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Power Trio Grant Achatz, David Chang & Wylie Dufresne

One last interview from the Eater Lounge at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. Grant Achatz was scheduled for an interview, and then David Chang and Wylie Dufresne showed up, so Eater interviewed all three of them at the same time :

[Photo: Eater]

Eater: So how is Aspen treating you guys so far?
Grant Achatz: The elevation is tough. Like you walk up a flight of stairs and you feel like your heart is going to fall out of your chest. Other than that, I think it's great.
David Chang: I've been in training, getting ready for this elevation.

Training how?
Chang: High altitude, doing whatever I can, walking up flights of stairs. No, I'm dying.
Wylie Dufresne: He has a tank in his pocket of air.
Achatz: I don't want to speak for everyone, but I feel like it's a great opportunity for chefs to interact with each other in an environment that we normally don't. We're all so busy, we're traveling, we're working, doing this or doing that. You get to see everybody and hang out. We all have our responsibilities. But last night we were together.
Dufresne: In the trunk of a car.
Chang: It was a bunch of us.
Dufresne: It was a good-sized vehicle, but Chang and I were in the trunk together.

How did that happen?
Dufresne: We're not at liberty to discuss.
Chang: What happened last night stays then. But no, it's just fun. I think that everyone has their little bit to do here and just to hang out. You never get to do that. Usually you get together it's like doing this dinner or feed 500 people or whatever. You guys are just speaking right?
Dufresne & Achatz: Yeah.
Chang [who was slated to cook on Saturday night]: Oh man. Affirmative action.

So since you guys are all from cities where critics have recently lost their jobs, I'm curious what you think about what this means for the restaurants in your cities if anything?
Achatz: Wylie, go.
Dufresne: You're talking about Sietsema? Was it a loss or sort of a transfer? He's still putting pen to paper or whatever. It still seems as if he's going to be offering up the same type of wisdom that has sort of defined him in the last decade in terms of great unexpected ethnic foods and things like that. So I think we look forward to seeing what he's going to continue to do and where he's going to send us to eat.

But do you think this sort of seemingly diminishing value that these papers are putting on formal restaurant criticism means anything?
Chang: There have been a ton of critics, I don't know, Seattle. I'm glad Brett Anderson got his job back. But I don't really know. I can't really speak for any other towns. New York, we seem to have too many critics. Chicago seems to be the same. A lot of critics. Which is good. Keeps everyone on their toes.

You just lost Michael Nagrant, right?
Achatz: Yeah from the Sun-Times. But again, he wrote for the Alinea cookbook obviously before he was a critic. I think the whole criticism thing with print media now is an interesting subject because — and even Pete Wells has said anonymity is gone. Everybody knows what Pete Wells looks like. I don't know if you guys knew what Frank Bruni looks like. I did not when he dined at Alinea in 2005. But we all know who they are. So now with the popularity of the blogs and say what you want about Yelp and whatever, but it is kind of taking away their credibility. Because what do people really want? They want the opinion of many people, not one person. What does he like? John Mariani. What does John Mariani want? Spaghetti. Right?
Chang: It's true.
Achatz: You know what I mean? So why should he write a review based on what his personal preference is as opposed to what the public, our clients, want? That's what I really care about is making people happy. Not only one person.
Dufresne: I would say we're seeing a movement towards that.
Achatz: I agree.
Dufresne: In a way, that's fraught with complications, too, because it becomes very easy to have a voice. And what sort of criteria, credibility, life experiences do you bring to that? How do we the group know who you are?
Achatz: I do think Pete does a great job.
Chang: Yes. But Pete's been a great writer for a long time. I mean, everybody's done a great job. And I know everyone's always criticizing the Times, but I think their job is really hard now because everybody's criticizing them.
Achatz: That's an interesting angle. Can you criticize a critic? We all do.
Chang: That's what they do now. It's a weird standard for a critic because if it's out of line with what popular opinion is, they're going to get criticized for that. You sort of have to be detached. It's hard to be as objective as possible when it's going to be a subjective essay or review.

Speaking of that, Phil Vettel got some blowback for the Next: Vegan review, right? What happened there?
Achatz: Well, Eater. (laughter)

Well, didn't Chicagoist criticize that he has reviewed it so many times?
Achatz: Right. And there's that as well. Now that we went to the ticketing system, people, critics can't just pick up the phone and get a reservation, right? So there's that component of it as well. Again, you go back to the anonymity of it and it gets a little tricky. I think Vegan is the best menu that we've ever done. Personally. I'm just saying. A couple other people don't think so. Because when you think about that, and we all do this right? Wylie does it. David does it. We're going to do what we want to do. When you're talking about strictly vegetables, some people just don't want to eat that. But yet then they have to come in and review it. And if they want beef at the end of their meal or they want a big quenelle of vanilla ice cream with chocolate cake at the end of their meal and they don't get it, then they don't like the meal. But that's not the point. And certainly he can attest to that. So can he. We're just trying to do different stuff. We're trying to do things that are compelling to us as chefs, as people. And the dining public, we hope, responds to it in a way that they're not comparing, it's not an apple to apple situation. It's literally apple to orange. Right? If you don't want to eat vegetables, don't come to Vegan.
Chang: But it's also a story for the newspapers, too. It's something that they can turn into something juicy and almost salacious. I'm not a vegan presenting some type of moral dilemma going to a restaurant. There is no dilemma. Just choose not to go and wait until the next iteration of Next. Or somebody who wants to go to wd~50 or my restaurant and they're like, well, I don't like what's on the seasonal menu right now... choose to come back at another date.

Like the tyranny of the tasting menu debate.
Achatz: Right.
Chang: If there was only one option in town or five options, then I can understand it being really tyrannical. But we're from cities where there's a lot of restaurants. Choose to go wherever you want. Like we just chose to eat hamburgers again.
Dufresne: Cheesesteaks. But I mean, again, it's what you bring to the experience. We got a letter this week from a table of three that came in and decided that the meal was just decidedly lacking in creativity and playfulness. I don't even know where to begin with that. If that's how you feel, I'm not going to engage you. But did you have popcorn soup at the airport on the way to the restaurant? You had oatmeal flavored with red bell peppers previously? I can go on and on about the number of things that our team spends a long time on that we think is playful and fun and certainly creative. But if you're not arriving with the right mentality, if you're not arriving eager to see what somebody whose by no means interested in being a vegan has to say about it, then I don't know. I don't know if we can help you. You have to bring the right attitude to the party, otherwise it's going to be hard for us to live up to whatever expectations you're putting on it. I think that we respectfully disagree on certain things, on certain criticisms, but what are you going to do? I can't take the time to call these people up and ask them why they didn't think it was playful and creative when 20 people spent months trying to make sure that it would be playful and creative.
Chang: There's no more romance. I remember when you opened up and a cook was like you have to check out this restaurant. I couldn't go online and see what was being served. I was like, hey, they're doing this crazy avocado dish with crab in the center and I don't know exactly how they did it because it just seemed so seamless and there were no knife cuts. Or I remember a cook coming back that I knew when Grant was at Trio and he was talking about an iconic black truffle explosion. I couldn't understand exactly what was being done. But we had a talk about it. If I saw a photo and a whole progression of the meal, it takes the magic away. So now you have customers that Wylie was just talking about that — we're happy they're giving us their business, but they're jaded because they've seen everything. And it's not new to them. We can only move so fast.
Achatz: It's tough. We're just on a rant.

You can keep going if you want. But you guys must get approached with projects all the time. What do you say no to? What are some of the things you haven't done?
Achatz: I think we're all in different positions for various reasons. I think that David's done a really great job of expanding the empire that he has in a way that is beneficial. I think that in my case we've said no to some things that maybe we shouldn't have. Vegas, Tokyo, New York. They didn't feel like it was going to be anything creative for us because basically what they all wanted was Alinea over and over and over again. And that just didn't seem right. I just feel like you're dealing with a company or you're dealing with brands, you need to make several decisions on where to go and it's not easy to make the right call every time. I think we messed up, personally.

Achatz: Vegas, Tokyo and New York (laughter).

Is there still a chance to rectify that?
Achatz: Yeah, of course there is.
Chang: Those cities are not going to go anywhere. But you're sort of damned if you do and damned if you don't. I've admired Wylie so much because he's actually been at the restaurant on the line working every day six days a week. And everyone's like, "Why don't you have another restaurant?" And he's like, "I'm at my restaurant now." If you don't open it then you're not being ambitious enough. And if you open too many...
Achatz: You're spreading yourself too thin. And people expect to see him at the restaurant and me at the restaurant. We all deal with this, right? If we're not there, who's cooking the food? Well, the same people that are cooking the food every night. The misconception of the guest is very intriguing to me. The dining public, the people that come to our restaurants shockingly know very little about the operation of a restaurant. Do they expect to see Thomas Keller at Per Se?

And at The French Laundry at the same time.
Achatz: That's my point. It's crazy. It's all good, though. It's a good problem to have. We're making Wylie very uncomfortable.
Dufresne: Not at all.

Have you said no a lot?
Dufresne: Yeah, they're talking about on larger scales, but even on smaller scales you say no to things. I mean media opportunities or not just business opportunities. All sorts of things.

What's the worst thing you've been asked to endorse?
Dufresne: The worst thing? I've been asked to endorse lots of different pieces of equipment. It's not necessarily that it's an awful thing to be asked to endorse something because it's inherently a compliment to your skills, your abilities, on a level. But sometimes it's just not the right fit. Okay, a lot of people think that I'm someone known for a love of eggs and egg cookery. Being asked to endorse an egg yolk separator, I mean, I understood where it came from but it didn't seem necessarily like something that was ultimately worth pursuing. That's not the worst thing. Sometimes it's just not the right fit and I think we have to deal with that all the time with business opportunities, media opportunities, employee opportunities, does this person fit to the kitchen or not?

Anyone else have any endorsements they've turned down?
Achatz: I'm not going to go there.

Fair enough. You brought up the misconception of the diner and we were going to ask you about the videos you do for Next. Do you see that as a way to manage the expectation of the diner? Or is it just an added bonus treat?
Achatz: What do you mean manage the expectation?

Well, correct me if I'm wrong, but the Vegan menu came out after the tickets had been sold right? So it wasn't to get people interested in buying tickets, it's an added level of information about what people can expect.
Achatz: But even the vegan, the vegan was very different for us because it was silly. Intentionally silly. So it wasn't really informing. It was the first video that we cut that didn't show any food. So like for all the other ones we literally shot the actual food that people might come to the restaurant and consume. With this one we were just having fun. And I hope that people would understand we were making fun of ourselves. We dressed up cooks in a carrot outfit, you know? I think the video presence right now is important. I think it works for marketing and I think it works for, quite frankly, putting people in seats.
Dufresne: Yeah, exposure. Continually reaching more people as effectively and efficiently as you can, why not? Whether it be video, television, radio, whatever this source of media is right here. All of that is the idea being how can we continue to drive people?

Because you have to physically be in the restaurant to experience the meal, so if you can have something outside of that that people can use to get excited about it.
Achatz: Right. Do you guys do videos?
Chang: More for Lucky Peach.

And that's also an added level of experience, somewhat, more loosely tied than the video. It just expands on the ideas of the restaurant.
Chang: Yeah, reading a magazine.
Dufresne: It's important to stay in the mix. You have to stay in the mix.
Achatz: That's a very ambitious project. How has that worked out?
Chang: It started off as a joke sort of. Like Mind of a Chef. We were supposed to do an app. It was going to be an educational TV show. We wanted to do like 3-2-1 Contact meets like Great Chefs of Europe and just have fun. Something that was educational, informative, and sort of not for fun but, yeah, fun in a way our research and development. And Peter Meehan and Chris Ying sort of had the great idea like, well, let's just write a magazine. And if we knew it was going to be successful, we wouldn't have made it 168 pages with no ads on the first issue. Like most things, I'm just along for the ride and it's an opportunity for everyone else. I think Peter and Chris are just doing an awesome job. It's great because, in a way, it allows us to express certain ideas. But it's very tough. It's a very tough business obviously. We're having fun.
Achatz: Thomas has Finesse magazine, right? And we're making the e-books. I assume that you have books in the works?
Dufresne: Coloring book.

Dufresne: No. (laughter)
Achatz: But it's a weird medium, I think.

Print? Yeah, well this is a thing we've been seeing more. I know Linton Hopkins is doing print stuff.
Achatz: It's interesting, we sold, when we did Paris as an e-book, I think we sold 12,000 copies. Which isn't a lot.
Chang: It's a lot in the cookbook industry.
Achatz: But the thing is you own all the material right? Which is great. So now all of that IP is yours. If you were to go with a standard publishing deal, the publisher would own it. But the cool thing with that is now when we release Thai — which we will in probably a week and a half — and then when we do Childhood and then Kyoto and etcetera and etcetera, they all kind of help each other. So I think when people go, oh, maybe we'll just buy all of them. All five of them. The Alinea cookbook right now I think has 87,000 sold. But when you think about doing these e-books for a simple download you can do on your iPhone for $3.99, to Nick [Kokonas] and I, that's an interesting thing. Because you can embed video and scroll through it on your iPad. And now you're interacting with people on a different level than you can with print. I love print. There's something about having a book in your hand and turning pages that feels very satisfying. But there's also capabilities that you can have with a computer or an iPad or your phone, smartphone, that is also equally exciting.

They sort of go together.
Achatz: Yeah. Or you do both. You bundle. One thing that we talked about is you do Paris, you do Childhood, you do Thailand, you do Kyoto and then because you own the material, you're able to sell it to a publisher and you have a book that goes four chapters long. Paris, Childhood, Kyoto, Thailand. And you do both, which is also interesting. You guys got me in a good mood.

Anything else you guys want to talk about? Any burning issues?
Chang: You guys don't have anything else? What would be our last meal on Earth?
Achatz: What's your favorite ingredient?
Chang: What do you cook at home?
Dufresne: Favorite tool. (laughter)
Achatz: Throw a microplane out there.

· All Aspen Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All David Chang Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Wylie Dufresne Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Grant Achatz Coverage on Eater [-E-]

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