You don’t necessarily need experience to get a job at Alinea

SHARE You don’t necessarily need experience to get a job at Alinea

Grant Achatz’s business partner Nick Kokonas is as creative in the office as Achatz is in the kitchen. Kokonas pioneered variable pricing and ticketing models that the duo employs at Alinea and Next. They also co-founded and co-own the Aviary.

There are 180 employees spread across the three restaurants and the administrative and marketing teams that run them. Alinea is by some lights the best restaurant in the world; Next was named the third-best new restaurant in the country by GQ; Esquire named the Aviary one of the best bars in America.

The upside of heading up three of the most successful culinary enterprises in the civilized world is that Kokonas has plenty of applications to choose from, particularly for the front-of-house and kitchen positions, where turnover is more substantial. The downside is that a résumé with a bullet for Alinea opens all kinds of doors. “Inevitably, given the large number of employees, there are always some people in transition,” Kokonas says. “For us probably more than most places, as many of our employees are recruited to work at other restaurants after training with us.”

Grid chatted with Kokonas to figure out how he scours for talent.

Walk me through some of the questions you ask and the qualities you look for when you’re hiring.

The restaurant industry is very different than my previous life as a derivatives trader. Back then, my favorite question was, “What were the last 10 books you’ve read and tell me a bit about each one.”

To me, the most important quality a person can have is to be intellectually curious — that way they can learn on the job. If they didn’t read any books and admitted it, that was OK, provided that they had another interest or hobby they were passionate about that took up a lot of free time. I had a guy who said, “I don’t read but I’ve built about 20 pieces of high-quality furniture in the past two years along with my woodshop” That’s a fine answer.

Lots of people would lie to me and name a few books that clearly they didn’t read. Bingo. I don’t need a liar or someone trying to impress. So honesty and intellectual curiosity in one shot.

How has approach changed with your shift from the financial world to the culinary one?

For the restaurants, that sort of thing is less relevant than a very hard-working, can-do attitude. Our executive chefs will bring in applicants for paid tryouts (called stages) and it becomes evident very quickly who will thrive in that environment and who will not … and that works for front-of-house as well.

What’s some bad advice that people get about how to impress you and other interviewers?

Walking in thinking you know exactly how everything works is always a terrible idea. We tend to like to hire people who have more or less a blank slate and no bad habits but are hard working, honest, and curious. That way they have no bad habits to break. So being an ‘expert’ in the industry is not always a good thing. For us, it’s usually bad.

You must be flooded with interested applicants, from bartenders to waiters to chefs. What’s the best way to get your attention?

It’s actually far less than you might imagine. It’s self-selecting. Everyone knows that working in our kitchens is long hours, hard work and more exacting than most. A lot of chefs have no interest in cooking at that level and would rather stick to the basics. So we’re constantly searching for highly qualified people — and yes, we look at everything, but in the end it’s personality.

What does someone have to demonstrate in their career before you’ll consider them for a post at one of your spots?

Absolutely nothing. Unless, of course, it’s something extraordinary. It’s not a template.

How might you summarize your hiring philosophy?

Hire very smart people and allow them to be smart. Let them question practices and offer solutions.

ABOVE: Grant Achatz, center, and Nick Kokonas. Photo courtesy of Sun-Times Media

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