It's been two and a half years since Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas opened their cocktail bar The Aviary in Chicago's West Loop. A bar only the restaurateur duo behind Alinea could create, The Aviary has since been blowing minds with its mad cocktail science, iconic barware created by Martin Kastner, intense ice program, and plans for eventual expansion. Most recently, The Aviary adopted the ticketing system that debuted at Next and is also in play at Alinea. There's also been some chef shuffling at the bar: Charles Joly replaced Craig Schoettler as beverage director last Summer, while Andrew Brochu signed on as executive chef just this past Spring.
In part two of this four-part interview series, Eater met up with Achatz, Kokonas, Joly, and Brochu to talk about how they work together and with their team to make The Aviary a creative spin on the classic bar. They also discuss various ideas they've had over the years — including one that Achatz describes as "a great failure" — and how The Aviary takes its cues from Alinea.
Chef Brochu, you were the most recent member of this team to come into the fold. Were you always sort of gunning to come back into this group after working at Alinea earlier?
Andrew Brochu: Yeah, I think anybody would want to work in this group. I know when I was over at Kith & Kin, Chef and I had spoken about it briefly a few times — "what do you want to do, you want to come back?" — but it was never anything set in stone. And then last year around February he sent me a couple texts wanting to meet up. And yeah, Nick and Chef asked me to come back.
What is it about this group that inspires such loyalty?
AB: They're good at what they do. For me, personally, I left for a little while and worked with a couple other restaurateurs. I always found myself almost singled out, almost fighting to push whatever we were doing in a direction that I learned from Chef and Nick. And I always found myself on the losing side where certain things would trump the integrity or what my vision was. So I knew coming back to this group that would be something I wouldn't have to worry about. That's always been a focus of this group, and I knew that I wouldn't have to be always fighting for it.
Charles, in an interview with my colleague you said coming into an established group where everybody knew each other was both a great resource and a challenge. What were those challenges and how has that gone now that you're more settled?
Charles Joly: Historically, I had always been part of the team that hired all my staff, so that's something different. I've not ever inherited a program that was already running. That's somewhat common in the chef world to come into a restaurant that's operating. But that's just a unique part of my history. The culture [here] is very different than what I had experienced in the past, which is also part of what enticed me.
[Charles Joly] helped us take Aviary to a different level. —Grant Achatz
Grant Achatz: If I may say, I think that when Charles came on, he had the task to not re-concept but reform what we presently had. And he has interjected his personality into the cocktails, into the dining room, into basically the personality of The Aviary, which is what enticed Nick and I to bring him on. We knew that he was established, very obviously talented, but would help us take Aviary to a different level. And I think that was what he's accomplished.
Nick Kokonas: And I think it takes time to do that. For everybody. It's difficult. We don't run things very tightly, I guess. That's not the right word. We don't run it in a very structured fashion. It comes as an organic conversation about everything. Until you're part of that conversation in a comfortable way where you could come and make suggestions that maybe are just first thoughts, until you have that comfort level, it's difficult to move things around. And now that's certainly the case. Charles is doing a whole bunch of things that are his own. But we've never hired anybody to say, okay, come in and you're at the top level. Ever.
GA: Well, except these two.
NK: Well, right. But not as much with Andrew, I guess, because Andrew had already worked for you and knew the way that you ran a kitchen and knew what was expected and all that. We knew that Charles was exceptionally talented and had drunk his drinks.
GA: I would go as far as saying we were quasi-regulars at The Drawing Room. When we won Michelin three stars, we all went there as a restaurant to celebrate. So that relationship formed and obviously we respected what he did behind the bar and what he brought to the space.
NK: But what I'm saying is he ran his own show all the time and all of a sudden now you're in a different sort of collaboration. I just think it takes time to have all that work out. It's clear and evident at this point that it's comfortable, which is really wonderful. And now I think everyone can afford to take risks again, if that makes sense. Which is good.
How do the conversations go with so many voices here? If you want to do something new with the cocktails, do you all talk about it?
GA: Not so much. Charles and [Aviary Chef de Cuisine] Micah [Melton] do the thing. Chef Brochu and I might talk about the food a little bit, but like I was saying at Alinea with Chef Bagale, at some point you have to kind of let go. We might talk about certain special serviceware that we want to get made, like the giant Porthole or a plate or something. But largely these guys are just doing their thing.
NK: They're broad conceptual conversations, emails often. And then you let smart people be smart.
You let smart people be smart. — Nick Kokonas
CJ: Everyone understands the collective vision, so it's more I might bring whichever chef is around a cocktail and be like, "Hey, can you try this?" or "How do you think this looks?"
NK: We did a test for the private dining room last week, and I sat down to eat downstairs. In the middle of the meal, Charles came in and did a paired cocktail that was absolutely delicious. It's fun now he's pairing a cocktail to a very formal multi-course food menu. That's something that we would never have done before without the resource of having The Office right next door and having Charles here. And then afterwards Charles said [in] one email thread, "Oh yeah it's really fun to have the opportunity to do that now." But it's not like we had a conversation.
GA: The other thing I think is really cool that a lot of restaurant group or companies don't utilize as much is, for instance, last night we did a cocktail with rosemary. It was in this clip that we had designed for Alinea three and a half, four years ago. And now we're pooling all our resources and, like Charles was saying, he might come to myself or Chef Brochu or Chef Beran and say, "Hey, taste this." But now we get to do it with glassware, with serviceware, with concepts. So the whole group gets unified in a way. And everybody becomes part of the creative process.
Yesterday I was at Martin Kastner's studio and he was telling me about the conversations you guys have where you have a problem and he will come up with a design to solve the problem. What is that conversation like from your side?
GA: Charles can probably answer that best, but we wanted to make a cocktail that was inside an ice cube. How do you break it? So Martin comes up with the slingshot basically that fits over the rim of the glass that you snap. And it goes from there all the way to the Porthole. What else?
CJ: Most recently the giant Porthole. I look forward to utilizing [Kastner] now that he's finally over his hump of getting all those Portholes out. He was really occupied with that for awhile.
What ideas do you have?
CJ: I don't know. We've talked about new glassware. I think it works that way, too, in the sense that we'll have an end result we want to achieve and then work backwards from there.
NK: I spent three hours with him yesterday. He showed me prototypes he did for the Porthole Kickstarter, the small nipple cups and now he's got big ones as prototypes that are really beautiful. That's just an extension of something that he's already done, but something we'll probably have in here at some point.
GA: He's an important part of the creative process. Like Charles was saying, it's not like we go to him and say, "Let's do this." It's more of bouncing back and forth.
NK: He's an amazing artist and editor. I think the most important thing [in the] design process is the editing. One of the things that we do is we argue a lot about things. When I say argue, I don't really mean argue. I mean we beat each other up over the concepts until you get whatever the pure form of that concept is. So I think a lot of places see good first ideas and then they get excited about it and they put it out there right away. To a certain extent we do two things well, I think. One which is never say that something's impossible. We just say we haven't figured out quite how to do it yet.
GA: It's funny he says that because that's exactly what we said [at Alinea].
NK: That's really a key thing because we have some wacky ideas all the time, all of us do. And we'll look at each other and you're like, "Eh, that doesn't seem like it's doable." I can name 10 things from a cost perspective or a dining perspective or whatever that seemed impossible, quote-unquote. Sometimes it takes two years to figure out how to bring that into the dining room, and it ends up being a really small component of a three-hour experience. But very integral to what we try to do. I think there's a lot of places that just go, "Oh no, you can't do that in a restaurant." And that's the end of that conversation. And then the opposite of that is equally important, which is that sometimes you have [an] idea and it kind of needs editing and a discussion. That's not always comfortable, especially when someone really owns an idea, but it's important. The editing is as important as the creation.
We all feel comfortable saying no. — Grant Achatz
GA: I think there's been instances all the way around where we all feel comfortable saying no. I've literally came to Charles and said, "Hey, maybe we do this." And he's just been like, "No." And I think that's great, that honesty.
CJ: Someone might not notice one moment of a three-hour experience, but if there's a hundred of those moments then you're blown away. It's a "devil is in the details" type thing, but to the furthest degree. Always pushing for every bit of it to be as perfect as possible.
AB: I think that's what it is, it's the push on all aspects. I remember at Alinea — and I know it's still like that at all three places — you come up with a technique or an idea or something and you're working on it and you're like, "Oh my God, this took me four hours to produce 20 of these. There's no way we can put this on." And then we do it and it's the push. And then the next thing you know, the person doing that component of the dish has it down to 10 minutes. The lobster chips here, when we were first going to cut them into Fritos was like three days of me doing them for five hours and now we can do them in 20 minutes. So it's just a matter of doing it, editing it and figuring out how to make it work.
I know you said nothing is impossible here and at Alinea, but is there anything you haven't been able to resolve yet that is kind of like your white whale?
NK: There were a few.
GA: I think there's a lot.
AB: There's a ton of ideas that get bounced around. And there's a ton of things that you don't give up [on], but you move forward with what you're already working on and then go back to try that. I mean, the balloon at Alinea, you guys wanted to do that for how long?
GA: We talked about that up the street.
NK: Table plate the same thing, the mats.
GA: Right. That was seven years.
NK: The jewel box thing here.
GA: That's going to come back.
NK: I know that's what I'm saying. That's one that's in process.
GA: That was actually a great failure.
Tell me about it.
GA: We made — or tried to make — a cabinet of curiosities where the guest would be confronted with this very large piece of furniture that would have drawers that you would pull out and there would be bites of food in it. We submitted it to one of our woodworkers that does a lot of work for us and —
NK: It was an unmitigated disaster.
GA: It was a disaster.
AB: The original concept was, in an environment like this where the tables are small, how do we get more food or more things on the table? They're small, so we can't use plates. So we started thinking vertically. Let's go tall. And then, of course, we don't really like to do anything half-assed, so it turned into let's make it like four feet tall off the table where people have to actually stand up and it's interactive. It was supposed to be very whimsical, different sized boxes and different shapes and this and that. Which from a design standpoint is a lot harder than we had anticipated. So when we got the boxes it literally just looked like a cabinet. All the doors were the same and it was not really as special as we thought it was going to be.
We don't really like to do anything half-assed. —Andrew Brochu
GA: So we sent all four of them back and he's going to remake them.
NK: I remain skeptical. Not of the concept, but of this particular implementation of the concept.
GA: I think it's a great idea. And maybe even you pull out a drawer and you get a mini cocktail with a little bite that are paired together. I think it's a really cool idea to be confronted with a four-sided cabinet that is mysterious. You pull out a drawer and you never know what is going to be inside. That was the idea.
AB: That was the plan, we don't tell anybody what's inside, there's no description.
Finally, I talked to Nick a little earlier this year about no-shows and you mentioned how people have expect Alinea at your other restaurants, that it will be impossible to get in, that it will be more formal, and so on. Do they still expect Alinea at the Aviary? How do you explain to people what you are?
NK: I mean, we do have expectations of Alinea in one sense. I don't think that's a bad thing. From an execution standpoint, I know that the chefs feel that even though the style of cuisine is different, the execution is at the same high level. And I know from a cocktail perspective that's how Micah and Charles and our staff feels —
Oh, I'm not implying that.
NK: No, I know you weren't. But in terms of the walk-in thing, we're actually going to start selling tickets to Aviary next week. And the reason we are is because people want to be able to know that they can get in. And so the tickets for this are going to work a little differently. They're going to be able to essentially buy a $25 ticket, which then gets credited to their a la carte bill. All that does is it allows them to note that they've got a slot, they've got priority seating. We'll still take walk-ins as well. But we're going to reserve about half the tables for people and that way they don't have to be uncertain about it. But I think people do have an expectation. When you see the food that's coming out of The Aviary right now, I mean, you could serve that at Alinea. It's every bit the quality of what's going on up the street from execution standpoint. It's not creatively the same. It's intentionally different.
The Aviary is intentionally different from Alinea. — Nick Kokonas
GA: And I think that, correct me if I'm wrong, but I think there is a bit of a misconception that you can't get in on a Wednesday night. However, I will say that as far as Chicago is concerned and those bars that are at this level, we're pretty busy.
CJ: Yeah it is busy. In general, I think the ticketing system will really help the accessibility in terms of making it easier to know you can get a reservation. Nobody likes to wait outside, especially in this time of year.
NK: The other thing is we're a destination place here. We're in the meatpacking district. You're not going to happen to just walk by. And if there's a big line, there's not really a whole lot of options around here. If you're going to get into a cab, you want to know that you can get in.
CJ: I think too, in terms of the environment, there might be a big Bulls game or something and people will come before or after so it's not that they need to feel like they need to be dressed up. There will always be people that are dressed to the nines. I think you fit in just as well as if you came in in jeans.
NK: Have we ever kicked anyone out for bad dress here? I don't think we have.
CJ: Not while I've been here.
GA: We certainly have at Alinea.
Stay tuned tomorrow for part three in this four-part interview series, in which Achatz and Kokonas sit down with Next chef Dave Beran. In the meantime, check out part one of the series, a conversation about Alinea with Achatz and executive chef Mike Bagale.
· 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 Coverage of The Aviary on Eater [-E-]