Grant Achatz: Culinary Genius

Achatz's restaurant Alinea: Lobster, Butter, Popcorn, Baby corn

I recently read an article in Time magazine which profiled Chef Grant Achatz and I immediately became absolutely fascinated by this man’s story.

First of all, Achatz in 2009 was diagnosed with severe tongue cancer (stage IV) and was told that he should have his tongue removed (thereby destroying his sense of taste). Rather than lose his tongue, Achatz opted for an experimental treatment which let him keep his tongue. Unfortunately, the severe radiation destroyed his sense of taste for awhile anyways, and Achatz had to re-learn to cook based on his sense of smell. I mean- crazy, right!? I thought I loved food and cooking, this man really considers it his raison d’etre.

He opened his Chicago restaurant Alinea while undergoing all his treatments and it just recently earned three Michelin stars. His cancer is thankfully in remission now and he’s regained his sense of taste although it is forever altered from the radiation burns.

Even more fascinating than this story of triumph though is Achatz’s style itself. At Alinea, Time author Joel Stein likens the kitchen to Willy Wonka’s factory- hardly any sound is made, fantastical machines like vaporizers and chillers are preferred to prepare food rather than more conventional tools like ovens, and carpet covers the floor so rarely do the sous chefs spill or make mistakes. Achatz seems to really try and invent the wheel when it comes to cuisine- all of the dishes described by Stein and featured in the photographs are unlike anything I’ve ever heard of or seen- most are pretty small and the chefs regularly use tweezers to prepare them. Stein speaks about how some patrons just don’t seem to “get” Achatz’s concept- they even walk out of meals disappointed and unsatisfied. I really think Achatz has a unique style and new way of thinking about food or what can be categorized as cuisine and for that, I really admire him!

Alinea: Transparency of raspberry, rose petal, yogurt

Achatz plans to open a new restaurant in Chicago called Next. I am DYING to go here. The concept for this restaurant is provocative and a bit controversial. The restaurant will be changing its menu every four months and transporting diners to a different place and time in the world. For example, Achatz plans to begin with Paris in 1906, Sicily in 1949, Hong Kong in the future, etc. How great is that?? Diners will be required to purchase tickets in advance for their meal- “yes, tickets” as the site says. Achatz made the comparison to football games and concerts; you don’t call those venues up when you can’t make it and cancel the whole event. In order to prevent the monetary losses Alinea has suffered from reservation cancellations, Next will be using this ticket purchasing system. I think it sounds totally worth it and applaud Achatz for his business sense. Hopefully I will be able to go and share my thoughts on the experience one day!

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