Source: Alinea Restaurant

Radical Chef Achatz Moves Chicago’s Alinea Restaurant to Madrid

Grant Achatz is known for surviving cancer and for inventive dishes such as helium-filled edible balloons at Alinea. Now he's taking his renowned restaurant to Europe.

Chef Grant Achatz was in his early 30s, the father of two young boys, when he was diagnosed with stage four cancer of the tongue. (There is no stage five.)

He lost his sense of taste and the recommended treatment was amputation, which might give him a couple more years of life. It would be a devastating prospect for anyone and unimaginable for the Chicago-based chef, owner of Alinea, one of the world's greatest restaurants.

Restaurateur Grant Achatz, left.
Restaurateur Grant Achatz, left.
Source: Alinea Restaurant

Instead, Achatz opted for innovative treatment at the University of Chicago that involved a new drug as well as chemotherapy and radiation. Seven years later, sitting in Alinea for an interview, he looks fit and healthy, with no evidence of the disease since 2009.

He's now planning for the future, seeking to turn meals at Alinea - already innovative and dramatic - into a more theatrical and interactive experience. Alinea holds three Michelin stars and has won multiple accolades. It has been named Best Restaurant in North America in the World's 50 Best Restaurants awards, and was named Best Restaurant in the World by Elite Traveler magazine. 

Achatz will close Alinea on Dec. 31 for a three-month refurbishment and move his entire team to Madrid for a four-week residency.  (The first block of tickets went on sale on Oct. 13; the second will be released on Dec. 1 and the remaining 20 percent on Jan. 1.)

VINES_ALINEA_Lamb
Source: Alinea Restaurant

The first week will be a collaboration with David Muñoz , with one section of the meal in his DiverXO restaurant and the other in Alinea Madrid in the Hotel NH Collection Eurobuilding; the rest of the residency will be just in Alinea Madrid. Tickets for the former (from Jan. 12-16)  are 500 euros ($535) plus 10 percent tax; the latter (Jan. 19-Feb. 6) costs 275 euros plus tax.

(A second, monthlong residency in Miami has been agreed, says Achatz, who declines to give details before it is officially announced. Plans for New York didn't work out and Achatz says he didn’t receive any approaches for London.)

Sold Out

If you've never eaten at Alinea in Chicago – where diners must purchase a ticket in advance rather than pay on the day – you may have a long wait: every meal for the rest of the year (apart from New Year's Eve) is sold out. I dined at Alinea last week and the food was stunning. I shan't go through the 20 courses. Two desserts alone can demonstrate Achatz's creative approach to gastronomy as well as his showmanship.

Plateless dessert.

Plateless dessert.

Source: Alinea Restaurant

In one (Milk Chocolate, Pate Sucree, Violet, Hazelnut), the chef pours, splashes, drips, smashes and sprinkles the components direct onto a special tablecloth, without the intervention of a plate. Your table top is like an edible abstract painting.

The other is a helium balloon made with green apple: You hold on with an edible string (also made with apple) then suck on the balloon to burst it, release the gas and have a Tiny Tim moment. (For younger readers, the late Mr. Tim was best known for his falsetto rendition of Tiptoe Through the Tulips.)

If that sounds far out, Achatz and his executive chef, Mike Bagale, are rethinking the whole concept of the meal for the Madrid residency, turning it into an more "experiential" event that will become the basis for a new-style Alinea when the restaurant reopens in Chicago.

One idea for Madrid is to start the evening in a room where small bags that hang from the ceiling contain elements that become part of an ambient meal, with diners making their way from room to room. The contents might include scissors along with herbs that need to be cut up and sprinkled over a dish.

The pop-up follows similar overseas residencies for Noma in Japan and for the Fat Duck in Australia, though Achatz says those residencies didn't influence him in deciding the move to Madrid.

‘I Didn't Want to Recoil’

Achatz is softly spoken and thoughtful. I wonder how cancer affected him as a person and as a chef?

Helium balloon dessert made with apple.

Helium balloon dessert made with apple.

Source: Alinea Restaurant

"Significantly as a chef and less so as a person," says Achatz, 41. "People can handle those types of illnesses however they choose and I came to work every day. It's important everybody processes it in their own way. For me, personally, I didn’t want to recoil. I didn’t want to say, I need to spend more time with my friends my family. This is (the restaurant) my friends and family. I wanted to come into work.

"But what it did for me as a chef was significant. I was young when I got diagnosed and quite honestly I was still pretty immature as a cook, as a restaurateur. I still had that mentality that I had to do everything myself. So, like, if you were to come in for dinner I would want to cook every one of your dishes.

"But when I couldn’t taste any more, I had to rely on the team. I learned about delegation and trust by looking at the sous chefs and looking at the chefs de cuisine and being like, 'How does that taste?' The most basic thing that a chef can do is evaluate the food. I couldn’t do that, so I had to rely on them. I would be like, 'Does this need more salt?' It made me realize that they're all good, and in order for me to grow as a chef, in order for the restaurant to grow, that trust was essential."

Richard Vines is chief food critic for Bloomberg. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines

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