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Meet & Eat: Grant Achatz

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[Photograph: Electric Artists]

In 2005, Grant Achatz opened Alinea in Chicago, already well on his way to being established as one of America's premiere chefs. Over the last five years, Achatz's progressive approach to the culinary arts has earned him numerous accolades, including the James Beard Outstanding Chef Award in 2008 and a Three Star Michelin rating for Alinea in November 2010.

Having just published his memoir, Life on the Line detailing his path to culinary greatness and his coinciding battle with tongue cancer, Achatz has simultaneously been in the process of opening his restaurant project Next, and the accompanying bar Aviary.

With all of these accomplishments, it's no wonder the USA Network will honor Achatz with their Character Approved award on March 8 (it's airing at 11 PM EST on the USA Network). With the awards quickly approaching, we had the opportunity to chat with Grant about his upcoming projects.

[Video: USA Character Approved on YouTube]

Do you ever get chef's block? You can't expect to be creative everyday. You'd have to be super human. One day I get an idea for a dish that I think is really compelling, but it may be another four days before I get that light bulb moment again. You can't force creativity. But now with Alinea running at full steam and Next and Aviary opening in a month, the creative avenues have tripled. If I am having a block with Alinea, I can shift to cocktails. If cocktails aren't working, maybe I come up with something for Next. It's both added pressure and added relief.

In 2009 you mentioned that food is in a transitional time. Are projects like Next and Aviary responses to the transforming food landscape? I don't think those are directly related. It's a collision of a bunch of different things. You get to a point where you want a new challenge. You grow as a person and as a creator. Alinea is amazing, it's my baby, but I want something else to get excited by.

'Next' Restaurant Trailer

What's up with buying tickets to Next instead of just making a reservation? That's creativity as well. Nick, my business partner, said, "you know, Chef, this doesn't make any sense to me. Everybody that opens a restaurant does it exactly the same way. Why don't we identify the elements of operating a restaurant that clearly don't work, rip the whole thing apart and put it back together in a way that makes sense as a business, then maybe we'll have something."

So having five reservationists—a grand total of $175,000 a year—to answer the phone from 9AM to 6PM, and tell people they cannot come to our place to spend money, because we're full, that makes absolutely no sense.

For Next you will have four menus a year, and each one is a different time and place. How much poetic license are you going take with those menus? We're starting out with Paris 1912 Escoffier. Anyone who has read any of Escoffier's cookbooks knows they are incredibly vague. Back in the early 1900s, they didn't have a VitaPrep blender. He pushed everything through a fine screen. Do we use a screen to uphold the authenticity of Escoffier? Or, do we use a blender to uphold Escoffier's philosophy about using the technology we have? Of course you'll use the blender.

When we go into the future, Bangkok 2060, obviously nobody knows what it's going to be like in 2060. So, sure, we're going to take some poetic license. But you can bet we'll do our homework and look at where Thai food has been the last couple of hundred years, identify the way it's swung, and try to extrapolate what WE think it might be like in 2060.

It looks like the Modernist Cuisine cookbook is going to have some adapted Alinea recipes. Do you align yourself with the Modernist movement? I will by no means parallel myself with the Beatles, but they went through their career, starting off in Liverpool playing one kind of music, then came to the States. By the time they did the White Album, stylistically, they were executing from a far different place. Alinea is aligned with the Modernist Cuisine movement but me, personally, I have the opportunity, to be at one time a modernist chef, then over at Next, I can be something entirely different.

Who do you consider to be the target audience for cookbooks like Modernist Cuisine or Alinea's? Do you see the future American kitchen incorporating dishes like these? We understood when we published the Alinea book in 2008 that a small handful of people would cook out of it. But we also know, because that book was published, it lends a little more credibility to the movement. Ten years from now, it might be more popular for people to cook like this at home, for the very reason that we printed those books.

What's the best thing you've recently eaten for under $20? We were in Tokyo about six months ago and had the most amazing bowl of ramen. It was bigger than my head. It would be like four meals for under $20, if you don't count the flight.

Over $150? It was in Sapporo, Japan. When the chef came out at the end of the meal, I felt like I already knew him. I had never met him before, nor could we communicate, but I felt like there was this connection after eating his food. And to me that's magical.

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Pizza pizza!

At Slice we profile pizza obsessives with the following question: The Pizza Cognition Theory states that "the first slice of pizza a child sees and tastes ... becomes, for him, pizza." Do you remember your first slice? Where was it from, and is the place still around? Not my very first slice, but I could probably tell you where it was from. It was literally Little Caeser's pizza in my tiny hometown. Every Friday night that was like the go-to in my house.

Are you into deep dish? I am, but I prefer thin. I had the best pizza experience in my life about 3 weeks ago. It was at Great Lake, here in Chicago. It's a tiny little place, husband and wife team, BYOB. They have one pizza they make a night. You walk in, you get your salad, you get your pizza—whatever they're making that night. It's freaking awesome, man.

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