Food Travel America / Peak Experience

My Conversation with Grant (and Nick)

People poo poo Facebook. But nowadays, it’s the way I’m most connected to what’s going on in the things I’m interested in.

I have followed Alinea & Next through Facebook for a while, and when I secured my reservation at Alinea, I started following the Aviary as well. It’s because of this that I learned of the documentary, Spinning Plates featuring Chef Grant Achatz. It’s also because of this that a few weeks before my trip to Chicago, I saw that Spinning Plates would be opening the weekend I was there. The Aviary was hosting some cocktail receptions after the movie, with the chance to meet Chef Grant Achatz and co-owner/co-author of Life, on the Line, Nick Kokonos. I didn’t take much in the “chance to meet”, but it seemed like a great opportunity to see a movie I wanted to see, coupled with an excuse to go to the Aviary, which I wanted to  visit as well. I emailed with my interest and a few days later, I had secured tickets to the movie and Saturday cocktail reception. I had turned my trip to Chicago into a weekend all about Grant Achatz.

When I read Life, on the Line, I realized that if I happened to see the Chef after the meal, he may ask me, “So, how did we do?”. I knew that if that opportunity presented itself, I didn’t want to react like a deer caught in the headlights and respond with a stock “great” or “best meal ever”. So in the days leading up to Alinea, I thought about how my life as a Food Lover led me to Chicago. My journey to Alinea. I hoped that the meal would live up to my expectations of it. Luck would have it, Alinea exceeded anything my mind could fathom.

Unfortunately Chef Achatz wasn’t there the night I dined at Alinea for me to answer his question. But that’s not to say I didn’t have the opportunity to share my thoughts with the Chef…

I attended the screening of Spinning Plates and cabbed over to the Aviary for the reception afterwards.  I was feeling a part of the local scene in Chicago and it made me feel braver than I would in my own city. Looking around the crowd it didn’t seem like anyone else was having the same adventure I was on. It was the perfect set-up for me to have a wonderful night.

The Aviary is a lounge where, in the words of Achatz, “the drinks and service are crafted with the same care as Alinea; a restaurant for cocktails”. The products are created in a kitchen by chefs rather than behind a bar. I revel in thoughtfully crafted cocktails almost as much as a great meal, so I knew I would love the Aviary.

The Aviary is a great space and it was set up with various food and drink stations. Knowing that I’d not only be sampling amazing drinks, but also great little bites, I couldn’t contain my enthusiasm. In fact, when served the first bite in an eggshell, I was so jittery, I crushed the eggshell in my hand and dropped the whole thing on the floor even before I had a bite. I can be so awkward sometimes.

"Aviary Achatz Eggs"

"Aviary Achatz Spinning Plates egg"

Yolk, smoked roe, potato, baguette – I know, you’re looking at this thinking “sure it was”. But it really was all those things!

In an environment like this, where you’re going to a reception and don’t know anyone else, there was talk that this could have been a boom or bust night. My evening could have continued along the awkward path of dropping food on the floor and not knowing where to sit/stand but thank goodness it wasn’t a bust, but a complete BOOM.

I still had my first small bite in my hand and had just started a delicious rum punch when I noticed Chef Achatz standing in the corner quietly talking to one of the managers. I knew I needed to seize the opportunity to talk to Chef before he was bombarded by others. So I gathered all of the courage I had to walk across the room to Chef Achatz to congratulate him on the movie and thank him for my Alinea experience. He was so kind and friendly, I seized the moment to give him the answer to the question I wanted him to ask of me.

So how did we do?

“Over 3 years ago, I ate at The French Laundry. I’d known about it for years as a mythical restaurant in the heart of the Napa Valley. It was #1 on my list of restaurants that I wanted to go to. Back then, I don’t think I even had a #2 or 3.

I’ve always been interested in food, and my meal at The French Laundry (TFL) opened doors to the definition of a perfect meal. It was the reason I started documenting my eating experiences. It’s the reason why Call Me A Food Lover exists.

Because of that meal, I’ve travelled the world in search of experiences that would match TFL. Over the past 3+ years, I’ve eaten in great restaurants in Paris, Barcelona, Oaxaca, Tokyo… And while I’ve had outstanding meals, none have ever matched my experience at TFL.

I read Life, on the Line and made it a priority to come to Alinea. I had great expectations that Alinea could deliver… And it did. At Alinea, the meal was exceptional. It was a complete experience that evoked strong emotions and throughout my meal, I felt the soul of the chef. For that, I thank you.”

I was shaky throughout the conversation. It definitely did not come out as verbally polished as I wrote above, but I hope the Chef understood how meaningful his food was to me. Afterwards, we did the obligatory photo, in which I look dorky of course.

"Aviary Achatz Susy Bando spinning plates"

I had done what I dreamt of doing and the rest of the night was about enjoying the Aviary. Luckily we befriended a charming couple and spent our evening talking all things food and drink. Had it not been for the great time with Ken and Todd, there would have been no way that we would have spent hours sampling the multitude of amazing cocktails & nibblies being showcased.

"Achatz Spinning Plates oyster"

Oysters with horseradish and fall spices.

"Aviary Achatz Hawaii 5-0"

Hawaii 5-0 cocktail with ginger “snow”

"Aviary Achatz chicharron"

Chicharonnes!

"Aviary Achatz antelope tartare"

Antelope tartare with romaine and pine aroma.

"Aviary Achatz cocktail burnt rosemary"

“Francophile” with burnt rosemary, Cognac, spiced cider and graham cracker syrup

"Aviary Achatz chicken jelly"

Chicken jelly, foie, celery root

"Avuary Achatz snickers foie"

Foie snickers – yes that’s right, a Snickers type treat with foie gras. I knew it would be great. It was.

"Aviary Achatz treasure"

Mystery box placed on the table.

Opened, a m

The box was opened with a flourish and smoke billowed out.

Mystery drink presented. Yes a mystery still because I can't remember what this was.

Mystery drink presented. Yes a mystery still because I can’t remember what this was.

Had it not been for Ken and Todd, I never would have hit the moment where I looked at the many drinks I had lined up on the table half drunk and thought, this is the “tipping point of my evening”.  In that moment, I needed a photo as proof, but with my narrow lens, I had to push my chair back from the table to get it all in. I actually had to push my chair all the way back to sit with the table behind us to get the right shot.

"Aviary Achatz cocktails"

I wanted to document the moment where “things could have gone very wrong for me”.

As I looked up, I noticed I had landed myself right beside Nick Kokonas, co-owner of Alinea/Next/Aviary and Co-author of Life, on the Line. With my chair right beside Nick, I took the opportunity to have a chat with him to tell him how much I enjoyed Alinea and how much I admired his business mind behind the restaurant. Luckily Nick was completely receptive to the conversation and I was able to convey my enthusiasm on My Journey to Alinea more coherently than I believe I was able to with Chef Achatz.

I was able to communicate that I had tasted a lot of “avant-garde” food, but most of the time, the flavours of the food were compromised by the presentation or the gimmick. I believed that Chef Achatz’s ability to present course after course of food that had the ability to engage multiple senses, amaze in presentation and taste, was pure magic.

I told Nick that I had read his book twice. Once back in January which led me to my reservation at Alinea and the wonderful city of Chicago. And then I read it again in the week leading up to Alinea. The story was something I wanted to fully remember as I experienced course after course of amazing food. The story was so engaging and book written so well, that I’ve personally made at least 10 friends buy/read it. Hopefully others, after hearing me wax poetic about it, will also be compelled to read the book too.

Obligatory photo. This time looking not only dorky but drunk as well.

Obligatory photo with Nick. This time looking not only dorky but a little drunk as well.

It was amazing to have the opportunity to speak to someone who understood my passion for food completely. For once, I didn’t feel like I had to hide my enthusiasm about eating. At the end of the night, Nick gave me a copy of the book “Life, on the Line”, signed by Grant Achatz with the personal inscription by Nick to tell me the “third read is the best”. I’m holding him to that.

The Aviary: 955 Fulton Market, Chicago

3 thoughts on “My Conversation with Grant (and Nick)

  1. This is an amazing re-cap of your adventures at Alinea and the Aviary! You have developed a wonderful voice in your post that lets us all FEEL your experience, apprehension and passion first hand. I see that Nick even commented on your Alinea post….WOW! You must have made a pretty good impression.

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