A sous vide station, a blast chiller, a $2,000 espresso machine and an astonishingly powerful gas range: This is equipment one would expect to find in a professional kitchen, not in a landmarked 19th-century house in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood. But Nick Kokonas installed it all in his home, one of the oldest wooden structures in the city.
Why would any home cook, even the co-owner of the acclaimed restaurant Alinea, feel the need for such sophisticated gear? For Kokonas, there were two motivations: first, the example of his business partner, the brilliant avant-garde chef Grant Achatz; and second, his driving desire for efficiency. Professional equipment gets him the results he wants, fast. “I’m an optimalist,” he says. “If I can do something 98 percent of the way in 30 minutes, that’s preferable to spending 10 hours on it to be at 100 percent.”
Kokonas’s gadget obsession goes back to his first job, repairing bicycles (he likes to take things apart to understand how they work). He studied philosophy before focusing on finance, eventually running his own derivatives trading firm. He partnered with Achatz to manage the business and branding side of Alinea, but as the empire grew to encompass Next and the cocktail bar The Aviary, so did his role. He coauthored Achatz’s memoir, Life, On the Line, and began storyboarding the off-the-wall videos introducing Next’s latest themed menu. Watching Achatz cook got him excited to try modernist techniques at home. The next logical (or maybe not-so-logical) step: installing professional equipment in his house.
Kokonas hired SML Stainless Steel Group, the same company that created the kitchens at Alinea and Next. “At Alinea, SML built the kitchen for under $300,000,” he says. “I’ve been in restaurant kitchens where the stove cost more than that.” A sous vide station was the first thing Kokonas knew he wanted. “There’s nothing like sous vide,” he says. “And it’s actually so brain-dead simple.” A flat-top range, which concentrates heat at the center and then radiates it out, was also high on his wish list. “The flat top is a revelation. When I make Bolognese, I just slide it to the edge so it simmers slowly. I knew I wanted a flat top after watching the chefs use it in the restaurant.”
He’s also fanatical about coffee. Kokonas has a La Spaziale Mini Vivaldi II espresso machine, an Italian model that was adapted for use in the US. He got serious about coffee after a trip to the Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, where he had the best double macchiato of his life. “You can’t make a good cup without the right pressure,” he says, adding, “My coffee is the third best in Chicago.”
Kokonas didn’t care whether the kitchen had an industrial look. But his wife, Dagmara, a milliner, says, “I didn’t want to have stainless steel everywhere. I’m happy to have a restaurant kitchen, but I didn’t want it to look like one.” Adding wood and granite (in the form of a stunning 11-foot-long center island top) helped blend the kitchen with the ’30s modernist design of the rest of the house. The floor is a rich walnut, with a glass section offering a look at the climate-controlled storage space underneath for wine, cheese and charcuterie.
Nick and Dagmara have a backyard garden steps from their kitchen where they grow vegetables: beans, English peas and 16 different varieties of tomatoes. The backyard is home to a variety of fruit trees—except for the fig trees, which live in the master bathroom under a greenhouse roof. Dagmara especially loves picking Montmorency cherries to make sorbet with the Pacojet Nick bought her for her birthday.
Has Kokonas cooked for Achatz? “I have, but not often. He’s so talented, it’s intimidating.” That may be why Kokonas relishes this story: “I love to bring up the time we were in Aspen and Grant couldn’t properly boil an egg. I kept telling him he had to adjust for the altitude, adding about one minute for every 1,000 feet, but he wouldn’t listen. I’m the geek. He should have listened to me.”