The 2009 Creativity 50: Grant Achatz

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Grant Achatz
Grant Achatz
At 34, Grant Achatz has paved the way for an avant-garde culinary genre in the United States, has been named the 2008 James Beard Outstanding Chef, independently published a cookbook cum art tome, and won a battle with mouth cancer. What's more, the head chef and partner of Chicago's Alinea, Gourmet magazine's "Best Restaurant in America" in 2006, has only just begun redefining the modern American dining experience. Since 2005, Achatz has established Alinea as the American capital of molecular gastronomy, which requires food science to craft dishes that border on sculpture, artfully balancing reformatted ingredients like tomato foam or cider gel. While chef Ferran Adria at El Bulli in Spain founded the genre, Achatz has supplemented the science-lab techniques with entirely new ideas in food presentation, replacing the ho-hum plate and fork with stainless steel, custom-designed service contraptions. Alinea has presented more than 40 such devices that range in shape and function from an upright antenna for one-bite dishes to hand-held bowls with pins for his signature hot potato, cold potato soup.

Achatz, on what to expect at Alinea in 2009: "The experience is a big part of what makes Alinea different. Yes, we concentrate on food, but we also hyper-analyze human interaction, emotion and all the variables that come into the dining experience. As I look to the spring menu, I'm going to focus this year not on the food, but the service. [Typically] through the 27-course meal, we put down a concept—a dish in front of a diner—and the wait staff gives a description. It's the same 27 times in a row, not literally, but the same method, the same talking points, the same delivery. That's wrong. And it happens everywhere and nobody's challenged it. We have a concept called raspberry transparency. It's basically two bites of food: paper thin, beautiful, delicate, fragile, glowing red sculpture, essentially. Why should we explain that the same way I do a lamb course? Well, of course, we shouldn't. Why can't we look at service as an extension of a concept? Let's get to the essence of the raspberry and use the language servers use to describe the dish as an extension of the experience. Instead of what they say now 'transparency of raspberry, powdered yogurt, rose petals, sugar,' maybe they just set it down and say 'fragile, delicate, transparent, red' and then they walk away. Maybe that is more informative, more in line with the concept."

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