The night before Achatz receives three stars from Michelin, we speak on the phone. A leaked list of Chicago restaurants and the stars awarded each had been circulating, and he sounds astonished by the news, and conflicted. "If this list is right, Trotter, the guy who put Chicago on the map, he gets two stars, and the guy who he told would never amount to anything, that guy gets three stars? Trotter implodes? He fizzles?"
The next morning we meet at Achatz's Bucktown town house. We drive and wait for the call from Michelin. The thought of Trotter still weighs on him. He feels a mix of respect and revenge, but catches himself before it curdles. "I've done a poor job of embracing this stuff in the past," he says. "I want to enjoy this."
When Achatz landed outstanding chef of the year at the James Beard Foundation Awards in 2008, soon after his cancer diagnosis, he knew a lot of people would assume he got a sympathy vote. He was right, but there's real insecurity here too: Later, I jokingly ask if he is becoming Trotter — a figurehead, benign in public, cold in private — and he says he thinks he already is Trotter, that he is constructed from the parts of three people: himself, Keller and Trotter. He says he knows that other chefs think he's pretentious, that his dishes are contrived, clever, soulless. He shrugs.
Sperling, his girlfriend, the editor of the Chicago edition of the "Tasting Table" food blog, says: "Grant is hugely competitive, and I think sensitive about not being taken seriously. I think that he worries that smart people, people he admires, wouldn't find some of his ideas valid, intellectually, and of course, no one like that would think that."
The Michelin call comes.
He answers, then hangs up and turns to me and says, "Should I call Charlie and say, 'Are we even now?'" He drives in silence for a while, thoughts playing on his face, a smile creeping in, his phone buzzing with well-wishers.
Despite the piles of accolades, moments of self-congratulation at Alinea are rare. After Gourmet magazine named it restaurant of the year in 2006, Achatz and Kokonas handed out $20,000 in tips to the staff. More surprising, Beran tells me, is this afternoon gathering at Alinea (and later a party at the Drawing Room) to celebrate the Michelin honor. Generally, immediately after racking up another important accolade, Achatz prefers to get back to work, designing new dishes.
Achatz stands before a TV reporter. She lowers her microphone to his face. "Grant, you expected —"
"I didn't expect," he interrupted. "I don't expect."
She smiles, then, taking another track, "Grant. Being a cancer survivor. That has to be the biggest accomplishment."
"Not really," Achatz says, his mild annoyance sounding close to politeness. "It's not an accomplishment. You either live or die."
He leaves the reporter and takes a seat across from Beran and says with a wave of his hand that if they had not received three stars, "all of these people would not be here." He means that if Alinea had received any fewer than three stars, he would not have allowed the Champagne, the cameras, etc. He would have been embarrassed and angry — and, though he denies it, he would have been surprised. He wrote down receiving three stars from Michelin as one of his goals; he wrote this down five years ago, before there was a Michelin Guide for Chicago.
Kokonas calls him over. Achatz stands wearily. Kokonas raises a flute of Champagne. The table is covered in bottles. "To Chicago!" Kokonas cries. "To Michelin! To good food!"
Then after a moment, silence. Achatz, restless, speaks first. "OK, now what?"
Part 2: Achatz's Next act