Following a war of words this weekend between former “Iron Chef” Cat Cora and Nick Kokonas, co-owner of Alinea in Chicago, countless sleuths have been searching for clues to determine who may have been at fault over a reservation mix-up at the high-profile, three-star Michelin restaurant where such mistakes should rarely happen.
Cora pointed a finger squarely at Alinea, including apparently a middle one, when chef Grant Achatz’s gastronomic temple had no table for her on Saturday night while she was in Chicago for the International Home and Housewares Show. Cora took to her Instagram account to express her displeasure over the slight. The post has since been deleted, but Kokonas saved a screen capture of it, which he embedded in his own response to this quickly escalating cat fight.
In her post, Cora said she had a confirmation email for a Saturday table for two in the Gallery, where a multicourse, “multisensory” meal starts at $295 per person. But there was no such reservation when she arrived about 5:15 p.m. with her wife, Nicole Ehrlich. Cora, the Iron Chef with the second-highest winning percentage on the American version of the show, then proceeded to criticize both Achatz and general manager Devin McKinney, according to the post captured by Kokonas.
We understand that mistakes can be made but at least show your face, come and apologize to your guests. Chef Grant was there per Devon and didn’t even come out. My time, as everyone, is limited and only want to support good establishments – I would never do this in one of my restaurants … I would never do this to a guest much less a fellow Chef.
Cora concluded her hot take by invoking the late Charlie Trotter, the demanding and, some would say, tyrannical chef with whom Achatz had a strained relationship. Cora suggested that Achatz could learn a few lessons about hospitality from Trotter and a number of other chefs tagged in her post, including Thomas Keller, David Chang and Nobel Peace Prize nominee José Andrés.
At this point, Kokonas apparently could take no more. He penned a rebuttal for Medium, under the headline “Into the Litter Box,” explaining that Alinea doesn’t typically comment on diner experiences, but that this case merited an exception. Kokonas proceeded to paint a picture of an unhinged Cora who accused the Alinea staff of sexism, shouted obscenities and then flipped off “one of our kindest veteran servers who tried mightily to apologize even though the situation was not his fault.”
The post included a blurry photo of Cora allegedly making such a hand gesture. (Cora did not deny that she flew the bird.)
Kokonas also laid out the timeline of Alinea’s engagements with Cora and her assistant, Veronica Van Sant. The level of detail was granular, if not numbing in the extreme to anyone other than the principals involved. According to Kokonas’s telling, the drama unfolded like this:
In response to Van Sant’s email — the subject line allegedly read: “Iron Chef Cat Cora Visits this Friday” — Alinea offered the visiting chef a 5 p.m. reservation for Friday, March 1, in the Gallery. (See screen shots of the Alinea email and the reservation confirmation, at left.) But Cora no-showed that night, at which point Alinea offered to rebook the chef for a 9 p.m. slot on Saturday in the Salon, which serves a slightly more abbreviated meal than the one in the Gallery. Van Sant apparently accepted for her boss, but then emailed later to say the booking was too late for Cora. She asked if there were any earlier reservations, and Alinea indicated there were not.
At 11:43 a.m. Saturday, Alinea canceled Cora’s 9 p.m. reservation after a restaurant representative talked with Van Sant over the phone. The rep then reminded Van Sant that there would not be a table for Cora if she arrived at 5 p.m. Saturday since, apparently, the Iron Chef was under the impression that her reservation was at that time. Van Sant apparently sounded worried that her boss would arrive for a nonexistent reservation and told the Alinea team that she could not reach Cora. Van Sant asked if Achatz would reach out personally to Cora to solve the problem since they are “friends.” The Alinea rep apparently told Van Sant that it was her responsibility, not Achatz’s.
As detailed as Kokonas’s timeline is, some amateur detectives pointed out some holes. Van Sant, for instance, had originally requested a Saturday reservation and Alinea booked a Friday night table instead. In fact, Cora, who declined to be interviewed for this story, forwarded an email with the subject line that differed from the one that Kokonas sent to The Post. The subject line in her email read: “Iron Chef Cat Cora Visits this Saturday,” and it showed a representative with Alinea’s guest relations team saying the restaurant had a reservation for 5 p.m. that evening. (Cora declined to let The Post publish the email.)
In an email exchange with Kokonas, he confirmed to The Post that Cora wanted a 7 p.m. Saturday table from the start, but that Alinea only had a table late that evening. Instead, Kokonas said, Alinea offered the early Friday slot. But even if there was confusion or a miscommunication between Van Sant and Alinea’s guest relations team on the date, Tock, the prepaid reservation system used at Alinea, would have generated an email with the exact day and time of Cora’s meal, Kokonas said.
“Tock was literally built to take the ambiguity out of situations like this one,” emailed Kokonas, who’s also a co-founder of Tock. “Even if we take her at her word, she was nearly 20 minutes late to her supposed reservation at 5 p.m. We clearly state in every confirmation that it’s more like the start of a show in the Gallery space and that you may not be seated if late.”
Kokonas has an opinion on what he thinks happened: that Cora didn’t like her Friday reservation and thought she could get one on Saturday if she just walked in. (Cora was apparently on a plane Friday and couldn’t have dined that evening at any rate.) Achatz would then have to decide whether to honor an unspoken restaurant code, in which one chef automatically takes care of any visiting chef who enters the restaurant.
“Phone call notes from our side state that it is clear that she might show up trying ‘to get in anyways,'” Kokonas writes. “That’s what happened.”
So why didn’t Achatz just go into the dining room and calm the situation, one chef to another?
“Grant did not come out of the kitchen because it was communicated to him that she was having a meltdown. She was offered a table at Next and one at Roister as well,” Kokonas said, mentioning other dining options within the Alinea Group, “but only would be happy if we rolled a table into the kitchen and ‘made it work’ for a fellow chef. Anyone who dines out knows that you cannot roll into a fine-dining restaurant and demand a table on a Saturday night. Grant does not know Ms. Cora, has never met her, and was at peak service . . . He’s a working chef and, frankly, a bit of an introvert. He did the smart thing by not engaging her.”
Even though Cora declined to talk, she did forward a statement to The Post, saying that her original post was designed to spark a conversation about “what hospitality means to people.”
“My wife and I did not like the way the restaurant handled the mistake they made with our reservation,” Cora added. “We accomplished what we wanted: A conversation. We wish Grant, who is undeniably one of the most accomplished chefs, only the best. We always try to support local restaurants and chefs where ever we go and will continue to do so. We Love Chicago, it’s one of our favorite cities and we can’t wait to come back.”