Alinea. Breitbach’s Country Dining. La Cocina de Gabby. Three disparate culinary experiences, from three different parts of the country — Chicago, Iowa, and Arizona, respectively. Yet the backstories of all three restaurant share common threads of family, community and overcoming life’s adversities, according to writer-director Joseph Levy’s documentary “Spinning Plates,” opening Friday at Landmark Century.
In the film, Chicago Chef Grant Achatz explores those common threads by talking candidly about his tony Alinea (named best restaurant in North America, and the seventh best in the world), his culinary mindset and his battle with cancer.
Achatz recently talked to the Sun-Times about all that and more.
Q.The film gives us a glimpse into your culinary mindset for Alinea. Can you expand on how your menu evolves from idea to table?
A. Our cuisine is always based on the senses, the emotions and the nostalgia it will trigger in people ultimately. It’s all about having an intimate experience as you dine, whether it’s a meal of meatloaf at home or celebrating an anniversary at a restaurant. It’s a very personal thing. For us it’s been about essentially telling a story through food. Food is our words. It can be as literal as the front of the house team introducing a course at the table explaining that ‘it’s inspired by Grant’s childhood.’ …We’re cooking for 80 people a night, there’s no way to customize an experience. But we can insert these emotional triggers and ultimately something in the 27 courses will resonate with the people in some way. Something will make them laugh or smile or remember their childhood or the way their grandma cooked apple pie at Thanksgiving. … Going from idea to menu can take anywhere from an hour to years.
Q.There’s a great scene in the film where you execute the dessert “on the table” course at Alinea that is as lyrical a symphonic movement. How did you arrive at that creation?
A. From the time that idea came into our heads to the moment we served it for the first time was a little over 5 years, to figure out how to do it. We were thinking a giant plate the size of the table top because we were floating the idea of plating the food. Then it was well, how do we carry it to the dining room? It won’t fit in the dishwasher. How will we clean it? So we shelved it. A little over five years later… we said how about a table cloth we eat off of? … So we created a silicone table cloth you can eat off of. I draw that [dessert] every night on the table. It’s a different design every night.
Q. Where does the inspiration hit you?
A. It’s completely random. Chicago is a very strange city. There might be a propeller plane that seems like it’s barely moving, just floating in the sky with this ominous, cloudy backdrop, and immediately I start thinking about food. I don’t think about an airplane, but the softness of the clouds and how you can replicate that with food. I see everything through that lens.
Grant Achatz in a scene from the documentary “Spinning Plates.”
Q.Alinea has been named the best restaurant in North America. It’s received the rare Michelin three stars. You have played a big part in putting Chicago on the culinary map.
A. It’s important to have Chicago represented in the American gastronomy movement. For whatever reason, Chicago for a long time was always [identified] as meat and potatoes. The exact opposite is true now. We have more progressive and award-winning restaurants now than any other city in America. What chefs in Chicago have done is create … a tight group of restaurants that represent every aspect of cooking really well. That’s happened in the last 10 years. You have Michelin 3 star [winners] like Alinea and L2O, all the way down to hot dogs and pizza and everything in between — bistros, modern steakhouses, great Chinese food — at every price point and level of sophistication and luxury. It’s filled in nicely.
Q. How do you wrap your head around achieving three Michelin stars?
A. You don’t process that. You just keep doing what you do every day. It doesn’t change what you’re doing. Keep doing what got you there otherwise you won’t stay there. You can make an amazing album if you’re a rock band and that album will be there forever. The Beatles, when they did the White Album, it’s there forever. In a restaurant, you’re cutting that album every day from scratch.
Q.What do you want your culinary legacy to be?
A. I don’t know if I believe in that word so much. Ultimately it’s about taking risk and being honest with yourself. Doing what you want. Don’t do it for the public, the media, the critics. For young chefs that would be the legacy. It’s not about watching the Food Network and saying “I will be the next Bobby Flay because I want to be on TV.” There’s nothing wrong with that, but ultimately don’t chase down the goal for artificial reasons.
Q.Can we expect a third Grant Achatz restaurant in Chicago?
A. Hopefully more than that.
“Spinning Plates” opens Oct 25 at Landmark Century Centre Cinema, 2828 N. Clark. Special VIP packages ($95-$125) for Oct. 25-27 screenings only, include one movie ticket (reserved seating), specialty cocktails, beer and Champagne at the Aviary, 955 W. Fulton, as well as paired hors d’oevres and a chance to meet the filmmakers. For VIP tickets: email email@example.com, indicating date, early or late showing, and number of guests.