F&W Star Chef
After an early career that included four years at Thomas Keller's legendary Napa restaurant The French Laundry, Grant Achatz set off in 2005 to create his own flagship, Chicago’s groundbreaking molecular gastronomy-focused Alinea. He followed that success with the highly-praised Next and the cocktail bar Aviary. Here, he tells F&W about his signature truffle-packed ravioli, an interactive potato dish and his love of vinaigrette.
What’s your most requested recipe, the one dish you’re most known for?
Either our Black Truffle Explosion or our Hot Potato Cold Potato.
The Black Truffle Explosion dates back to Trio. It looks like an ordinary ravioli, so when people bite down they expect to taste a creamy pureed filling, when all of a sudden it explodes like a soup dumpling and all this intense black truffle stock comes out in their mouth. People do a little bump in their chair, they’re so surprised. When we serve it, we tell them to please eat it in one bite, but we don’t tell them there’s a liquid center. I think that surprise is part of what’s given it a little gastronomic cult following, going back to 2001 when I first served it. In fact, I think the dish itself got me the job, because I made it for my tryout for the owner at the time. It may have even gotten me on F&W’s 2000 Best New Chef list, because Pete Wells came in to the restaurant when he was writing for F&W, and he still talks about eating it.
What makes the truffle stock so intense is that we make it in an incredibly inconvenient and non-cost-effective way. When I worked at the French Laundry we used to buy this amazing truffle stock in a can, but for whatever reason the producer either went out of business or stopped making it. So when I got to Trio and couldn’t find it, I decided we’d make it ourselves. Now, when the best winter black truffles are at the peak of their season, when our truffle purveyors tell us, “OK, they’re really nice,” we spend an ungodly amount of money—we’re talking $50,000 to $60,000—to buy anywhere from 50 to 75 pounds of them. First we take a Robot Coupe or food processor to turn them into a coarse meal. Then we put the meal into a pressure cooker with a certain ratio of truffles to water and salt. We cook that for 20 minutes, and then we dump it into a tabletop winepress, and squeeze every last drop of truffle juice. Originally we didn’t go so crazy—we started off producing only about a liter of it, using the exact same process with only about 150 grams of truffle and four cups of water. Now we preserve the truffle juice to use throughout the year. And we only use it in the Black Truffle Explosion and Hot Potato Cold Potato.
Our Hot Potato Cold Potato is a chilled black truffle vichyssoise soup served in an oyster-shell-size paraffin-wax bowl. We push a stainless steel pin up through the bowl, and then suspend a chive baton, a tiny piece of Parmesan cheese and a supertiny cube of butter. Then we cap the pin with a marble-size piece of Yukon gold potato that’s been heated in clarified butter to about 375 degrees, and we top the potato with a slice of black truffle. When it comes to the table, it’s described as a time-sensitive course; we encourage guests to eat it rapidly so that they’ll get the sensation of hot and cold in their mouths at the same time. They pick up the little wax bowl in one hand (it fits right in the palm). With their other hand, they pull the pin to release the garnishes and hot potato into the soup. And then they slurp it as they would an oyster on the half shell. That sensation of cold soup hitting the palate while biting on that hot Yukon gold potato, that’s really fun. The first time I experienced it was actually in Napa, at the Napa Valley Grille. A friend and I both ordered soup—he got a chilled white gazpacho, and I got something heated. They had chilled the spoon for his gazpacho, and brought a warm spoon out for mine, which showed a real attention to detail, but they got the spoons reversed, so I ended up taking my first sip of hot soup on a cold spoon. I thought it was really cool, but I just filed it away. Four years later I came up with Hot Potato Cold Potato.
What’s your favorite cookbook of all time?
The French Laundry Cookbook. My friend Mark Hopper and I plated, I would say, 80 percent of the dishes for the photographs for that book when we were cooks at the restaurant together. We were working in Thomas Keller’s home kitchen, and the dishes were all photographed in his living room. His house was right next to the French Laundry, so it wasn’t hard to run over if we needed anything. We’d come in on our days off to work on it. We knew nothing about what the book would ultimately be, we only knew we were trying to plate French Laundry food as beautifully as we could, because we knew it would be preserved in time. I think everybody was surprised that the book proved such a success. Everybody hoped it would do well, but right now they’re at something like 750,000 copies in print. With our Alinea book we’re now at about 100,000, but we’ll never reach 750,000.
What’s the cheap cooking gadget?
It’s a cliché but a good Microplane. It’s so versatile. We grate crazy stuff like ice and gelées at Alinea, and I don’t think most home cooks would need one to make an agar-agar gelée really thickly and grate it around a dish, but maybe! The more common uses are cheese, nuts, spices or citrus, but it’s a great tool that does that grating job well.
What’s one technique everyone should know?
How to make a vinaigrette. How many people love putting vinaigrette on salad but buy it in the supermarket because they don’t know how to put it together, or what the ratios should be? The problem for me is there are so many different kinds of vinaigrettes I like to make, it’s hard to give pointers on just one. Will it go on a salad or a piece of fish? Do you want one that’s emulsified or broken? But we can take a flat-out basic balsamic vinaigrette: Depending on what the vinegar and olive oil taste like, the ratio should be somewhere in the range of 20 to 40 percent vinegar to olive oil. So maybe a quarter of a cup of balsamic, then three quarters of a cup of olive oil. I always like to put half a clove of mushed up garlic in mine, as well as about half a teaspoon of salt, a couple of twists of black pepper, and about a tablespoon of Dijon mustard to make it a little creamier, to give it more character and a bit more depth. You can blend it the traditional way, whisking the vinegar with the mustard, salt and pepper, and then adding the oil in the thin stream. Or you can shake it all up together in a jar. That’s the way I would do it at home. Besides salad, you could use it to drizzle on figs or cantaloupe, strawberries, roast chicken, any rich fish that needs acid to cut it, like salmon.
As for broken versus emulsified, you want an emulsified vinaigrette on a salad. That way the vinegar doesn’t fall to the bottom while the oil clings to the leaves. But broken vinaigrettes look beautiful on plates. Let’s say you drizzle a seared salmon fillet and some asparagus spears with a broken balsamic vinaigrette (one that you don’t shake very hard, and maybe leave out the Dijon): you get these nice beads of dark balsamic floating in a nice golden or green olive oil. Typically when you’re eating off a plate, you’d fork off a piece of salmon, and cut off piece of asparagus, and drag them around the plate to mix up the vinegar and olive oil that way.
Why Because his imaginative combinations, such as foie gras with roasted bananas in a chocolate-sweet onion sauce, aren't just risky; they're delicious, too.
Born St. Clair, MI, 1974.
Education The Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, NY.
Experience Charlie Trotter's, Chicago; French Laundry, Yountville, CA.
How he describes his food Progressive French cuisine with global influences. "You could say ‘cerebral,’ but that's just too much."
Most exotic item on his menu Rosemary vapor. "We pour boiling water over rosemary sprigs at the table, so it perfumes the air and adds a new level of complexity to our lobster dish."
Culinary hero Thomas Keller, the chef at French Laundry. "He's concerned about everything, from how the food is seasoned to whether there are any gum wrappers littering the garden."
Favorite childhood food Walleye. "My family lived on a river near the Great Lakes, and we used to go fishing a lot."
Local haunt Potbelly Sandwich Works. "They have the best sandwiches in the world. I like the Wreck, a sub with everything on it."
Bedside reading The Man Who Ate Everything by Jeffrey Steingarten, A Cook's Tour by Anthony Bourdain.
Favorite kitchen tool Silicone-coated parchment paper from J.B. Prince (www.jbprince.com), which Achatz uses to make the tuiles that decorate some of his savory dishes.
Most common mispronunciation of his name uh-CHATZ. (It should be pronounced AH-kitz.)
About his recipe Describing his watermelon salad with shrimp, Achatz says "I think shellfish benefits from a little sweetness." He suggests draining the fruit in a colander after you cut it, for a cleaner presentation.
Won Best New Chef at: Trio, Evanston, IL (closed)