Michelin-star chef Grant Achatz chatted with us about his latest New York City restaurants, The Aviary and The Office, and why he decided to bring his culinary talents to the Big Apple.
What made you want to open your latest spots, The Aviary and The Office, in New York City?
GRANT ACHATZ: Well, I think there’s always been a level of proving yourself in New York. I have, obviously, a lot of industry friends there. They were like, “Oh, yeah, you’re a big fish in a small pond. If you really want to establish yourself, you need to come to the big city and do it in New York.” So there was that. I think it was a perfect storm of opportunity for us, partnering with the Mandarin Oriental in that iconic space with that view overlooking Central Park. I’m very close with chef Thomas Keller and he’s in the building. It all seemed to fit for the time and place, honestly.
I've always found you to be a chef that has a succinct vision for what each of your restaurants is supposed to be and mean. What do Alinea, Next, Roister, The Aviary, and The Office respresent to you?
GA: For Alinea, it’s always been about constant creativity and evolution. That would be the hallmark of that restaurant and still is, just constantly reinventing and evolving. Next is a shape-shifter. We thematically choose to do the four menus a year but the restaurant dramatically changes, both in its personality, service, and food and beverage offerings. Roister, the newest one to come online, is kind of the anti-Alinea in that it’s, by intent, not super refined. It’s loud, it’s kind of rustic, it’s boisterous. With The Aviary, I’ve always looked at it like the Alinea for drinks. It was always about taking that approach to thinking outside the box, in terms of flavor combinations, and rethinking the vessels that you put cocktails in, and taking that creativity to the extreme. And The Office, it’s a traditional speak-easy style bar, and I just liked the juxtaposition of The Aviary and The Office, especially because they’re right next to each other. There’s this great yin and yang that I think really compliments them both and makes them stand out in a different way. I think, without that juxtaposition, they would be less successful on their own.
There are plenty of chefs that make great food, but at some point there's got to be something beyond that that turns a good chef into a great chef, no?
GA: I hate to keep going back to the creativity, but for me, that’s what I want my legacy to be. That’s what I want people to think of me and say about me when I’m gone or after I eventually retire and stop cooking. I’m 43 now. Alinea’s been open for over 12 years and I’m just very proud of the fact that we’ve kept pushing in terms of the creativity. It would be awesome if 35 years from now, young cooks coming out of culinary school flipped open the Alinea cookbook or watched something like the Chef's Table Netflix documentary and said to themselves, “Throughout his entire career, he just never stopped pushing the creativity.” To me, that’s what it’s all about.
Has there been a chef in the past year who has impressed you with something that they’ve cooked for you?
GA: Oh, there are several. Recently, I was in Los Angeles doing another filming project with Netflix and I had the opportunity to eat at Vespertine. The chef, Jordan Kahn, was on the opening team of Alinea and was there a little over a year. I just always really respected his creativity, his very precise hand in the kitchen. So I was really hoping that he was going to knock our socks off and it was awesome. Early on, he got really criticized by some of the food writers as well when they first opened. Of course we’re friends and I wanted him to succeed so I was a little bit nervous. I was thinking to myself, “What if I don’t like it?” But what he’s created there is something really special.
In New York, my last meal at Empellón with Alex Stupak stands out as well. He was the opening pastry chef at Alinea, and I just thought it seems so absurd to me, years ago when he said, “I’m going to quit being a pastry chef and open a Mexican restaurant.” It just seemed so out of left field. But yeah, his food is technically superior and just, it’s delicious. That’s the thing for me, all over the world, I’ve been very fortunate to travel—Japan, Spain, all over the place—there’s just such a diversity in the creativity and the personal style that’s out there. If you’re exposed, it’s just great to see.
What's on your horizon for 2018? I heard there's a cocktail book in the works.
GA: Well, I typically say nothing because, [Laughs] if I’m in Chicago, I’m still in the restaurants every day, maybe 12 to 14 hours a day cooking, just like I watched Thomas Keller do. We have The Aviary book coming out. That’s kind of a big project that we’ve been working on. The possibility of potentially taking The Aviary and The Office to some of my favorite cities in the world such as London, Tokyo, and Barcelona, would be awesome. So you just never know what the curve that’s going to come up on you is going to take you.
Photography by: Photography courtesy Christian Seel