"I'm not worried about the opening," Achatz had told me earlier. "A second restaurant is always a risk. 'He's spreading himself too thin,' they'll say. 'What's happening to Alinea?' I expect all of that. But this restaurant — what we're trying to do here is absurd. It's insane."
Consider the table settings. To serve an early 20th century French menu, he requires appropriate early 20th century tableware. This meant sending his staff antiquing around the Midwest. They visited 115 stores until they found what Achatz was looking for. And so every three months they will have to find new table settings to match the new menu. And every three months Achatz and Beran will also have to dig into history and come up with a menu that is not only authentic to the time and place it evokes but also delicious. Achatz says this, smiles grimly and gives a dark chuckle.
In late January, Achatz and Beran did a run-through of an evening at Next — the first of about 10 dress rehearsals leading up to the expected late-March opening — and from the looks of concern and heated arguments, between him and his guests, and among the guests, fundamental questions remain about Achatz's second act. Yes, he had promised a large, multicourse tasting menu for less than $100, but food costs are looking formidable. And is the concept too intellectual? And do you make 100-year-old dishes as historically accurate as possible even if it means the food is not as good as a refined adaptation?
When Achatz and Kokonas opened Alinea in 2005, they often discussed how much they could get away with discomforting guests and doing things their own way. It was a $2 million risk. This new place, Kokonas says, was initially inspired by the opposite, by something he told Achatz: "People want to see you cook normal food." And yet, six years after Alinea, there are awards, expectations. "I think you go old school," Kokonas said at that first rehearsal, sitting beside his wife, who rolled her eyes. "Butter the (expletive) out of everything. Let them wake up at 3 in the morning puking up food!"
It was hard to tell if he was joking or being a fundamentalist about serving what he insists should be the super-rich classic French that no one serves anymore. Achatz placed his hands on his hips and listened in silence. Then he asked a good question: Am I opening a restaurant here, or a museum?
The day in 2007 that Achatz learned he had stage 4 cancer of the tongue, he went back to work. He drove to the restaurant straight from the doctor's office. He worked through the day like a zombie, he recalls, turning artichokes and thinking about his two sons and his employees. Alinea served 1,870 dishes and 98 guests that night. Kokonas drove in from a golf tournament in Michigan, and Achatz made him a traditional French meal, not at all similar to the molecular-gastro gymnastics and unexpected juxtapositions Alinea specializes in, pears with eucalyptus, roe with plantain. Achatz made him duck breast with morels. Quite different, but quite comforting.
Kokonas took a bite. "No one makes French food this good in this city," he said. "We should open a French restaurant." Achatz said they would get bored in three months. A year later, at Kokonas' house in Old Town, they were cooking Italian for their kids. "We should open an Italian restaurant," Kokonas exclaimed.
We'd get bored in three months, Achatz said.
Kokonas and Achatz met in 2001, at Trio in Evanston, where Kokonas was a regular and Achatz became chef after leaving the French Laundry in Napa Valley. At Trio, which closed in 2006, Achatz came to national attention, landing on Food & Wine's best new chefs list and winning a James Beard award for rising star chef of the year. That acclaim led to Alinea.
They make a quirky pair. Achatz is 36, from a middle-class family that ran diners around Detroit. Kokonas is 43, a former Wall Street currency and equities commodity trader from Northbrook. Achatz is the picture of the brooding artist. Kokonas is fast-talking, cheerfully caustic, his graying hair a swooping, preppy wave. When the Grant Achatz movie is made, Robert Downey Jr., one cook cracked, should play Kokonas; indeed an adaptation of "Life, on the Line" is deep in the planning phase, says director David Dobkin ("Wedding Crashers").
On a January afternoon, Kokonas and I stand in the unfinished basement of Next, which still smells of sawdust. The Quebec design firm he'd hired is giving him a headache: "I'm standing here arguing with these French Canadians, saying, 'Just tell me, when can you make it happen?' I go into full stock-trading mode. They're telling me it's not physically possible to do anything sooner than I want. I'm saying, 'Look, you guys don't get down here, I do it myself.' They say, 'You willing to take that bet?' I say, ‘If I have to.'"
We walk upstairs and stand in what will be the doorway of Next. He pulls out his cell phone and shows me a picture of the large sculpture that will dominate the dining room. It's waiting in a nearby warehouse and resembles either the skeletal rib cage of a whale or the hull of an unfinished boat. "We decided that our restaurants have to tell a story," he explains. "This one is about travel, so what do we do, pile up suitcases by the door? The idea here would be that you are a point of embarkation and this sculpture, this beam, once served a purpose and it's been there for a long time, or something."
"Remember," he says finally, "this is the entertainment business. That's the business we're in. You know how we are. No one has to eat this way."
And yet they have turned down easy money — specifically, offers to start Alinea outposts in New York and Las Vegas. “The story there would be money,” Kokonas says. "That's not a story." Says food writer Michael Ruhlman, "What's uncommon with them is the motivation. It's not that they're irresponsible. I truly don't think they care much about the money. They're way too busy to care. Grant's mind is too restless to make money its focus."
One day while we were at Alinea, Achatz said, "People think accolades drive us." He then described a couple from Los Angeles who had come in the previous night. He pointed to where they sat. They sent the kitchen a note complaining that their food was salty. He cringed at the memory. "Those people will not go home saying they had the greatest meal of their lives. Which means, if they go to Trotter's, L2O, Schwa, we become No. 2, or No. 3." This is what worries him, that slight, off-chance possibility that a customer would leave Alinea wondering if the emperor is wearing clothes.
"Pretense is something chefs on his level struggle with," says Ruth Reichl, former editor of Gourmet magazine. "They are thinking about the hunger of guests on one hand, worrying on the other about the elitist quality of food 99 percent of the population will never try. I don't know of a big chef who doesn't worry."
For a long while, as he went through cancer treatment at the University of Chicago Medical Center, Achatz had a very specific worry. He feared, if he did survive the cancer, that his sense of taste would be withered. A year later, after the cancer went into remission, that sense returned slowly, in waves. First, sweet came back, then bitter, then salty. But something had changed; that sense of taste seemed more delicate now. "Anything too spicy or sweet short-circuits my wiring," he says. "It sounds ridiculous, but I pay more attention to the way food tastes now."
A couple of months ago, for the first time at Alinea, the kitchen began a tasting table, allowing a few chefs to sample the dishes before service begins. As he explains this, Achatz's voice falls somewhere between Christian Bale's raspy Batman and the Joker's devilish purr. He didn't always sound so hoarse. The treatment scorched his throat.
This scratchiness seems to bug him, though for reasons that have little to do with physical discomfort. It's a constant reminder of what has become the narrative of his life, and he seems anxious to move on, to cook, nothing else. Often Achatz is found serving dessert at Alinea, a lavish finale prepared not at tableside but on the table: A silicone mat is fitted over the wood, then chocolate is smeared and dribbled across it with Jackson Pollock-esque verve, red-wine-pickled blueberries are dropped, brulees torched and, at last, a frozen chocolate mousse is placed in the center and cracked, sending curls of cold fog wafting out. And every night, as he does this, his face tight in concentration, he hears the same thing. Someone at the table looks up at him and asks: "How are you feeling?" It's polite, and it gets old. But someone always asks.
Achatz always answers. In a steady voice, he says: "I have a cold. How are you?"