Pulling Back the Kitchen Curtain

achatz june3 food post.jpg

Photo by Lara Kastner

The kitchen table--not the one you eat at in your dining room but the showpiece table right in the kitchen, which became popular in high-end restaurants during the 1990s--was the result of guests wanting to see, smell, feel, and hear the action of the professional kitchen. People wanted to embellish dinner with elements of adrenaline, artistry...and in some cases drama, when the infamous egotistical tyrant chef belittled his minions in an act of showmanship.

But most, I hope, wanted to pull back the curtain on the "magic show" and gain an understanding of the how, why, and what of occupational cooking. Maybe they wanted to feel connected to the chef and the cooks who were preparing them a wonderful meal, to congratulate them and show their gratitude.

A large percentage of chefs are shy and lack the desire or congeniality to deal with the public. At least that is the stereotype despite the recent rise of the "TV chef". More often than not that is how they ended up in the kitchen, their personalities excluding them from personal comfort in the dining room.

I wondered how we could show everyone what we were up to in the kitchen--show off a bit.

All cooks like to be acknowledged, and deep down they want to have a conversation about their craft. They feel what they do is special, and take a great sense of pride in their skill. To find a captive audience--often the same people who would have interest in eating in the kitchen--is very rewarding. We feed off the guests' excitement.

I had mixed feelings about the kitchen table we had at Trio, the kitchen I ran before I opened Alinea. Aside from the thoughts above, I always wondered why it was limited to so few people a night. I wondered how we could show everyone what we were up to in the kitchen--show off a bit.

Some restaurants have glass walls, and others project live video feeds from the kitchen into the dining spaces. To me those solutions seem to miss the point, robbing guests of nearly all the senses they are able to use to evaluate the performance.

Fast-forward three years to the development phase of Alinea. In the initial stages of design, Nick Kokonas, my business partner and co-owner of Alinea, asked if I wanted a kitchen table, which he had enjoyed as a diner a few times at Trio. I said absolutely not. He wondered aloud how we could bring that behind-the-scenes, unique experience to the guests at Alinea. We batted a few ideas back and forth, and half-jokingly he said, "What about a giant plate that would be set on top of a table? Chefs would come out to the dining room and plate the courses right in front of the guests." The idea was intriguing: simultaneously a modern form of traditional tableside service and moving the kitchen table experience into the actual dining room.

The idea was shelved for five years. I would often come back to it, and Martin Kastner (the designer/owner of Crucial Detail Design Studio) and I talked about the concept from time to time, but we were always too focused on other aspects of Alinea to devote the required time and energy to make it happen.

Then, about four months ago, I promised myself I would bring this concept to life.

To be continued...

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Grant Achatz is chef and owner of Chicago's Alinea. He grew up in the restaurant industry, literally, with restaurateurs as parents and grandparents. More

Born in Michigan in 1974, Grant Achatz grew up in the restaurant industry, literally, with his parents and grandparents being restaurateurs. Naturally curious and always driven, he could be found in the kitchen by his twelfth birthday and over the coming years spent most of his free time there, learning and developing the very skills that would allow him to become one of the foremost innovators in the field. Early on he realized he wanted to become a chef, and upon graduating from high school, he immediately enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America. Excelling at the CIA, Achatz graduated and ascended the culinary ladder at several prestigious restaurants, including the acclaimed French Laundry in Napa Valley. Achatz worked closely with owner Thomas Keller, and thrived in his highly creative, dedicated environment. After two years, he became Keller's Sous Chef. In a decisive move to broaden his knowledge and experience, Achatz accepted a position as Assistant Winemaker at La Jota Vineyards after four years at The French Laundry. Then in 2001, he returned to the Midwest when he accepted the Executive Chef position at the four-star Trio in Evanston, Illinois. Achatz flourished at Trio, garnering accolades including being named the James Beard Foundation's 2003 Rising Star Chef in America and one of ten "Best New Chefs in America" by Food & Wine in 2002. Under Achatz's lead, Trio received four stars from the Chicago Tribune and Chicago magazine and was honored with five stars from the celebrated Mobil Travel Guide in 2004. Known worldwide in culinary circles as one of the leaders in progressive cuisine, Achatz realized a lifelong dream by opening Alinea in Chicago in May 2005. From day one, Achatz and Alinea received extraordinary attention and unprecedented accolades. The Chicago Tribune and Chicago magazine both awarded the restaurant four stars within months of opening, and the James Beard Foundation nominated Alinea as the Best New Restaurant in America within a year. In September 2005, The New York Times identified Achatz as the "next great American chef." In October a year later, Alinea received the coveted Five Diamond Award from AAA, and Ruth Reichl of Gourmet magazine declared Alinea the "Best Restaurant in America," an honor bestowed only once every five years. Under Achatz's leadership, Alinea continues to receive worldwide attention for its hypermodern, emotional approach to dining. In both 2007 and 2008, Alinea was named one of "The S. Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants" published by Restaurant magazine, and Achatz himself received the James Beard Foundation Outstanding Chef in America award, the culinary equivalent of an Oscar, in 2008. Achatz has appeared on the Today show, CBS Sunday Morning, the Food Network, the Discovery Channel, and PBS, and has been featured in dozens of periodicals across the US and the globe including countries as far away as Sweden, Finland, Great Britain, Spain, Italy, the Philippines, and France.

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