Off the line with Alinea

By Trevor Ballanger

by Trevor Ballanger

assistant arts & culture editor

A restaurant is only as good as its food. When the dish is finally placed on the table, the body’s senses begin to tingle. What has been presented to the diner appears to be more than food. It is an artistic experience that reaches into the soul and pulls a smile out from behind the taste buds.

For some, success leaves a bittersweet taste on the lips, especially when you’ve just been declared the best restaurant in the world. Such is the most recent accolade for Alinea, the three-star Michelin restaurant that claimed the title bestowed by Elite Traveler magazine.

As a publication distributed by private jet companies and read by more individuals. A section of Elite Traveler is dedicated to a destination guide documenting the world’s foremost hotels and restaurants that attract jet-setting enthusiasts. Simon Hodgson, publishing director of the magazine’s restaurant division, said researching members of the magazine assisted in building the list of award contenders.

“Because essentially this is driven by the readership, it has a somewhat different methodology than other guides which might be based upon a particular individual or a selection of experts going to a particular restaurant,” Hodgson said. “I think different guides, as a result of that, will end up with different results.”

The investigation took more than two years to complete. Travelers from around the globe were asked their opinion on which dining establishment is the best based on food, atmosphere and service. Hodgson said the selection process was unique compared to other methods of distributing awards.

Chef Grant Achatz said awards are appreciated, but the satisfaction that comes with them is brief—at least until the next one comes along. Morale is a large part of what drives him and his staff to do the work so many people appreciate, but he said what matters most is to keep going and always look for the next best thing.

Much of what makes Alinea stand out is the innovative style in which its food is prepared, thanks in part to designer and sculptor Martin Kastner. He said Achatz called to request his participation in his kitchen’s creative process. The menu, which describes dishes only by their ingredients, immediately confused him because of his lack of culinary knowledge, he added. Instead, he wanted to invoke an experience that was more about the aesthetic journey of eating a meal.

“What if we really start looking at the entire dining experience as a composition instead of a sequence of dishes?” Kastner mused. “What if we start mapping it and plotting it out, kind of like you would a piece of music?”

Hodgson said it’s hard to continue proving the restaurant’s worth because the experience is different for every customer.

“At the end of the day, you’re going, ‘OK, well that was once,’” Achatz said. “We’re all human. We all make mistakes, and we’re all good at what we do at times. We’re paranoid of failing. I think that’s what makes [Alinea] good. You need to be afraid to fail. It motivates you to succeed.”

He said the 22 chefs and 70 other staff members at Alinea are “like a cult” because they all take pride in what they do, which is the driving force behind the restaurant’s impeccable reputation. However, he said people fail to realize the staggering amount of work needed to keep such an establishment thriving.

Its distinction among other fine dining eateries is due in large part to the uniqueness of the dishes, the quality of ingredients and amount of time dedicated to making them aesthetically pleasing.

On average, the chefs work more than 12 hours per day to perfect their craft. Alinea has access to a creative team that filters avant-garde ideas through a list of food presentation possibilities.

Achatz compared his team’s creative process to that of musicians, painters and writers. He said his dedication is to food. Developing passionate ideas goes into any kind of creative medium.

According to Kastner, the logistics at Alinea are already extremely well refined, and the majority of the time he doesn’t need to give artistic direction because he’s on the same page with Achatz, who communicates creative details to the staff.

Although France is widely considered the home of fine cuisine, Hodgson said Alinea has proven that great chefs and teams can be located anywhere in the world. If the food and service are outstanding then they should be easily recognized, even in America’s Midwest. Achatz added that 90 percent of what makes a high quality restaurant is the high price tag. Financial aspects for any restaurant aren’t always going to be pretty, he said.

“People think we’re just printing money,” Achatz said. “Because Alinea charges $210 for its menu, that we’re like money growing on trees.”

Alinea serves almost as many people per night as it has employees. According to Achatz, after figuring in salaries, rent and cost control for high quality ingredients, the profit margins are minimal compared to what people’s perception of its annual income truly is.

This applies to not only his establishment, but also other exclusive restaurants like French Laundry in California and The Fat Duck in Berkshire, U.K. Ingredients are flown in from across the country to provide an experience that would otherwise be unavailable in the Midwest.

Achatz said he could purchase low quality ingredients from around the city but instead opts for top-notch components from San Francisco to create the best cuisine in the world. What is disappointing—yet accepted—about the situation is knowing patrons are ignorant of the superiority of the dish they just ordered.

“I just don’t think people realize what it takes to create something really special,” Achatz said. “They don’t know, but in order to push the boundaries, that’s what you have to do.”