And 7 other takeaways from his AMA with Nick Kokonas

Grant Achatz Alinea Christmas
Credit: © Michael Turek

Chef Grant Achatz and his business partner Nick Kokonas, the team behind Alinea, Aviary and Next, hosted a Reddit AMA yesterday. They answered plenty of questions and touched on topics ranging from restaurant tipping to Achatz’s experience with cancer to the merits of sous viding at home. Here are nine of the most interesting takeaways from their AMA.

Their favorite casual spots to eat and drink at in Chicago.

Nick Kokonas mentioned Riccardo Trattoria and Monteverde for Italian, Katsu and Roka Akor for Japanese, Twin Anchors Pizza for ribs, and Spacca Napoli and Coalfire for pizza. Additionally, Kokonas mentioned new newcomer Smyth + Loyalist as a recent favorite.

On Next’s most challenging theme to execute.

According to Achatz, “All of the menus pose their own challenges. I think menus like The French Laundry and el Bulli were the most stressful for the team because of my personal connection and not wanting to let chefs Keller and Adria down.”

Which previous restaurants have shaped Achatz’s kitchen.

“The kitchen personality of Alinea has changed a lot over our 12 years, mostly based on the executive chefs and the maturity of the restaurant,” Achatz explains. “I think right now it is more like The French Laundry than [Charlie] Trotter’s. We try to balance that fine line of intensity, collaboration, professionalism and creativity.”

On the future of the Next cookbook series.

While Kokonas and Achatz are currently working on the Aviary cookbook, which they are producing completely independently, they still hope to produce a Next cookbook in the future. At least, in theory. “The Next Book is complicated,” says Kokonas. “20 menus... hard to choose the dishes, hard to recreate them all for photography.”

On the lingering effects of Achatz’s cancer diagnosis.

“I definitely think about it everyday,” Achatz explains. “The medical team told me while going through treatment that I would have a "new normal" and while I am cancer free and have regained my sense of taste, the side effects will be permanent. Things like basic head movement, swallowing, and tolerance for spicy food or things that are cold or hot are difficult. And no matter how good you are at compartmentalizing, you always wonder if it will come back.”

How sous vide has changed home cooking.

According to Achatz, “I think sous vide in general is a very controlled precise way to cook. With sous vide coming into the home market via Polyscience and Breville, it affords the home cook a higher level of accuracy. I look at it like the new slow-cooker.”

On breaking free from restaurant tipping.

While Kokonas has plans to write another long piece on this topic himself, he did share a few starting points. “ It’s a long complicated answer, but totally doable and it will happen IMO for every restaurant in the US with over about a $30 per person check average,” he claims. “Honestly, the people who 'return to a traditional model' simply haven't executed the transition correctly, mostly on communication to both their own staff and to their customers. That said, some municipalities make it easier or harder to provide that communication. NYC, for example, is really hard, while the west coast is much easier.”

How the new Aviary in New York will differ from the original in Chicago.

“We're looking at the [specific] location as super important,” says Kokonas. “The Aviary NYC will be on the 35th floor of the Time Warner Center with a truly stunning view of Central Park. It's not a basement speakeasy; it will be a grand space. Everything flows from that, meaning the service will have to be more formal, the lighting will be different, the seating has to showcase the views and the clientele will be both locals and people from around the world. So we're going a bit more 'luxe' in the design and a tad more formal in the service, but keeping the spirit of innovation and "fun and delicious" intact. It's a fine line but I'm sure it'll find its voice.”