Originally published as the front page feature article in the hard copy of New City Chicago on April 30, 2003.
Charlie Trotter sat on the hood of his maroon Jaguar in the alley next to his eponymous restaurant in Chicago. A young cook approached him quietly. He told Trotter that he intended to leave, only six months into his employment. Trotter gave the cook his standard speech. He warned the cook that if he did not stay at the restaurant for a full year, that the cook would not exist, period. Trotter said, "Don't ever call me. Don't ever use me as a reference. Don't put me on your resume. As far as I am concerned, if you haven't worked here a year, you haven't worked here." The cook quit anyway. Five years later, in July of 2001, he found his way back to the area, as the new chef of Trio. The young cook is now wonderboy chef Grant Achatz--and he has returned to Trotter's home turf in an effort to find his own style, voice and maybe even his own fame.
Now 29 years old, Achatz exudes the aura of success that one would expect from a cook who was dubbed "The Golden Boy" by his former co-workers at the renowned French Laundry in Yountville, California. In his first year as executive chef at Evanston's nearly ten-year-old Trio, Achatz was nominated for the James Beard Rising Star Award in 2002 and named one of Food & Wine's Best New Chefs as well. Amid a flurry of champagne toasts and proud speeches,Trio got back its fourth star from Chicago magazine in April, 2002.
Achatz effectively achieved each quantifiable goal of his personal five-year plan within one year. Beyond the accolades, however, Achatz seems to be living in the shadow of greatness, and he is fighting to get out. It is not enough for him to be considered the protégé of the French Laundry's Thomas Keller, or to be competing for Chicago's diners with Trotter. Achatz wants to be famous. "I want to be the best, to be the guy that everyone is talking about, everybody is writing about, to be the guy who is inventing these new techniques, new approaches," he admits to the background hum of washing and the din of banging metal. "I never denied it from the very beginning, I want to be famous. To be famous means, you're the best, right?" This year, he is up for the James Beard Rising Star Award again. On May 5, Achatz will know if he is truly rising.
Achatz wraps his arms around a white support pole in the kitchen at Trio while talking with a produce purveyor. The chef leans his body backward while his head leans forward. He is inspecting baby eggplant. He plays with produce, turning it in his hands as he and his cooks try to figure out what they could do with it. In the end, they decide to take the eggplant. The purveyor happily empties her cooler, and makes her way out of the kitchen. On her way out, I ask her if the tiny eggplant taste like eggplant, and she says, "They taste better when they are bigger. But they all want them small." The produce purveyor will not tell me her name. This happens a lot.
In the era of perpetual food television embodied by the 24-hour cable Food Network, chefs are achieving a new type of celebrity. Because of this, people around rising chefs simply do not want to be caught saying the wrong thing.
"The zeitgeist has shifted from musicians, Hollywood and athletes to the chef world a little bit," confirms Charlie Trotter, the original Chicago celebrity chef whose restaurant has been influencing the culinary world for more than fifteen years. "We live in an interesting time, because people are cooking less and less, we have our first truly cooking illiterate generation coming up, but they are also highly sophisticated, they know good food, they are fluent and aware, they know dining on different levels. But they don't cook. And so chefs come into greater demand." The combination of this sophisticated generation of young diners and media attention to their interests has created the possibility of unprecedented fame for chefs who seek it. Chefs like Achatz--young, good-looking and incredibly talented culinary maestros with something to prove and the means to do it.
Achatz is small and embodies Midwestern charm without the "corn-fed" look. Though I did not notice it the first dozen times I saw him, he is a redhead. Typical kitchen stories may be full of rants of crazy chefs who yell and throw things, but Achatz is mild mannered. He was known at the French Laundry for trying not to yell. While he simply cannot always abide by this ideal in his own kitchen, I get the impression that he tries. He never seems happy or satisfied when he is done yelling.
Indeed, Achatz is the sort of man who actually seems to be listening whenever you speak with him. I sit across from him at the table in the kitchen. It looks out over the line, but Achatz is facing me. No matter what the intention is in starting the conversation, Achatz becomes the questioner and then proceeds to really listen. And then he remembers everything you say. It's eerie. "He is a quiet guy. And he's very respectful," agrees former French Laundry co-worker and now girlfriend Angela Snell. "He's amazing. He's very observant of people. It's one of the things that I found very attractive about him."
Born on April 25, 1974, Achatz is the only child of restaurateurs Grant Achatz Sr. and Barbara Jean Achatz. The elder Grant was himself from a restaurant family. His mother opened a restaurant early on and all of her sons and their cousins opened their own. The elder Grant and Barbara Jean opened their first restaurant in 1982 in Saint Claire County, Michigan. The Achatz Depot, and its successor The Achatz Family Restaurant, were similar to Big Boy, but, "a bit nicer," according to the son. The restaurants specialized in such staples as burgers, fries, meatloaf and breakfast foods. The elder Grant ran the kitchen. Barbara Jean made pies, and later on helped manage the front of the house. "It was the restaurant that everybody went to on Sunday after church," says Achatz. (Yes, this is the Achatz family of Michigan that makes the Achatz pies, available throughout the country at high-end grocery stores. They are cousins.)
Achatz started working in the kitchen when he was 8 years old. He admits that he did not do much, although he was charged with washing dishes. "I was probably getting in the way more than anything," he says, laughing. They were a close family, and Achatz enjoyed being in the kitchen with his parents. He washed dishes until he was 12 or 13, when he moved up to prep cook. He spent the next few years peeling and chopping. When he was in high school, Achatz became a line cook and had a lucrative few years flipping burgers. As high-school graduation approached, Achatz's father pulled him aside one day and asked him to consider not going into the family business.
Achatz looked at his options. He had previously thought about careers in art or architecture, though Achatz did not think that his skills were best suited to either. "I consciously made the decision to pursue cooking and enrolled in culinary school," he says.
After being raised in a family dining kitchen, it was a shock for Achatz when he arrived at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York in 1993. "At the restaurant I would always try to do silly little things--like back when I thought a sprig of parsley was cool, or a little orange twist. You put the orange twist and a little sprig of parsley on a plate, and I thought that was fine dining, you know?" The CIA had a different notion of fine dining, and Achatz eventually embraced it and quietly began to consider the possibilities of celebrity chefdom.
On January 21, 1937, Xavier Marcel Boulestin became the first television cook when he presented the first "Cook's Night Out" program on the BBC. Fifty-six years later, the Food Network launched to an American audience in November of 1993. In between, many celebrity chefs had their own shows on PBS and made visits to more mainstream broadcasts on the major networks. But the Food Network changed the face of their career plans. The Food Network attracts and maintains newer, younger viewers with shows like "The Naked Chef," "Iron Chef" and the recent breakout hit, "Unwrapped." Julia Child never had numbers like these.
Last year, AT&T Broadband announced that it was adding the Food Network to its service following an unprecedented request campaign by Bay Area residents. At the time, Don Schena, Senior Vice President of AT&T Broadband, stated that "For the past eighteen months Food Network has been the single most requested network in the Bay Area." The network now reaches more than 75 million subscribers across the U.S., creating more exposure than the previous generations of celebrity chefs could have predicted.
"The power of media, the power of TV, is awesome," acknowledges Trotter. "Five episodes on a TV show could be the equivalent of ten years of hard toil in a restaurant because of the numbers of people."
But Achatz does not want to be the next Emeril. He will not, however, rule out the possibility of pursuing celebrity chefdom by way of the Food Network. "If the show carried the same kind of philosophy of integrity that I do in the restaurant, and if I felt like my message was being conveyed--whatever message that was--then I would do it," Achatz pauses. "But to go on TV and cook lasagna, I wouldn't do that."
Achatz certainly has the professional lineage to lay claim to a fine-dining message, if that is the message he decides to retain. Following a brief stint at a Michigan country club, Achatz began his six months in Trotter's kitchen. (In all fairness, Trotter denies that Achatz ever worked for him. When I ask him if he remembers Achatz as a young cook, Trotter says, "He most certainly was not an employee here." When I continue to push about any recollection, he then says, "I remember Grant as a really nice, polite, eager, young man but certainly not a member of the team.")
From October to April of 1996, Achatz worked from 9:30 in the morning until 2:30 in the morning at Trotter's. It was too much. "A year out of culinary school, and I was at arguably the best restaurant in the country. I was in way over my head. And it was an enormous amount of work and I freaked out. I left."
Most importantly, Achatz had lost his focus. He and his then girlfriend decided to go to Europe for three months to see the sights, and, of course, to eat. They spent a month each in France, Italy, and England. It worked. "I thought about the food. You go to the `holy land.' You walk around. You are absorbed in it. You realize you really like it. Then you come back, and you don't want to work in your dad's restaurant flipping burgers."
Achatz narrowed his career goals. He decided that he simply was going to become the best. He chose five restaurants throughout the U.S. that he thought could help him reach his goal: Masa's in San Francisco, The Inn at Little Washington in Virginia, The Lark in Michigan, The French Laundry in Yountville, and Valentino in Los Angeles.
He sent off a first round of letters and resumes, and a week later had heard nothing. He sent off another round to the same five restaurants, and heard back from two. He ended up not being impressed with either and, instead of taking the jobs out of desperation, decided to narrow his focus even more.
He sent one letter every day for seven days to Chef Thomas Keller of the French Laundry in Yountville. On Sunday of that week, Keller called Achatz. "He was just like `Who are you? What do you want?'" says Achatz with a grin. Achatz told Keller that all he wanted was a job, a second chance at his dreams. Achatz went to Yountville on a two-day trial shortly thereafter. On the second night, Keller pulled Achatz into the back room and asked him if he wanted the job. "I had no idea what the job paid. I had no idea what the position would be. I didn't care."
Obviously, he was going to take the job. Achatz returned to Yountville in October of 1996. His dad was with him to help get settled in, and Keller got them a last minute reservation for dinner.
The meal was a turning point for Achatz. It was only the second four-star restaurant meal that he had eaten. "I don't know," Achatz muses. "It was just this magical thing." What struck him the most was the care and precision involved in each course. Achatz was served Rouget, a small fish with numerous bones. He could hardly believe that someone had sat in the kitchen and removed each and every bone from the filet. He was blown away. In the end, Keller took care of the bill. "I'm sure he did it because he's very generous," Achatz says, "but at the same time he probably had some type of intuition about me, and to start like that was a good thing."
From that moment on, Achatz was Keller's. He adopted many of Keller's philosophies, particularly regarding generosity and integrity. "It's important to be known as somebody who has integrity. You are charging people money for a service." Achatz struggles for a non-restaurant-related illustration, but stumbles because he does so little outside of restaurants. He shakes his head. "I don't want to be known for less than excellent. That's what integrity is in my mind." Integrity and generosity were Keller's keys to success, and Achatz immediately recognized both their sentiment and usefulness.
Achatz spent a total of four years working under Keller, though he acquired the "Golden Boy" nickname (always behind his back) pretty much from the beginning. Achatz says that he and Keller immediately had a connection, a bond. "I think he appreciated my persistence. I felt like he was giving me a second chance after I left Trotter's early. We just really connected. And it set the tone for my whole time there."
Achatz had a crisis of faith in 1998, resulting in his first departure from the French Laundry. "Family turmoil made me question some things about the business. Since I went to culinary school, it was: go work here, go work there, we'll help you buy a restaurant someday. But then all of a sudden, my parents weren't together anymore and I wasn't even talking to my dad. All of a sudden, the opportunity for me to own my own restaurant vanished." And, admits Achatz, there was a girl involved in his decision to find a less intense work life.
He spent nearly a year working for La Jota, a winery in Napa. As an assistant winemaker, he pruned and harvested grapes, crushed them, pumped them over, racked them, and put the wine in the bottle. But he missed the craziness and intensity of the kitchen. He was working thirty-five hours a week, with all his nights and weekends off. For the first time, Achatz was living a "normal" life. When Keller offered him a sous-chef position at the French Laundry in 1999, Achatz sat down and made a list. He was not sure what he wanted to do, though he knew that he did not want to be a winemaker. At first, he turned down the position. Coming to his senses a few weeks later, he begged Keller for the opportunity. After a bit of wrangling, Achatz was back at the French Laundry, but this time he was a leader.
It was an ego trip for him. At 26 years old, Achatz found himself well on the way to his goal. "All of a sudden you find yourself in the top five of forty-five people in the hierarchy. Everyone starts looking to you for answers. If you want to tell someone to do something, they have to. Because you're the man, the man behind the man," he says. The experience gave him the confidence he needed, to which he attributes most of his success that followed.
While the position was amazing, there was a point when it simply did not fit Achatz anymore. "I was probably the most avant-garde chef at the French Laundry. But it was buried," he says. Achatz was no longer a good soldier in Keller's war, and they both realized that it was time for Achatz to move on.
Achatz and Trio found each other on the Internet. Opened in October of 1993 as a collaboration between Rick Tramanto, Gale Gand and Henry Adaniya, Trio has been the launching ground for Chicago-area talent ever since. The original trio separated a couple of years later. Adaniya stayed on as the owner and found Shawn McClain to take the helm as chef.
Each change in head chef and format lead to tumult and a repositioning of Trio's place in Chicago's dining scene. Through the years, while Tramanto and Gand have found fame at Tru, and McClain has received national attention for his work at Spring, Adaniya has stayed with Trio. He easily admits that Trio's professed mission is a bit different from many other restaurants and that it is the mission that keeps him there. "Trio's future is one to change. There's always change," Adaniya pauses. "What Trio is about is creativity. It is a mass of creative energy that keeps moving forward."
After exchanging quite a bit of email with Adaniya, Achatz was invited to prepare a tasting at the restaurant. Adaniya was impressed. "Here is a man who certainly has principle, has integrity, has vision, has focus, dedication, on and on. The only negative thing was he didn't eat junk food." Though there were several stumbling blocks, Adaniya and Achatz finally realized that they were perfect for each other. "Paramount, it was an opportunity to run my own kitchen," says Achatz. "It was time to establish my style. And my time at the French Laundry was over. I don't want to live in his [Keller's] shadow anymore. I wanted to beat him, and to beat him, I needed to go." Trio reopened under Achatz in July of 2001 when Achatz was 27 years old. The nominations and flurry of four stars started shortly thereafter. Achatz was truly on his way.
Almost two years later, Achatz is grappling with the reality of war, a faltering economy, poor business and their effect on his fledgling solo career. He is fairly well known in Chicago, and receives a lot of attention when he dines out locally. While he appeared on the cover of Food & Wine and was profiled in Elle, he has received little national press otherwise. But these things always seem to be on the horizon. There is, of course, the pending James Beard Award. Trio was filmed as part of a six-part documentary headed for the Food Network in mid-July. Achatz has also filmed a demo tape at the request of a well-known producer associated with another popular show on the Food Network.
"What we've created here is something that you can't find anywhere else in the United States. You would think that would bring eighty people a night. Just eighty people," Achatz says. "But they don't come because they don't know." Achatz sounds a little bitter, a tone that doesn't fit his boyish looks. He pushes his chair back on two legs.
In explanation, Trotter points out that more than 60 percent of his restaurant's business is from out-of-town. He believes that Chicago's dining scene is defined by its status as a business-oriented city. "They are sophisticated diners," he says. "It demands more from us. So it's a great place to be. But, you really have to have some depth."
It is not that Trio lacks depth, however. Its meals take dining to new heights of intellectual pursuit. "To me, our food is very cerebral," Achatz says. "We think about our food so much. We try to think of ways to make the customer think about it." Nor does the food lack taste. Its four stars and ample local praise attest to its rare success in combining the strange with the edible. Achatz explains that one of the more exotic dishes to grace the menu during his tenure, Oysters and Beer, is in fact one of the simplest. "Is it just oysters and salmon roe, and scallions, and ginger gelee and beer foam?" asks Achatz. "Or when they set it down, is it a glass of beer? Because it's in a clear cylinder and it has foam on the top. The idea is, somebody should say, 'hey that looks like a beer.'"
The current menu format is prix fixe, with three set menus of lengths varying from four to twenty-three filled with what Achatz has taken to calling "avant-garde with global influences." His latest example of this is a dish designed to provoke the imagination and stimulate more of the cerebral side. "I am making a connection between place of origin, habitat and flavor," says Achatz as he describes his vision of a forest. Frog legs, morel mushrooms, ramps, wild asparagus, mushroom foam and the vapor of evergreens.
Other dishes include a palate cleanser billed as a Capsule of Mango and Spice Yuzu. The outside shell is dehydrated mango puree filled with Yuzu powder spiked with Togarashi chili. The diner crunches through the capsule and finds sweet, tart, spicy and sour sensations. To the right-hand side of the capsule is a shot glass of mango and yuzu juice to complement the intensity. There is also the bizarre "Pizza," a postage-stamp-sized dehydrated vegetable paper seasoned with different powders designed to evoke a pepperoni pizza. When I ask Achatz what those different powders are, I get a firm yet polite, "I can't tell you." It is the first time Achatz does not answer one of my questions.
Achatz is getting ready to lead a kitchen meeting at the end of the night's dinner service, as he does every night. It is midnight, and the meeting could go on for an hour or more. Having established his own voice, his own style, he is reaching for something more. He needs to find a way to show it to others. The lack of current success seems to be simply a result of a lack of following. "It starts with your peers first." Achatz stops. "If you asked Daniel Boulud who I am, he wouldn't know."
As I stand mostly out of the way in the doorway to the kitchen, above my head is a piece of tape that Achatz's staff had framed as a gift for his birthday last year. It originally was in the kitchen above the stove where they could all see it as they cooked. The piece of tape reads simply, "What does four stars mean to you?"
Curious about the basis for Achatz's rumination, I began to contemplate Boulud's place in the world--and why Achatz has specifically named him. Boulud is a famous four-star French chef with three New York City restaurants. This combination means that Boulud is arguably one of the best French chefs in the United States, if not the best.
The reservationist at restaurant Daniel in New York admits that she does not know who Achatz is, but insists that the chef himself probably will. She will not tell me her name. A while later, I finally speak with Boulud's publicist, who politely tells me that she will phone me back with an answer, and never does.