Controversial chef sparks debate about baby ban (+WIN)

Chef Grant Achatz sparked an online discussion when he tweeted about a crying 8-month-old in his upscale restaurant.
Chef Grant Achatz sparked an online discussion when he tweeted about a crying 8-month-old in his upscale restaurant.

When your line up of awards includes being one of the San Pellegrino Worlds' 50 Best Restaurants (for the record, number 15 in 2013), three Michelin stars plus a slew of local awards, you'd think there was a lot more to talk about a chef than one grumpy tweet.

But last month Grant Achatz of Chicago's Alinea and Next restaurants, caused a flurry when he tweeted about a baby a couple had brought to his $250 a plate three-star establishment. Not just any baby, a crying baby.

It prompted a parody twitter account and posts from pro- and anti-babies-in-restaurants diners. But Atchatz, profiled in Joseph Levy's new documentary movie Spinning Plates, is clear that his food is as much about art, and experience, as eating.

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"Alinea exists to entertain people, no one needs to act out... (guests) are here to enjoy yourself, to celebrate. It's about trusting us to guide you through the experience, to pull you along. It's exhilarating, emotional... you feel like you just sat through a great performance for the last three and a half hours."

As he explained to press keen to make an issue out of the baby tweet, he thinks children should experience fine dining at some point, but he is aware that other diners have come to enjoy that theatrical 'performance' he and his crew have worked so hard to create.

"People are realising that food can be art and expressive, that's one thing that we've achieved in the last 10 years," he explains over the phone to the Herald online.

"We take what we do seriously, but we don't take ourselves seriously. At the end of the day, we cook food, that's what we do, although we can be craftsmen."

As the father of 12-year-old and ten-year-old sons, Achatz is also very aware that kids need to be exposed to good food. On a school afternoon, he told us he was proofing dough before the boys came home from school to make pizzas for dinner. He laughs that while they aren't tremendously interested in cooking, they are very interested in eating food. Naturally, the pair has their own cooking knives, and his boys are adventurous eaters.

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"They love ethnic food, sushi. We had Peking duck leftovers, so they took that to school in their lunchbox," he says.

"I don't personally get involved in the kids food/healthy cooking in schools issues, but I am very aware. We never purchase a lunch at school, and while its clichéd to see why we [Americans] get pigeonholed, it does come down to the parents, we need to take time to make them pick the right foods."

Achatz grew up around food, his father owned a family restaurant in the tiny town of St Clair, Michigan cooking what he calls 'hometown food'. The film refers to a somewhat troubled relationship with his dad, but even so, Achatz recalls, he was always tinkering and playing with food, making it a little different.

He credits his four-and-half-years with Thomas Keller at the then-emerging French Laundry as his mentor, for giving him not only the tools to take his 'tinkering' further, but also a grounded philosophy about his restaurants.

"Thomas always says it's less about the objects or the building. He always asks what is your legacy going to be, like the great restaurants of France, will yours live on?" he explains.

One of those legacies is ensuring the viability of local food suppliers - Achatz calls it the responsibility of any chef to food. Within a 90 mile radius of his restaurants he has built relationships with over 37 independent farmers, not an easy commitment when suppliers are constrained by short, tough growing seasons of the midwest.

Chef Grant Achatz.
Chef Grant Achatz.

Atchatz would prefer to discuss what to him is a hotter issue than bawling babies, and that is his dismissal of the notion of ranking 'best in the world' for food critics, magazines or diners.

"It's easy to say for football or the Olympics, but there's no way you can say that Alinea is 'better than' the French Laundry. I know Rene [Redzepi from Noma, (frequent San Pellegrino winner), we worked together at El Bulli, but how can I say that Noma is better than Per Se and so on? I'd rather ask 'what does Alinea represent in terms of creative freedom', that's one thing that we've accomplished here in the last 10 years."

Which is where his newest venture, Next, comes in. Each quarter Achatz and his team reinvent the restaurant ("progressive food, rather than very traditional"). Currently it is a steakhouse, in May it switches to Modern Chinese: Achatz is about to head to Singapore and Hong Kong for research eating and cooking.

"We want people to experience something not felt before, but that you recognise in yourself. At the same time making people comfortable and exposed, that's a restaurant."

Too clever to waste on babies, then.

* Spinning Plates opens in NZ cinemas March 6. For session times visit The Joseph Levy film follows three very different restaurateurs and their fight to follow their food dreams - Grant Atchatz at Alinea and opening Next, the 150 year old Breitbach's family diner in Balltown, Iowa and Cucina Gabby, a new Mexican place in Tuscon, Arizona.

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