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The Profile Dossier: Grant Achatz, America's Most Creative Chef Playing Mind Games
Who says food has to be confined to a plate?
As a complement to the regular Sunday newsletter, the Profile Dossier is a comprehensive deep-dive on a prominent individual. The dossier editions are only available to paying subscribers.
Who says that food has to be confined to a plate? Or that a tomato can't taste like a strawberry? Or that your dessert can't float like a balloon?
Who says food can't be art?
Grant Achatz is considered to be one of the most creative and cutting-edge chefs in America. His creativity stretches far beyond his elaborate and non-conventional dishes — it begins the second a guest walks into Alinea's false perspective hallway.
Achatz founded Alinea, which has been named the best restaurant in the world, in 2005. Alinea is one third laboratory, one third sensorium, and one third theater. A guest is served anywhere between 17 to 24 courses, a meal experience that mirrors chapters in a book. Alinea's most iconic dishes over the years include the pillow of nutmeg air, the black truffle explosion, and the edible helium-filled, floating balloon.
“Every restaurant exists to entertain,” says Achatz. “We want to grab you by the hand and pull you into a great performance.”
Achatz infuses elements of mystery, surprise, texture, flavor, and aroma to challenge the guest's taste experience and trigger their most intimate emotions. It sounds more like magic than cooking — and that's by design.
"We treat the emotional component of cooking food as a seasoning," Achatz says. "You add salt, you add sugar, you add vinegar, you add nostalgia. If you're able to move people, then it's not just about having dinner — it's about something more."
As Achatz pushed the boundaries of the culinary world, Alinea was recognized as the best restaurant in the country. He felt fulfilled and gratified. He was living the dream he had since he'd been 10 years old.
And then the unthinkable happened. In 2008, Achatz was diagnosed with stage-four tongue cancer. Alinea's genius chef had lost his ability to taste. "There was a light bulb that went off and said, 'For the first time ever, I think I can be a chef without being able to taste. Because it's up here," he says point to his head. "It's not here," he adds, pointing to his mouth.
Through his food, Achatz has been able to elicit curiosity, surprise, wonder, and bewilderment. Here's how his story can help us unleash our own creative potential.
(Photo Credit: Neflix’s Chef’s Table)
On developing his taste: Achatz comes from a family of restaurant owners. His relatives owned seven diners, and he spent his childhood and adolescence working as a dishwasher and later as a cook. Although the diners served basic food — eggs, roast chicken, potatoes, and beef stew, Achatz enjoyed experimenting and mixing flavors. This profile explores how he developed his taste — and how he grappled with the possibility of losing it forever.
On creating surprise: In this piece, Achatz explains how he manipulates food and context to create an experience of intrigue and surprise. "We want the diner to not really know what they’re going to get until it’s right in front of them," he says. "The customer has to pull the food apart, they have to taste it in order to figure out what it is." In every Alinea experience, there needs to be a resetting of expectations, a game of cat-and-mouse, and a curious sense of discovery. Achatz is not only a chef — he's a master storyteller.
On chasing greatness: Achatz's memoir documents the evolution of his highly creative culinary mind. It also gives a peek into his commitment to experimentation by outlining the lessons he learned in the world's most renowned kitchens, including The French Laundry, Charlie Trotter's, and el Bulli.
On learning to slow down: Achatz doesn't just want his food to taste good — he wants it to make you feel good. The three-hour, 24-course Alinea experience, he says, is all about forcing you to slow down, reflect on the various flavors, and enjoy the company of the people you're dining with. "If we can break you out of the monotony of eating, then we get you to take notice of the moment," he says.
On his creative process: If there's one thing you watch today, let this Netflix Chef's Table episode be it. It does a fantastic job of showing the way Achatz's hyper-creative mind works. When he built Alinea, he looked at every aspect of the restaurant guest experience and asked himself how he could change it. "I want the guest to have a sense of wonderment," he says. "They should expect the unexpected."
On constant evolution: Achatz calls Alinea "a participatory theater" in which he's constantly experimenting and taking risks. "We're always trying to involve more artistic, emotional elements," he says. "And people .... will not like it. But I'm OK with that." In other words, Achatz understands that the culinary risks he takes may not always play out in his favor, but his philosophy is progress over stagnation.
TECHNIQUES TO TRY.
Always start with "why:" There are so many rules in our society we simply accept. Creativity strikes when you start to challenge the status quo. Achatz, who was inspired by giant-scale pieces of art, asked himself: "Why can't we plate on that?" "It frustrated me that, as chefs, we were limited to scale that was determined by plate manufacturers," he says. "Why not a tablecloth that we can eat off of? Why do you have to eat with a fork or a spoon? And why does it have to be served on a plate or in a bowl?" Remember, every revolutionary idea starts with a question.
Aim higher: When we set goals, we're told to be realistic. As a result, people significantly tone down their dreams. But what if you did the opposite? What if you aimed for the biggest, boldest, most ambitious goal you could conceive of? For Achatz, it was to open a restaurant and have it be named the best restaurant in the country. "Anything less would be a failure," he says. Of course, he believes it was the result of hard work and relentless determination, but he's also been vocal about reaching his goal since he was 12 years old. When you have a really wild idea, tell people about it. As James Clear recently said, “You can attract luck simply by telling people what you are working on.”
Innovate even when it's not necessary: Achatz's greatest competitive advantage is probably the fact that he's willing to start over even when things are going swimmingly. Because he's terrified of the complacency that often comes hand-in-hand with great success, Achatz regularly blows up the entire menu and starts over. "It's about having a restaurant philosophy where creativity is the priority," he says. "We could have created a greatest hits menu, but I think if we do that we fall into that trap of almost counter-creativity." Creativity requires constant innovation.
Re-invent yourself to avoid stagnation: Alinea transforms into an entirely new restaurant every four months. New menu, new decor, new experiences. Achatz is reminded of this every day because the name "Alinea" is a nod to the ¶ symbol, which is defined as "the beginning of a new train of thought." There is no greater sense of confidence that comes after proving that you can re-build no matter the circumstances. That's why Alinea is considered the best restaurant in the world.
Adapt to your circumstances: Sometimes, life forces you to re-invent against your will. When Achatz was diagnosed with tongue cancer, he had to make peace with the fact that his sense of taste could disappear forever. Rather than complaining, he began thinking from first principles once again. How could a chef cook and come up with new recipes without the ability to taste flavors? He began sketching dishes on paper, taking a photo, and sending it to his team. He found out that taste relies much more on our eyes and our nose than it does on our tongue. The cancer diagnosis forced Achatz to use his other senses and figure out new ways to push the envelope that ultimately made Alinea even more cutting-edge.
Know when it's time to chart your own path. Before opening Alinea, Achatz worked under some of the best chefs in the country's best restaurants. When he was at Charlie Trotter's, Charlie told him that if he left, there would be no record of him working at the restaurant and he wouldn't amount to anything. He did it anyway. His next role was at Thomas Keller's French Laundry, where he thrived. But over time, Achatz felt the familiar and sharp blade of complacency, so he knew he had to leave and chart his own course. "I had to leave the French Laundry," he says. "I had to leave those confines of the rules." Don't be afraid to leave a good thing for the unknown. Taking risks is the very essence of creativity and personal fulfillment.
WORDS TO REMEMBER.
"People like to think the creative process is romantic. The artist drifts to sleep at night, to be awakened by the subliminal echoes of his or her next brilliant idea. The truth, for me at least, is that creativity is primarily the result of hard work and study."
"Anything that could ever prevent me from achieving a goal, I put in a box, tape it up, throw it over my shoulder. You aim for a goal and attain it. Then you look to the next one."
"Food is a necessary component to life. People can live without Renoir, Mozart, Gaudi, Beckett, but they cannot live without food."
“My personality was always such that I always look straight forward, never behind or to the side.”
"What makes the food that we do at Alinea so interesting on the outside is that we really don't let ourselves say no to an idea."
“Food can be expressive, and therefore food can be art.”