Chef Grant Achatz on His Restaurant, Alinea

Food transformed into vapor, portable cooking gadgetry, and sports metaphors are the keys to this unconventional kitchen laboratory.

Restaurant: Alinea
Location: Chicago

Grant Achatz: When I had the opportunity to build my own kitchen, I thought, Hey, let’s wipe our heads clean of conventional kitchen design. I’d worked at the French Laundry, Charlie Trotter’s, Trio, so of course I grew up in kitchens, and it shocked me that they were all kind of designed the same. Everyone followed each other.

I felt like nobody really looked at the food, which was a great irony of kitchen design. No one really looked at the style of cooking they were going to do and designed the kitchen around that. We were like, “Let’s really look at the food and decide, based on the style of cooking, what we need. What do we need as far as equipment? What do we need as far as space?”

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Once we took possession of this building, I drew a rectangle, a drawing of what the dimensions of the kitchen would be. As it turns out, this building is very narrow and very long, so I ended up with a forty-five-foot-long and twenty-two-foot-wide rectangle. That makes a big kitchen—it’s almost one thou­s­and square feet.

We analyzed the food and the style of cooking and built around that. One of the things I realized is that it’s incredibly detail-oriented, with a lot of components on the plate. It takes a while to assemble each plate, and that required plating real estate, which is counter space. I wanted to be able to put down ten, twenty, thirty plates at one time and have cooks surrounding them on all sides, working on them in groups. That told me I needed long islands to allow cooks to be on each side; so you see the two twenty-two-foot-long islands that run down each side.

Our food is very modern, and the technique is very contemporary. We don’t sauté a lot of things as in traditional French cooking. We don’t need a big stove. We decided just to get a little stove and tuck it into one side. I opted for the use of portable induction burners as the primary heat source. I rea­lized that because we change our menu so often, and the restaurant is always in a kind of flux and evolution, having a very rigid kitchen wasn’t effi­cient. What I needed was the ability literally to change the kitchen based on what was on the menu, so the induction burners made sense.

The other crucial component is that there’s nothing above the waist to impede sight lines. We did that because we do tasting menus between twelve and twenty-seven courses, and so an enormous amount of food is leaving the kitchen at any given moment. That requires an intense amount of communication. What I think is important is an open sight line, so you can communicate nonverbally. If you ever watch a great sports team, everybody knows where everybody else is: it’s eye contact, it’s body language. We have twenty-five chefs in the kitchen every day. If one of them has to coordinate with another one to put out plates at the same time, they can just lift their heads and take a look.

There are other bells and whistles that I think are cool. We don’t have a walk-in, but we have these two long islands, and we use the space underneath for all our refrigeration, freezers, and equipment storage. People say it looks very laboratory-like. There are a lot of very straight rigid lines. We built in a cabinet, and we got to design every square inch of it. We’ve got a cryovac machine that’s hardwired into the cabinet, and we have hot water running continuously over the utensils. We had those built in; you don’t see them. I think it’s pretty cool.

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