Roland Trettl meets Grant Achatz

Roland Trettl in Chicago

Mousse in balloons on the one hand, ravioli filled with truffle broth on the other. With dishes served on his own design of porcelain or perhaps directly onto the silicone table cloth, Grant Achatz celebrates extreme contrasts in his restaurant “Alinea”. Roland Trettl liked it. And the motto in Chicago? “The main thing is that everyone has fun!”

You’ll eat what’s put on the table! Who isn’t familiar with those harsh parental words that have spoiled the fun of generations of children when it comes to enjoying their food! If only they could all have been at “Alinea”, this hottest of Chicago restaurants, when suddenly, and in the middle of the meal, the super-friendly serving staff came and cleared every last thing from my table, only to replace it with a transparent silicone table cloth, directly on top of which and without a single plate, they served a firework display of good taste – duck rillettes, soft shell crab, extremely decoratively arranged carrot puree and a striking five spice sauce. Wow!

Sounds way out? It is! But not in the sense of having lost the plot. It’s first class! Admittedly this course would have tasted just as sensational if it had been served conventionally on a plate. But the message of the offbeat presentation is just as clear as the extremely individualistic appearance of the service personnel. At the “Alinea” if it’s playful, it’s allowed, and this, and only this, is what it’s all about – having fun! This is the attitude that for me, especially today, makes high-tech cuisine socially acceptable. It doesn’t matter whether the diner is a regular, here for his weekly visit, or a one-off visitor treating himself to a special, exclusive meal that pushes the limits. For everyone here there can only be one maxim, and that’s “relax and have the time of your life!”

Grant Achatz has been my absolute dream candidate for guest chef at “Hangar 7” for many years. He is one of the American greats, perhaps by now the greatest. But time and again something cropped up to stop it from happening, and then came a near catastrophe. At 32, Grant Achatz was diagnosed with cancer of the tongue. What a bitter irony: the possibility of recovery itself was accompanied by the risk of a complete loss of his sense of taste. A nightmare for the chef, which, thank goodness, had a happy ending. At the end of 2007, this father of two was given the all clear.

On my first evening, Grant served me with 23 dishes. Indeed he demonstrated his credentials as a host with, what for me, as a native of South Tyrol, was a totally appropriate surprise – to begin with, he opened a bottle of wine from back home. After that, though, it was time to get down to business. After tasting the first few dishes I realised that I wouldn’t be seeing any of Chicago. Grant is by far the most complicated chef of the entire “Hangar-7” era. His ravioli explosion is at the simpler end of his repertoire: wonderfully light, small parcels of pasta, filled with a truffle broth. I know this is nothing new, but nevertheless it tasted sensational. An equally wonderful, and – particularly in terms of its texture – totally successful combination is his “trout caviar, coconut, liquorice and pineapple” composition.

Grant spent four fruitful years in the kitchen of Thomas Keller, becoming sous-chef after only two. He moved on from Keller’s establishment because the latter, according to this Chicago top chef, “focuses on absolute perfection” while he, on the other hand, focuses on “innovation”. Of course, this is always teamed with “humour, to which Ferran Adrià opened my eyes”. When Grant pulverises coconut so that he can subsequently turn it into a jelly, when he smokes air, fills balloons with mousse and then bathes them in liquid nitrogen, when he presents all this on porcelain that he has designed himself and extremely complicated looking wire frames, then it's no wonder that in spite of his youth he is already celebrated as a great master of the American molecular gastronomy movement. And yet, for me, all too often, it is the cuisine that is molecular, where the result is of lesser importance, because in the process it is done to death. And from this perspective alone Grant is not really molecular.

He is simply not that kind of aloof nitrogen and alginate type. Take a look at his pear dessert, for example: a pear sorbet with a eucalyptus pudding, a pepper crisp, olive oil marmalade, onion marmalade, and to top it off a white cheddar sauce – with everything resting on an aromatic pillow pouring forth orange essence. All of this takes a huge amount of effort and thought. Perhaps its overall appearance is somewhat space-age, but essentially it is still food, and sensationally good food at that. Here at the “Ikarus” we will do everything in our power to manage this extreme balancing act between intellectual challenge and sensory experience. And as our guest you can support us by simply eating what is put in front of you…

Recorded by Christoph Schulte • Photos: David Ditzler, Helge Kirchberger / Red Bull Photofiles 


1723 N Halsted St
Chicago, IL 60614
United States

Tel.: +1 312-867-0110

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