One of the leaders of progressive cooking in the US, Grant Achatz is heading our way. Pat Nourse talks to the chef of Chicago's Alinea ahead of his first visit to Australia.
Grant Achatz doesn't like taking the easy road. Whether it's the way he runs Alinea, his internationally acclaimed three-star fine-diner, or Next, the restaurant he opened in 2011, which reboots not only its menu, but its entire theme every few months, switching from Belle Époque Parisian cooking to Thai, or from the food of Sicily to Kyoto. If there's a path that's going to be more demanding, whether creatively or professionally, that'll be where you'll find him. And just to make sure he never has a moment of spare time, his suite of Chicago venues also includes a bar, Aviary, where modernist chef-like thinking is applied to cocktails.
This month Achatz (it rhymes with "packets") will join his mentor, the French Laundry's Thomas Keller, along with Heston Blumenthal, The Ledbury's Brett Graham, Nahm's David Thompson and Attica chef Ben Shewry cooking with Neil Perry for the Ultimate Dinner fundraiser in aid of the Starlight Children's Foundation at Rockpool Bar & Grill in Sydney and Perth. We caught him ahead of his visit to talk shop.
What's the first thing you try to teach your staff?
Respect for the process and passion for what we do.
When are you at your most creative?
By its nature creativity is very spontaneous and unpredictable. You always have to be observant of what's around you.
Eight years on from opening Alinea, do you find yourself changing the menu more or less often?
More. With the opening of Next and its related travel, me and the team feel more inspired and there's crossover from that inspiration at all three places.
The more we change our menus, the easier it is to stay current and relevant in the global culinary scene.
At Next, how have you refined the process of working from one concept to, well, the next?
In the beginning it was difficult, but now we've streamlined the process of training the front and back of house, and have locked into a rhythm. Chef [Dave] Beran and I start working on the next menu about a month after we have launched the previous one, so we have two months for refinement and training.
Has there been an idea that you've had trouble translating from concept to plate?
The idea of making food float has been a challenge. Seven-and-a-half years later, though… apple balloon.
Do you think restaurant cooking has the potential to produce trickle-down benefits for the wider world?
Absolutely. I've done some consulting for large food companies and a couple of supermarkets, and they all say that they look to chefs and restaurants for ideas. The result isn't instantaneous, though; there's usually at least a five-year lag between what you see in a restaurant and what you see on a shelf.
Can you share a few of the Next themes people have proposed that you wouldn't consider?
Australian cuisine. No, in all seriousness, every menu we've done so far has posed interesting problems to solve, and they have all proved solvable.
Speaking of Australia, you're in Sydney this month to cook for the Ultimate Dinner. What are you hoping to see in your time off?
I really want to explore the gastronomy scene, from high-end restaurants to local haunts. Visiting markets and seeing food on an everyday level is also something I like to do wherever I travel.
Australian restaurants - tell us everything you know.
Quite honestly, not much. That was one of the deciding factors to do the event, I have never been to Australia, but like I said, travel and observation often lead to inspiration for me.
Ultimate Dinner Sydney is on 28 September at Rockpool Bar & Grill, (02) 8078 1900, and on 1 October at Perth's Rockpool Bar & Grill (with David Thompson cooking in place of Heston Blumenthal), (08) 6252 1900. Tickets are $10,000 for tables of 10, starlight.org.au