There's no place Grant Achatz would rather be on Christmas than in Alinea's kitchen, cooking up a storm with his family.
One day a year, Alinea is a tweezer-free zone. Andrew Brochu, executive chef at sister restaurant Roister, is making stuffing and catching hell from his boss, the chef Grant Achatz, for his technique. “It’s how my mom makes it,” Brochu says. Achatz’s mother is at the garde manger station, sipping wine and making mincemeat pie, while her grandsons, Kaden, 15, and Keller, 13, hover around platters of crab legs on a prep table, snacking. There’s a roast in the oven and nary a squeeze bottle in sight.
Although they’re in what may be one of the most revered kitchens in the country, the vibe is casual and convivial, and not unlike Achatz’s childhood celebrations in St. Clair, Michigan. There was a kids’ table and an adults’ table. Achatz’s Aunt Jane brought the marshmallow-topped Jell-O mold, and his grandmother roasted the turkey. “Back then, there was no internet,” Achatz says. “People weren’t sitting around playing Boom Beach on their cell phones.”
For the past few years, Achatz has hosted Christmas dinners in the Alinea restaurant kitchen. Since most of us try to avoid our places of work during holidays, this might seem odd. But for Achatz, a restaurant is not an office. At five years old, he stood on a milk crate washing dishes in his parents’ diner. He’d been working in professional kitchens for a decade by the time he entered The Culinary Institute of America; he then took to the stoves at some of the nation’s best restaurants before opening Alinea in 2005, at the age of 31. Then he got cancer. Yet despite the ravages of radiation therapy, Achatz only missed a handful of services. Working so hard wasn’t about business or toughness. It was about staying surrounded by the warmth of his cooking family. The kitchen was his spiritual home, a place he loved way more than his lonely condo with an empty fridge.
And, because Alinea is that sanctuary, on this Christmas, six days before the restaurant was set to close for renovations (it reopened in May, with a new menu as well as a new look), it’s the place where Achatz has gathered his mother and sons; his girlfriend, Briseis Guthrie; her mother; and some of his top cooks—Andrew Brochu, Mike Bagale and Simon Davies.
“We treat the holiday dinner like an all-day graze,” Achatz says. Everyone pitches in, cooking together and cracking open bottles of Krug and magnums of Cabernet Sauvignon from La Jota Vineyard Co. They nosh on smoked salmon and blinis with crème fraîche infused with Blis maple syrup while prepping for dinner. The sourcing is meaningful: Achatz apprenticed as a winemaker at La Jota in Napa Valley between cooking stints at The French Laundry. The maple syrup is made by Achatz’s first mentor, Michigan chef Steve Stallard. “Basically, the whole day is about celebrating the things we love,” Achatz says.
Sharing the meal with staff pays forward a gesture that was extended to Achatz as a young cook and left a lasting impression. “During my first Thanksgiving in Napa, in 1996, Thomas Keller invited me to his house to have dinner,” he says. “It was a crazy-generous and touching offer. I had only worked there for three months—as a prep cook, no less.”
Today, the guys are not talking about food costs or menu planning; they’re busting one another’s chops like brothers. They squabble over who gets to carve the roast rib eye, which is dressed with a fermented black garlic gravy of Achatz’s invention. It is determined that whoever has the sharpest chef’s knife gets the honor. “Of course it’s mine,” says Achatz with a laugh.
Each year they focus on a different country or region’s holiday canon: This time it’s England, because Brochu and Achatz recently toured London’s gastropubs together. “I get all brainy about British food,” Achatz says. “Our whole concept for the menu is over-the-top banquet.” The chefs prepare king crab tikka masala, wild mushroom shepherd’s pie under a pillowy potato-and-chestnut topping, and mammoth Yorkshire puddings. The playfulness of the group spreads from the kitchen to the dining table. Amid the remnants of trifle and mincemeat pie made by Guthrie’s and Achatz’s moms, Achatz says: “There’s this cliché of the family meal in restaurants. I used to roll my eyes at that. But as I look around this table, I’ve never felt it more. We’re giving each other a hard time about the salt level on the radishes and the doneness of the beef, but I am so thankful to be here celebrating our life together.”