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Comfort Food From a Rebel Chef

At Chicago’s Alinea, Grant Achatz creates delicious, often provocative dishes. Yet this bold chef, who got his start flipping eggs at his parents’ restaurant, also makes a mean mac ’n’ cheese and a fabulous meat loaf.

Grant Achatz, the 32-year-old chef at Chicago’s Alinea, has a hyper-experimental cooking style that’s put him in the vanguard of American cuisine, and earned him a slot as an F&W Best New Chef 2002. At Alinea, which he opened last year, Achatz creates exquisite, impossible dishes like a futuristic heirloom-tomato salad—a burst of sweet tomato foam trapped in a balloon of mozzarella somehow inflated like Super Elastic Bubble Plastic. Which is why it’s surprising to find this groundbreaking, risk-taking chef at Alinea on a recent Sunday afternoon making meat loaf.

As his cooks dart around him in the kitchen, Achatz adds ground bacon to a mound of rosy-red ground beef in a giant stainless steel mixing bowl, followed by a heavenly-smelling mixture of celery, fennel, onion, garlic and smoked paprika. The meat loaf won’t make it out to the dining room; it’s what Achatz and his staff will eat before the evening’s service begins. Achatz always looks forward to the staff suppers. "We usually go nuts," he says, with all the cooks pitching in and prepping for hours. The staff dinners—as close to comfort food as the Alinea kitchen gets—give Achatz a chance to reconnect with his past, when he cooked at the restaurant his parents owned in rural Richmond, Michigan.

Achatz began washing dishes at his parents’ restaurant when he was eight years old (he had to stand on a milk crate to reach the sink), then quickly worked his way up to preparing breakfast, lunch and dinner as a line cook. By the time he was 12, it was obvious he had serious talent, says his dad, Grant Achatz, Sr. "He was doing a better job on the line than guys I could hire off the road. He was fast and he never got flustered. A lot can happen in a chaotic kitchen, and his strong suit was expediting—almost like you’d see on Iron Chef."

While Achatz mixes the meat loaf with his hands, pausing the conversation politely whenever a sous-chef swoops by with a question and picking up right where he left off, he explains that he learned a very important lesson watching his parents cook at their restaurant: "There was a lot of obsession with food just tasting good," Achatz says. "There was no real tech behind it. They weren’t driven to secure the best fresh local ingredients; it wasn’t that kind of place. But they knew that the people they were feeding wanted home-style, rib-sticking food, so that’s what they cooked. My mom’s piecrust, done right, is the best flaky crust I have ever tasted."

Achatz sees a connection between the cutting-edge techniques he uses in his cooking nowadays and the perfectionism he learned as a kid—that quest to get a dish, no matter how simple, exactly right. "People think we’re growing stuff in petri dishes and test tubes back here in the Alinea kitchen," Achatz says. "But if we’re using a syringe to put a sauce into something, that’s just precision." And if Achatz is using a new modified food starch made with tapioca to thicken a sauce, he adds, that’s really no more chemically complex than "using sodium bicarbonate [baking soda] to bake a muffin."

Although working at his parents’ restaurant gave Achatz the skills and ambition to be a chef, he felt frustrated by the clientele’s conservative tastes, and by the tedium of meat-and-potatoes-type dishes. "I hated the limitations," he says, sitting at an empty table while his meat loaf bakes and the ingredients for the star anise–spiced prune ketchup that will accompany it bubble on the stove. "It would be something as simple as making a western omelet and me wanting to put an orange twist and a sprig of parsley on the plate—because when you’re 14 you think that’s cool—and my dad going, ’Naw, you can’t do that!’ I was just like, ’Why? c’mon.’ "

After graduating from high school, Achatz enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America. Once, before a holiday break, he called home and asked his mom to track down emu so he could cook it for a party. As his mother, Barb Strachan, recalls, "That’s when we knew he wasn’t going to do regular food." Achatz has even turned his dad into a major black-truffle fan—though it’s unlikely that truffles will appear on the menu at his father’s new place, Achatz Riverview Restaurant in St. Clair, Michigan.

One of Achatz’s favorite challenges is figuring out how to nudge familiar flavors in radical new directions. Foods he first tried at his parents’ restaurant have led him to all kinds of recipe ideas. One fall, Achatz says, he was thinking back to the pierogies his parents used to serve every Thursday night at the restaurant, and to all the dough he stuffed as a boy on those afternoons. The memories got his imagination going: What if he were to make pierogies with a sharp shot of liquid mustard hidden inside? He tried this dish first at Trio, where he made his name before launching Alinea, and it was a big hit. Recently, he came up with a simplified version: He keeps the mustard on the inside of the pierogi but, instead of liquefying it, adds it as is to a simple stuffing of mashed potatoes and sour cream. He serves the pierogies with roasted chicken, which he calls his "all-time favorite comfort food." Achatz says another of his fondest food memories is of "waking up at 4:30 in the morning, going to the restaurant, filling up the griddle with bacon and just breathing in that intoxicating, smoky smell." At Alinea, bacon often finds its way into his cooking; Achatz’s staff-supper meat loaf is loaded with it, and one of the most popular dishes on the menu is bacon dried in a dehydrator, wrapped in butterscotch and served hanging from a wire contraption.

Some of Achatz’s ideas come from dishes his mom used to make at home. Riffing on her spectacular pies, Achatz uses his mom’s crust technique—making dough with just flour, salt, shortening and water and kneading it quickly with very cold hands—then adds a buttery filling of fresh pears and a top crust slathered with a milky glaze. And after a recent craving for his mom’s beef chili—always the highlight of childhood Halloween get-togethers with his cousins—Achatz couldn’t resist re-creating the dish, with a few tweaks, of course. "My mom makes the chili using green peppers with the skins still on—something I would normally never use as a cook," he says. "But then I eat it and I’m like, ’Ah, I remember.’ It’s nice to have that flavor memory. My version of her chili recipe calls for chipotle chiles and fresh herbs, for a more pronounced herbaceous quality, which I think is nice in relation to the tomatoes and beef. But her basic technique of sweating down the first set of ingredients is the key to building the flavor."

A busboy pops his head around a corner. "Chef, the meat loaf looks great!" he says. It’s time for supper, and Achatz has to go. As he gets up to take the prune ketchup off the stove, he points out that the unorthodox condiment is, in a way, both a tribute to—and a rebellion against—his childhood. "Working in a town of 3,500 when I was a kid, I knew people didn’t want things like prune ketchup with their meat loaf. But that experience is probably what led me to a style of cooking that’s a little more creative and emotional," he says. "As a kid, I was always like, ’Can we do this? Can we do that?’ " He laughs. "And now, I can do that."

Louisa Kamps is a writer based in Madison, Wisconsin. Her articles about culture and art have appeared in the New Yorker, Elle and the New York Times.

Published December 2006
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