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."