Grant Achatz is chef and owner of Alinea in Chicago, which last year ranked No. 7 on the list of the 50 best restaurants in the world. That’s a good 25 places ahead of the French Laundry, whose chef, Thomas Keller, served as Achatz’s mentor for years. Achatz has won four James Beard Foundation Awards, the latest in 2008 for the country’s outstanding chef, in which he beat out, among others, Jose Andres. Achatz is a cancer survivor, a budding empire builder (his latest restaurant, the concept-morphing Next, is expected to open any day now in Chicago) and an author. He recently co-wrote “Life, on the Line” (Gotham Books, 2011), a memoir in which he packs a lot of action into his 36 years. Here are edited excerpts of our recent phone interview:
Your approach to life at a young age was to avoid drinking and drugs and focus on learning about the family restaurant business in Michigan. Was that a result of the chaos you had to deal with when young? Your dad’s drinking? The instability of your parents’ marriage?
I don’t think it was that calculated on my part — at least not until I hit culinary school, and then it was more about intense focus and intense studying. That’s where [I developed] the drive to really try to achieve something outside of the norm.
Your trip to El Bulli in Spain seemed like a watershed moment for you, when you realized you needed to move on from the French Laundry and create your own food. Is it accurate that you spent only three days at El Bulli, and that was enough to spark this change?
I don’t think it was necessarily a change, but I think it was a confidence builder. It’s not about going to a restaurant and getting as many recipes in your notebook as you can or putting that on your resume. It’s about opening your eyes to experiences in life that are meaningful. Even if they are only for five minutes or five days or five years, they can have a large impact on how you are personally. My experience at El Bulli was perfect timing for me. I had been at the French Laundry for about three and a half years. I felt like I was starting to hit somewhat of a ceiling in my own creative freedom, because as I tried to develop my own style as a cook, I also had to respect Thomas’s style that he had spent a whole career establishing. So at some point, you just go, “It’s time for me to move on.”
What are your thoughts on El Bulli closing?
I think it’s a natural cycle. What he’s done for gastronomy and what he’s done personally is pretty incredible, and it’s very rare. But it doesn’t make me sad. In fact, it makes me go, “Good for him that he’s closing. Good for him that he achieved what he wanted.”
Do you see where you might close Alinea?
No, not yet. We have a lot to accomplish. There’s many more things to do here, I think. I don’t think Alinea will be open forever, you know? Nor will the French Laundry and all the other great restaurants in the world.
Your latest project is Next, where you’re going to radically change the menu every few months, from one era of cooking to another. Is this restaurant a reflection of your creative restlessness?
Yeah, absolutely. Where Alinea is about constant innovation, Next will be constant exploration. One thing that’s been largely overlooked, I feel, in gastronomy is the exploration of the past and world cuisines. Like, what was it like in Paris 1906 to sit down for a dinner at the Ritz served by Escoffier? What was it really like to eat in New York City in 1962? What was it really like to eat at the Watergate when Jean-Louis Palladin was cooking in D.C. in 1982? These are things that are worth exploring because largely America is, in my opinion, always focused on the future.
The decision to write an autobiography: Did you have any internal struggle on whether you wanted to keep your struggle with cancer private?
No, not at all. In fact, I always knew that if I made it to the back side of treatment, I would scream to the world, because it was my responsibility to do so. My message is a couple-fold: One, you have to be your own advocate, because I went to four institutions and they were telling me the exact same thing: “We’re going to cut out your entire tongue, a quarter of your jaw and both sides of your neck in order to maybe, maybe save your life. We’ll give you a 50 percent chance.” That didn’t sit well with me. [So] if I say, ‘This isn’t good enough,’ and people read that, then maybe they’ll believe that this isn’t good enough and something will happen from it. The other thing is that if you’re confronted with an adverse situation, whatever it may be, and you have to seek out professional care, and if on your consultation they don’t tell you something you like, go somewhere else. If, on your second one, they tell you something you don’t like, go somewhere else. So on and so forth, until you feel like you’ve explored all of your options.
What’s your long-term prognosis?
I’m still cancer-free. Nobody’s ever going to say, ‘You’re good,’ but the fact [is] that since December 2007 I haven’t had one blip on the radar. You know, there’s a bell curve with this sort of thing. You’re at high risk right after treatment’s done, and it remains high for X amount of time. Then as time progresses, the risk of recurrence starts to plummet when you hit about the two-and-a-half, three-year mark. Once you hit five years, they basically say you have the same risk of getting cancer as somebody that’s never had it. So, where am I at now? Let’s see, December 2007. . . so what am I? Three and a half years? [Note: Achatz has also said that his ability to taste has returned by degrees.]
Now this could be bad information, but I understand you may have a girlfriend in the area. If you do, do you visit often? And if you visit often, where do you eat?
My girlfriend lives with me in Chicago now, but her family lives in Bethesda. Well, she goes back more than I, but I probably go back four or fives times a year. Man, we’ve eaten pretty much everywhere. We’ve eaten at Central. We’ve eaten at. . . . Let me put it this way, it might be easier to list the places where we have not eaten.
No, no, no! Let me rephrase: Where did you eat that you thought was hitting a high mark?
Central was great. CityZen was amazing, but I’m a little bit biased. I worked with Eric (Ziebold, chef at CityZen) at the French Laundry for four years.
One last question: At Next, are you really going to do an homage to Jean-Louis Palladin at the Watergate? [Note: Palladin died of lung cancer in 2001 at age 55.]
That would be amazing. One of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had was my very first day at the French Laundry. We weren’t in the French Laundry kitchen. We were doing an event at the CIA Greystone, and it was a kickoff to Jean-Louis’s restaurant, Napa, in Vegas. So Jean-Louis was there. Him and Thomas [Keller]. Jean-Louis was a very important person in [Keller’s] life, culinarily and personally. So one of my most fond memories was being at this event and watching Thomas, whom I came to know quite well, but watching him interact with Jean-Louis and give this guy so much respect it was palpable. Jean-Louis was just like full of life and joking around with Thomas. It was just this really, really interesting dynamic that I’ve never seen from Thomas since.
Maybe, but I would need Thomas to get involved with it, because he ate his food quite a bit. But that would be amazing — not only for me, but for Thomas.