Grant Achatz ’94, Executive Chef/Restaurateur
Innate curiosity and devotion to precision and control, traits he shares with his mentor Thomas Keller, have brought Grant Achatz from his parents’ restaurant kitchen in Michigan to international attention and acclaim. As chef and co-owner of Alinea, Next, The Aviary, and The Office in Chicago, Achatz has been recognized with multiple kudos. His James Beard Foundation awards include the 2003 Rising Chef Award; 2007 Best Chef: Great Lakes; 2008 Outstanding Chef; 2012 Best New Restaurant; and 2012 Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America. Alinea has been awarded three Michelin stars since 2011, ranks at number 15 on the 2016 S.Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants, and won the 2016 James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Restaurant. Achatz has published two books: Alinea is about the creation of the restaurant, and Life, On the Line: A Chef’s Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat, includes his battle with stage-four tongue cancer and his subsequent remission.
An enthusiastic proponent of molecular gastronomy, Achatz created a kitchen “laboratory” at Alinea. “When I had the opportunity to build my own kitchen, I thought, hey, let’s wipe our heads clean of conventional kitchen design,” he recalls. “We analyzed the food and style of cooking and built around that.” The Aviary is a beverage restaurant where cocktails and service are given the same attention to detail as food in a four-star restaurant. Bartenders are trained as chefs and the produce and herbs are carefully sourced and procured fresh daily. The Office, located below The Aviary, is a speakeasy and exclusive club. Drinks are served in actual period-piece antiques with homemade custom ice that is either hand chipped or formed in Japanese press molds.
In January 2016 Alinea closed for renovations. In the interim, Achatz and team opened a pop up restaurant in Madrid, Spain at the NH Collection Eurobuilding for four weeks from January 12 through February 6, 2016 followed by a pop up in Miami that ran from February 17 through March 13, 2016. Alinea received a total redesign, and the look is warmer with banquette seating and tabletops made with translucent resin that makes plates look as if they float.
Next opened with the premise of changing the entire menu every three months, with each menu having its own time period and theme, i.e. Paris 1906 or The Hunt. Patrons buy all-inclusive tickets with their reservations. The number of tickets sold dictates how the restaurant spends its food budget and, more important, spread diners evenly throughout the week so the kitchen and staff can ensure a leisurely pace for patrons. The system has been so successful Alinea adopted the practice in 2012 and both restaurants saw a rapid decrease in no-shows, from 14% of reservations to less than 2% annually.
The $60 million ticketing system, the brainchild of Achatz’s partner Nick Kokonas, rolled out nationwide in 2015 under a new company called Tock, a play on the idea of tickets, time, and the “tick-tock” sound of a clock. “I was getting so many requests for the software that there was no way I could fulfill them,” Kokonas says. His in-house-developed system “wasn’t built to scale to hundreds of restaurants, so we had to try to find a way to build one.”
To refine the software for wider adoption and a more robust user experience, Achatz and Kokonas brought on Brian Fitzpatrick, a software engineer who launched Google’s Chicago engineering team in 2005 as founding partner and chief technology officer. They also hired JJ Lueck, formerly of Bose, Apple, and Google, as senior engineer; Dan Nelson from Trunk Club as head of user experience; and Michael Vo, formerly at Blackrock. Steve Bernacki, chief financial officer of Alinea, Next, and the Aviary, will hold the same role at Tock.
Under the Tock model, restaurants pay a flat monthly fee of $695 for access to the platform, which eventually will offer five ticket types: fully prepaid prix-fixe tickets like those offered by Next and Alinea; deposit tickets, which require diners to put down a nonrefundable deposit for a reservation; dynamic deposit tickets, where the deposit varies depending on the date and time of reservation; special-event tickets; and no-cost tickets, which function as normal reservations.
Achatz will be featured on the critically acclaimed Netflix program, Chef’s Table, from filmmaker David Gelb (Jiro Dreams of Sushi.) The digital network will release 16 new episodes of the series divided into three seasons. The chefs reveal their motivations, challenges, success stories, and failures in what Gelb calls an entirely new kind of food television: “It’s really a show about people. We don’t give explanations on how to cook things. It’s psychological, character-driven film-making.” Season two premiers on May 27, 2016.
For every innovative chef, there’s a strong grounding in the fundamentals, and Achatz credits his alma mater for instilling that in him. “I entered the CIA at a very young age with no fine dining or classic training,” he says. “The school gave me the foundation that is required to execute the cooking style that I now use.” He feels fortunate to have been a part of the bold new food industry that has taken shape in the last 20 years. “I graduated in 1994,” Achatz says, “and a lot has happened since then—the rise of The French Laundry and Per Se, and what they represent for American cuisine; the proliferation of progressive cuisine led by Ferran Adría and Heston Blumenthal; the role of the celebrity chef taking hold in American society. It remains a very exciting time to be in this profession.”
Achatz is now giving back and leading the next generation of culinary stars. His flagship restaurant, Alinea, serves as an approved externship site for current CIA students. Achatz is a member of the Bocuse d’Or USA Foundation Culinary Council and provided mentorship to the 2015 team, led by fellow alumnus Phillip Tessier ’99, who ultimately took second place at the Bocuse d’Or in Lyon, France.