Q&A with Chicago Chef Grant Achatz of Alinea

Alicia Arter
In the kitchen at Alinea
In the kitchen at Alinea

In the restaurant world the ever-humble chef Grant Achatz rubs elbows with Thomas Keller, Tony Bourdain, David Chang and Eric Ripert. Last week he was in town with his new book Life, On the Line and talking with 130 Seattle fans at Tom Douglas’ and Kim Ricketts’ soiree for him at The Palace Ballroom.

Grant Achatz with cornThe 36-year-old owner/chef of Chicago’s snazzy Alinea, he’s at the forefront of molecular gastronomy (he even did a stint at el Bulli), but his biggest accomplishment lately is fighting off Stage IV tongue cancer with a chemo/radiation procedure as out-of-the-box as his own cooking. When he was diagnosed, the standard treatment was surgical removal of the tongue, and at Stage IV (there is no Stage V) his chance of short term survival was slim. The experimental chemo/radiation treatment saved his life and his tongue but left him without a sense of taste, a career buster for a chef.

Well, his sense of taste came back, and he’s cancer-free. I talked with him right before his Palace Ballroom gig started.

Q: What restaurants have you been to in Seattle? Which will you visit?
A: None (shaking his head in disbelief). This is my first trip to Seattle. We were just at Nathan Myhrvold’s Intellectual Ventures for a multi-course meal – and it was delicious. In a few minutes we’re at the 7 PM book party and we fly out of town around 6 AM in the morning. (Editor’s note: what he didn’t know was that he’d wrap up the evening at Dahlia Lounge, which is no surprise to us given the Tom Douglas factor.) I’ll be back in May though, for a cancer event with Fred Hutchinson

Q: Dungeness crab is Seattle’s local favorite. How would you prepare it?
A: At Alinea we make it with cashews and parsnips. We’re about to do a riff on 1960’s New York City food with a tempura bite of Dungeness crab and avocado.

Q: Any tips for a home cook on how to actually use molecular gastronomy in the kitchen?
A: It’s easy. Go to a cookware store and get sous vide equipment and the cookbook Under Pressure by Thomas Keller.

Q: Why do you say is sous vide easy? (Sous vide equipment cooks and holds food at low temperatures over long periods of time, giving it more tender, silkier textures than regular cooking does.)
A: Well, you prep it, put it in the water and you’re done. You don’t have to worry about burning it. Grant Achatz maple

Q: In your new book you meet huge setbacks and daunting tasks regularly. Right now you’re getting ready to open Next, your new restaurant in Chicago, while simultaneously promoting your new book and running Alinea. How do you do it?
A: With hard work, persistence and repetition. I grind it out. I push through it.

Q: In your book you talk about working at Alinea during chemo and radiation. Why did you do that?
A: During treatment they tell you find your comfort. My comfort is in the kitchen. I’ve been there all my life.

At this point the event people were grabbing his arm, leading him off to the book event. I got in one last question.

Q: In the book you went out of your way to get comfortable dining room chairs at Alinea. Restaurants often don’t do that. First of all, thanks from all of us who dine, and second, why?
A: It was a big deal to us. If we’re going to serve multiple courses we darn well should have comfortable chairs!

His book is a good read about the ups and downs in a chef’s life and how he made decisions along the way to his success. Given that he started cooking eggs in a small Michigan café in owned by his family and ended up with a slew of “Best Of’s” that included the James Beard Foundation’s 2007 “Outstanding Chef”, that decision process is definitely worth looking into.