Grant Achatz is one of the most celebrated chefs in the world. The owner of Chicago's ground-breaking modernist (he calls it "progressive") marvel Alinea, cocktail bar The Aviary, and popup-restaurant-on steroids Next has recently been spending a lot of time in Boston. Achatz spent some time speaking with Eater about his experiences dining in Boston, his shock at learning that Boston chefs like each other, and the elements of the Boston dining scene he feels Chicago is missing.
What brought you to Boston today?
This particular trip was based on filming [an episode of Ming Tsai's] Simply Ming. I think it was very different than what Simply Ming is about, because it was actually not very simple at all. Ming and I are good friends and he allowed me to come on the show and basically show the viewers what we do at Alinea, The Aviary, and Next, which is kind of thinking outside the box, right? It's not really simple. So we showed the progressive cuisine techniques of spherification, liquid nitrogen, creating aromas with a vaporizer — that kind of stuff. He was kind enough to change the format of the show. Typically they release a mystery ingredient and focus the show around that ingredient. This time he wanted to show viewers about what I do and how it's applicable to home cooks. So we went crazy and created a wagyu dish.
For all the home cooks making wagyu ...
Yeah, but here's the thing. Nowadays, if you're into food — if you're really into food — you can get all this jazz. People don't realize that Whole Foods sells agar agar [a seaweed extract used in modernist cooking techniques]. Most people don't know what it is or what it can do, but it's available at a grocery store.
It was nice to be in Boston. I love Boston, right? My girlfriend is from Cambridge. We've been back here quite a few times in the recent months. Great meals. Going back to when I did those Harvard classes a couple years ago, we had an incredible meal with Corby Kummer at Craigie on Main. Amazing meal. We had a whole roasted pig head. It's freaking awesome. It was phenomenal. Last night we were at Neptune. That was amazing. Me, Ming, my director of culinary operations, and my girlfriend were sitting at the table and I was just like "Why can't we have this in Chicago?" Obviously Neptune and B&G are focused on regional seafood. What we lack in Chicago is a restaurant embracing regionality.
That's really interesting to hear. We're kind of a self-effacing town and people will complain about how we can't be more like other cities like Chicago. Yet here you're saying the opposite.
I'm not downplaying Chicago, don't get me wrong. We have amazing restaurants. Everything that Paul Kahan is doing with charcuterie at Publican and that sort of thing is great. We have Moto and Alinea leading progressive forward thinking in cuisine. If I may say, we're probably the leader in the country in terms of progressive cuisine. In New York City you have WD-50 and you have Corton [at least temporarily shuttered since this interview]. In Boston, you have Clio. But for the most, really cutting edge, forward thinking cooking, Chicago is right up there. But again, we went to Neptune. We went to, why's it escaping me, a tiny seafood place.
No, but I'm going there tonight. Where'd we go? Oh yeah, Daily Catch. Oh my God. We were sitting there and the food was amazing. We had broiled haddock. We had fried clams. And I was like, "Why doesn't this exist at home?" People get caught up in the ambiance of making it posh, and I was just thinking "this is gritty and awesome." And the guy was yelling at customers. A five-top walked in and the guy said, "I don't have a five-top, you gotta wait an hour." And it was awesome! We need that in Chicago. I want that. We have that with hot dogs. But the food that was coming out of that kitchen was delicious. I'm envious of that culture that you guys have here that we don't necessarily have in Chicago. You have these impeccable ingredients. The fried clams we had last night at Neptune were ridiculous. I mean they were sweet and briny at the same time. They were amazing.
The thing that makes or breaks a city is the diversity. People have this misconception of the Thomas Kellers and the Daniel Bouluds and if I may include myself in that party. They think we only want that high-falutin' Michelin three-star dining. In reality we like simple stuff more than we like to eat our own food. Speaking with Thomas lately, he doesn't want to have a 20 course meal. He'd prefer to go to Chinatown. We seek that stuff out. We went to Area 4, we had some fantastic pizza. We went to Drink, which is always fun. Obviously, with The Aviary, we're trying to be aware of other bar programs. The other day we went to Blue Dragon with Ming. It may be a little unfair, obviously, because we were sitting with the owner, but it was a fantastic meal.
I'm looking forward to O Ya tonight. On Saturday, we're going to one of my former employee's restaurants, Michael Pagliarini, who worked with me at Trio way back in the day. So we're going to go to Giulia. Oh there's another great one — Oleana. I love her cooking, I love her flavors.
They're opening a new place too, with a full bar.
Oh is that right? That's awesome. That's a question for you, Chicago has a lot of really good cocktail bars. I know you've got Drink, but what else are the really great bars?
Well, in Kenmore, you've got Hawthorne, Eastern Standard, Island Creek Oyster Bar ...
Which are the best oysters in the freaking world in my opinion. We have those at the Aviary. We will only use Island Creek.
So, now I'm going to interview you. What do you think about the Boston scene right now? Let me give you a little back story. When I was at French Laundry in 1998, we were following Thomas like he was the Messiah. Everyone that worked there was like "this guy is the bomb." He'd travel a bit, not a lot, because he was locked down in the kitchen. So, when he did go out, us cooks really wanted to know where he ate and how it was. At one point he went to Clio. Thomas is a no-nonsense guy. He will never praise a restaurant unless it deserves it. I remember him coming back from several trips and we would say "Chef, how was the food? How was this? How was that?" and he'd be like "meh meh meh meh." But when he came back from Boston, and he ate at Clio, he came back effusive about Ken's food. This is in '98. Thomas said it was one of the best meals of his life as he recited the courses from memory. It was inspiring, and I've always wanted to go. Lo and behold, that conversation, where Thomas is singing Oringer's praise ultimately led me to hire Alex Stupak to be the opening pastry chef at Alinea.The amazing thing with Alex is he is one of the best practitioners of modern style pastry in the country, in the world. And then he goes "I'm going to do Mexican," which I think is a ballsy awesome move.
I've never eaten at Clio, I've never eaten at L'Espalier. I've never eaten at these iconic places. I've eaten at Toro, but not Uni. In every city, you can identify chefs that have shaped a city gastronomically. It seems to me, from an outsider's perspective, you have Ken Oringer, Michael Schlow, Ming Tsai. Maybe you go deep and have Hamersley and Adams and you could keep going ?
Barbara Lynch ?
I love Barbara Lynch. Her places, #9, B&G are great. I've never been to Menton. Kristen Kish was filming right before us with Ming. But, who is the David Chang of Boston?
Well, we've got Tim Maslow, who is actually one of Chang's protégés. I interviewed his Dad this morning. He's running the kitchen at a place called Strip T's in Watertown.
Oh yes, Ming wanted us to eat there last night but we got in late and had that great meal at Neptune. Maybe not so literally then, who owns this town? David Chang owns New York in a certain way. A lot of people own New York. There's the Eleven Madison Park guys. The whole Danny Meyer empire. Who owns Boston?
Well, I'd say 10 years ago you'd have a handful of answers to that. Michael Schlow, Ken Oringer, all the other names you've mentioned. Then a weird thing happened, the next generation of chefs coming up decided not to hate each other — in the way that chefs tend to compete. I'm using the word hate probably wrong here, but the amount of collaboration and friendliness that happens with the current generation of Boston chefs tends to creep other chefs who come to visit out a little bit.
(incredulous) Wait wait wait wait. Are you saying that Boston chefs are friends? They're ... collaborative?
Yeah. They're doing their own food, and they certainly still fuck with each other as friends. But you'll see people jumping on each other's lines for the hell of it. Any night I'm at a place like jm Curley, I'll see other chefs. They'll often head down to the kitchen to see what's going on. That generation of guys, they're almost a rat pack of sorts. One of their leaders — if you will — is Jamie Bissonnette, co-owner of Toro and Coppa with Ken.
We had a great lunch there [Coppa]. It was fucking awesome. That meal was really really good.
Yeah, so jm Curley does these monthly charity dinners, and you'll see guys from around town just helping out, serving food that may not even be theirs. You'll see Jamie Bissonnette. You'll see Tim Maslow. They're doing these dinners for 20 guests or so. And half the guests are from the Boston industry. People hang out.
That's awesome. We don't have that in Chicago. It's just hyper-competitive. Maybe similar to New York. We're not malicious, but we're not friendly. There're some people we're comfortable with and some we're not, but there's no sense of gastronomic community.
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