Grant Achatz is on a book tour. Last night he was at Omnivore Books in San Francisco. An intimate setting for 40 of us who snapped up tickets to meet Achatz and hear a reading from his book. Omnivore books is a tiny, one room book shop lined with shelves holding an exceptionally curated selection of books about one subject, cooking and food. Any foodie worth his or her sous vide or lobster foam knows by now about Grant Achatz, chef owner of Alinea in Chicago. For those who don’t know, he’s a protoge of Thomas Keller (French Laundry) and Ferran Adria (El Bulli), and has become famous for his innovative take on molecular gastronomy.
Achatz is funny and candid, about his early days in food, to his recent bout with tongue cancer, and his recovery. I won’t get into all that here (google it and you’ll see plenty of articles). He and his partner in Alinea, Nick Kokonas, wrote Life, on the Line, a frank account of Achatz’s career, and all the highs and lows along the way. They looked like two very hip and cool guys that you’d want to hang out with. You almost don’t believe they own one of the top restaurants in the world. Kokonas did the reading, a story about Achatz’s first job as a cook in a diner. What a journey from there to Alinea.
I asked Achatz about aroma. He’s known for his scented pillows that are placed on the table first. Once the server puts a plate on top of it, the pillow releases the aroma, and the diner gets a whiff of say coffee and cinnamon or lavender and sage. Genius.
Achatz said a few experiences inspired his techniques using aroma. When he staged at El Bulli, chef Ferran Adria had a dish where he made mashed potatoes with so much butter and cream that the texture was more like a custard than mashed potatoes. When served the diner was instructed to first pick up a vanilla bean and smell it, then take a bite of the potatoes. Achatz said the effect was that it was like eating creme brulee, even though there wasn’t anything sugary or sweet in the mashed potatoes. I want to try this at home.
Achatz and Kokonas are about to open their second restaurant in Chicago, called Next. They say it’s a gamble because they don’t know if the concept will take off. Every three months there will be a different theme. They’ll open with a Paris 1906 theme based around the cooking of Escoffier, one of the leaders of French haute cuisine. After three months, a new concept, possibly Thai. Basically it’s a new restaurant every three months. Plus, instead of making reservations you will have to buy a “ticket” and pay for it up front. The hope is to run the kitchen more efficiently and reduce the numbers of no-show diners.
The new restaurant opens in April. What’s Next for Achatz and Kokonos? We’ll have fun watching them redefine the dining experience.