The great thing about Monday's James Beard Awards: Getting the chance to chat candidly with the chefs—away from the kitchen, away from frenetic service, away from the thoughtful gaze of the PR machinery. Case in point: multiple Beard winner Grant Achatz, the celebrated chef of molecular gastronomy mecca Alinea in Chicago, whose triumph over tongue cancer last year has become one of the most compelling stories in recent memory. (It'll also play a major role, we expect, in the feature film about Achatz that's currently being developed, which we reported on earlier this week.)
One of the most fervent and ongoing guessing games in the city: Will Alinea ever come to New York? Last year, Time Out ran a terrific piece on Achatz, addressing the mumblings and putting some rumors to rest. We checked in with him backstage at the Beards this week, again wondering, "Are we there yet?!"
Are we ever gonna see an Alinea in New York?
If the right deal came along, I think we would probably do it.
Have you looked into some options?
Do they look like they're gonna work out?
They weren't compelling. Everything that we do, we approach with the attitude like, we need to have control. We're very hands-on—we wanna have control of the situation. All of the deals that have been offered to us, whether it be New York or Dubai or Tokyo or Vegas or whatever, you're dealing with outside interests that wanna control it in some manner. And it just makes us uncomfortable, because we've created Alinea, and we live and die by what we do. We're not held accountable to anybody else. If we mess up, it's not our fault. And we accept that. I don't wanna be at fault, or I don’t wanna take credit for something that we don't do. If we come here, we'll have to come here on our terms, with our vision intact. And if we can do that, then I would love to come to New York.
Would it be called Alinea as well or would you call it something else?
We wouldn't want to do Alinea here because, think about this: If we open an Alinea in New York that is better than the one in Chicago, Chicago loses. If we open one that's the same as Chicago, both restaurants lose. And if we open one that's worse, then both restaurants lose. So it's a lose-lose-lose. We would have to come up with a completely different concept. There's no other way.
What ideas are you toying with?
We have one that we might launch in Chicago this year, but you know, every city is very different in what it wants, what the market will bear. Chicago right now, economically, I think is far better than New York. New York is being crushed, right? Chicago…we're affected, but we're not getting creamed like some of the places in New York, so that provides a different type of growth opportunity and niche filling. What the market will bear in Chicago is different than New York, is different from San Francisco, not only from the genre of cooking or from the personality of the restaurant, but purely the economics. So you have to be careful.
Photo by Melissa Hom