Chicago. [Photo: Barry Brecheisen]

How does the collaboration work among the restaurants? Do you guys have meetings with everyone from all the restaurants?
GA: We don't as much as we should. They're very individualized in a lot of ways. And I also think that's really important that chef [Bagale] gets to tell the story through the food here at Alinea in his way, and chef Dave [Beran] gets to do it his way [at Next], and Andrew Brochu gets to do it in his way [at The Aviary]. That's really important because otherwise it just gets diluted. Now I'm just trying to position myself to help in any way that I can — and we talk about the menu here a lot — but primarily it's his menu.

I would even say that creatively I'm more involved with Next and Aviary than I am here at Alinea. I think chef Simon and chef Mike are pushing this menu forward within the parameters that we've established the last eight-and-a-half years, but voicing their own creative personality, which is incredibly important. It's the same thing that Thomas [Keller] has done with French Laundry and Per Se, and Daniel [Boulud] has done with Cafe Boulud and Daniel and all his restaurants. There's no way that I can touch everything at every moment. I think it's just smart to realize the talent that we have and empower them to make decisions, to be creative. We have that now.

"I want to say that I've been a participant in something revolutionary or successful."—Mike Bagale

Was it intimidating to have that responsibility when you came into the job?
MB: Oh absolutely. It's definitely intimidating, but it's something that I had always aspired to do. My goals have always pushed me towards this direction. Ultimately what I want to do is to say we've given something back to the community, to the environment, to the restaurant. We're not just pushing forward, but we can see what we're doing toward the industry. Hopefully we're changing things and inspiring things. I want to say that I've been a participant in something revolutionary or successful. We've seen hopefully positive results. I think that's the most important thing nowadays for a professional chef is to hopefully say that we've put a mark down.
GA: It's like in Spinning Plates, Thomas [Keller] says at one point, "What is your legacy going to be?" And I think that's what Mike's talking about. You have the great restaurants in the world. You have your Nomas and you have your Celler de Can Rocas and your Per Ses and French Laundrys. It'd be really nice if at some point we can contribute to the industry and show influence. For the young cooks coming up that we have in our kitchen or that are reading the cookbook or that are watching the YouTube videos online, it's important. Because we were both there. We still watch YouTube and the videos that Andoni [Luis Aduriz] is doing and René [Redzepi] is doing. It's a responsibility that I think we have, to show, to lead.
MB: Chef has given me the opportunity to do that.

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Alinea, Chicago. [Photo: Barry Brecheisen]

How does the restaurant change with each chef de cuisine?
GA: A lot. We spoke about personality showing through in the food. So basically we've had five chef de cuisines. I consider him the executive chef now, so it's a whole different thing. Our first chef de cuisine was Curtis Duffy, who now is the owner/chef of Grace. Our second one was Jeff Pikus, who is kind of like a corporate chef of Babette and Au Cheval. Then it was Dave Beran, who is now the chef at Next. And then it was Matt Chasseur, who left, what, six months or a year ago?
MB: Six months ago.
GA: And now it's Mike. So up until Mike, we didn't have an executive chef. It was more of a chef de cuisine role. There's a big difference there. In other words, when Curtis, Jeff, and even when chef Beran was here, I was here every day. Because Next wasn't open, Aviary wasn't open. This was home base. I'd get here at 11 in the morning and stay until 2 in the morning. That's not really the case anymore. He's running the ship. I'll come in at 2 in the afternoon, stay through the majority of service and then maybe pop down to Next, make sure The Aviary is okay. Now I'm juggling these three — well, soon to be four and five — so it's a whole different skillset for me. You're delegating, you're trusting, you're hoping that people are gonna put forth the passion and the energy that you establish. Which is happening at all three places, which is really cool.

Was that hard for you at first?
GA: Yes. Very. Letting go of control is the hardest thing because Alinea especially is eight-and-a-half going on nine years. It's my baby, right? It's the flagship. And to trust somebody to run that at a Michelin three-star level is — no disrespect to him at all — but it was my thing. So now it's a whole different set of rules. In order to spread the knowledge and hope that people are inspired, in some ways you have to take a couple steps back to move forward. Which is weird. But it's reality.

So how does it work when you disagree?
GA: I think the best example recently was our hallway. When the restaurant was built, we made that hallway very intentional. We wanted to make that false perspective and to light it a certain way so that people would be disoriented when they walked in. We wanted to transition them from the street to the dining room. And then we went through a period where we decorated it. We put pine trees in there. We put pumpkins and hay. We covered the floor with oak leaves. And recently chef came up to me and he said, "You know what, I don't think we should do that anymore." I really liked it decorated, but the way he articulated it to me made sense. So even though we disagreed, I said okay. And I think ultimately it was the better solution.

"It's like everybody is into the theatrics of dining now. Either you're eating live ants or you're in a theater."—Grant Achatz

What was your argument?
MB: Well, I told chef I didn't think there was anything necessarily wrong with it. I just ultimately thought if we simplified it, it spoke a different kind of message. We were making a very clear statement by filling that void with pumpkins [or] Kentucky bluegrass all over the floor. Which I supported 120 percent. But as we evolve, sometimes eliminating something is evolving.
GA: I think that's really critical, especially now in gastronomy. It's really difficult to see other restaurants globally that are doing very similar things [to what] we've done four years ago, five years ago. Nick [Kokonas] texted me a link to a restaurant [where] they were taking people from the table and moving them to a different room. We did that four years ago. It's like everybody is into the theatrics of dining now. Either you're eating live ants or you're in a theater. I feel like everybody is conforming to each other. So we're trying to break away from following and come up with something new. Being original and doing a one-of-a-kind thing is what we strive for every day.

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Mike Bagale and Grant Achatz at Alinea. [Photo: Barry Brecheisen]

Do you get tired of doing the chocolate mat and the hot potato-cold potato and the truffle explosion? The server told me last night there'd be riots if you didn't have them.
GA: We had a conversation two weeks ago about taking both of those off the menu. It comes down to a division, I feel. When you look at the reservation sheet, tonight we have 86 people. When you look here, this is the number of visits that they've had at the restaurant. We've had one table here before, but the majority are all zeros. This is the first time they've ever been here. So when they come, they get the cookbook, they go online, and they're like, "I'd really like the hot potato-cold potato." We feel somewhat obligated to show them the dishes that have made this restaurant what it is.

But creatively, we're both going like, "We've made this for eight years. Let's just take it off the menu." My rule is I'm happy to take it off the menu if we can come up with something that is equal or better. Because we don't want to jeopardize the guest's experience, but then creatively we have to make ourselves happy. So I think we're getting to that point where we need to reinvent. We're talking about remodeling the restaurant. We have a lot of ideas that we're trying to implement, whether it be the ambiance in the room or interjecting music or going back to ideas that we had nine years ago. Why do people have to sit at tables? What if for one course you got up and walked around? How can that be a bad thing?

Michelin comes out November 12, right? We've already kind of bucked the rules in a way where Next didn't get a star for the last two years, didn't even get a bib. And Michelin publicly said the reason is because [they] couldn't get in. Because for whatever reason they don't know how to use a computer and book a reservation. So in that same vein, if we encourage people to stand up and not be in a $700 chair at this beautiful wood table, is that less refined? Is that less than Michelin three stars? Will they go, "Oh, you made us stand up and walk to the kitchen for a bite. That's not what they do in France." Does it matter? Why can't we break the rules?

"Why can't we break the rules?"—Grant Achatz

How much does it still matter what Michelin says? Next is not in the guide and it's so well-regarded.
GA: It's a tough line.
MB: There's a lot of ways to look at it. But, ultimately, it's something that we strive for at this level. Do we want it? Yes. Do we want to lose it? Of course not. Do we expect it? I don't know.
GA: I think we do. There's a certain sense of confidence that you have to have, and I think this restaurant is a Michelin three-star restaurant. It's really important for the team to get those three stars for morale. It would be hard to go from three to one or three to zero for everybody who comes in here 16 hours a day and bleeds for this restaurant. We want to be the best. I would love to be the number one in the world. I don't think we'll get there, and it's not because we're not number one in the world.
MB: It's tough to rate ourselves as well. Literally somebody asked me the other day, "What are you going to invent next?" That's what we expect from ourselves, which is great, that's why we're here. But right now I think people expect borderline miracles from us. It's quite adventurous to pursue that and it's tough to rate that. Those are our standards right now, to match those Michelin stars as well as provide something beyond unique.
GA: I think a good example of that is the balloon. Going back to Trio, I was like, "How do we make floating food?" And I could never figure it out. Homaro Cantu tried to make like a magnetic plate that floated and all that jazz, and we just never came up with the perfect idea of floating food. We were in a creative meeting, I threw it on the table, and chef came up with the green apple balloon. Two weeks later, he had a tank of helium blowing it up and we made the dried apple string. That's very indicative of what we're trying to accomplish here. We literally look at the impossible and try to conquer it because that's a great creative jumping-off point. If nobody else can do it, let's go.

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Alinea, Chicago. [Photo: Barry Brecheisen]

"We literally look at the impossible and try to conquer it."—Grant Achatz

What is impossible for you?
GA: Well, floating food was for eight years. We figured that out. Plating entirely on the table's surface was for six years, but we figured that out.

Is there anything you're still chasing?
MB: We don't hold ourselves back. People might think, "Okay, you guys can't do everything." But we say that we have to do everything. We don't hold ourselves back saying we can't do something. We never give up on it. The hardest part is the concept. Once we say, "This is what we want to do," then we pursue it.
GA: The cool thing with the balloon that's also important to note is that it's a playful thing. I say it over and over again and I'm going to say it to you right now, we're not a pretentious restaurant. You're sucking helium and talking like Mickey Mouse. We want to make it fun. We want to make it interactive. I think that's a cool thing. And Eleven Madison Park does it in New York with the whole grinding the carrots on the table. They're very close friends of mine. I just feel like that spirit of being playful and whimsical is the new cuisine.
MB: I won't give chef a dish to look at unless it evokes some sort of emotion. I don't want to say, "Here's this elegant plate of food." I want to be able to tell chef that I've created some sort of a story, found some sort of relationship between the ingredients and the guest or the purveyor. Something that the guest can interact with emotionally. Which is extremely difficult, but I think at this point a complete necessity.
GA: That's kind of become our mantra. When we talk to people in the industry that are now aspiring to open other restaurants, we always say, "What's the story?" Because opening a restaurant without a story, without a backbone, it's soulless.

Stay tuned tomorrow for part two in this four-part interview series, in which Achatz and Kokonas sit down with The Aviary's chef Andrew Brochu and beverage director Charles Joly.

· Part One: The Alinea Team on Creativity and Collaboration [-E-]
· Part Two: Grant Achatz and The Aviary Team on Cocktails and Group Creativity [-E-]
· Part Three: The Next Team on Making Decisions [-E-]
· Part Four: How the Teams Behind Alinea, Next, and The Aviary Collaborate [-E-]
· All Grant Achatz Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Alinea Coverage on Eater [-E-]

Mike Bagale and Grant Achatz in Alinea's kitchen. [Photo: Barry Brecheisen]

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1723 N Halsted St., Chicago, IL 60614
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