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.”
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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.