Here’s the second of two vacation-inspired re-posts, this one from a trip to Chicago in August of 2009. If you enjoy it half as much as I enjoyed its subject, you will love it.
Here's a big statement to start your day:
A dinner at Chicago's
Alinea restaurant should be
obligatory for every major
executive in America.
I'm no "foodie," but a 35-year business career has taken me to some of the finest food emporiums all over the globe.
Well, nothing, but nothing, has even come close to the epicurean delight I experienced at chef Grant Achatz's majestic Alinea (that's him below). It didn't merely shatter expectations for a restaurant, it was one of my great life experiences, period. (I am forever in debt to my son Aidan for being the driving force in jumping on a cancellation and getting us in front of the two-to-three month waiting list.)
The 20-some-odd (and I do mean "odd," but in the most complimentary and awe-inducing way) course "Tour" menu was the most expensive meal I have ever eaten (just one bottle of wine, at $80, hardly put a dent in a bill that masqueraded as a mansion's mortgage payment)...but it was a great bargain nonetheless.
Calling Alinea a "restaurant" is a disservice to the establishment and what it does. It is to other eateries what Cirque du soleil is to Barnum & Bailey (a woman at the table next to me coined the phrase "Cirque du manger," or "Circus of Eating"). It markets itself brilliantly by being itself brilliantly. I could go on for terabytes about the food (which included Dr. Moreau-like hybrid delicacies like onion cotton candy, hot mustard ice cream, olive oil sorbet, powdered A-1 steak sauce, watermelon bombs and bacon-flavored challah bread), but amazingly, Alinea rises far above the palate-acrobatics it induces. (By the way, that image above? No, not an abstract masterpiece...but table-top dessert.)
This type of attention to detail permeated the experience, and the magical, enchanting results were beyond staggering. Tables are bare wood (albeit near-black mahogany) to optimize the visual component of each dish (water is served at a specific temperature to ensure no condensation rings on said tabletops). Walls are covered with art that, while tasteful, do little to draw the eye away from the focal point of one's food.
If the silverware and glassware are not specifically chosen to match the course being eaten (as was the case of the antique crystal and cutlery chosen to highlight an old French recipe for quail), they are created specifically for Alinea by one of its partners, Martin Kastner, and his Crucial Detail design firm.
Alinea is a team effort, but a team like the New York Yankees of the '50s or the Montreal Canadiens of the mid-'70s. Achatz has assembled an executive partnership that shows the grand vision of his dining experience, working hand-in-hand with a business manager, architect, interior designer and sculptor.
Even the wait staff, outfitted in Zegna, rise far above industry greatness, never mind the norm. They complement each course put down with a story, factoid or red herring about it, and are single-minded in their corporate duty. When I asked one of our servers, a South African young man, why he gave up his studies to work as a waiter, he said: "Because I want to help Alinea be recognized as the top restaurant in the world." No need to guess what this place's mission statement is.
Alinea and Achatz have been much ballyhooed (Grant's personal story is a movie just waiting to happen...but not until he can direct it himself, I suspect), but after my adding to the ballyhooing, here's the reason why it should be required eating for every American exec:
- Alinea respects its clientele; treats them like gods. It listens to them, but it is no slave to public opinion. It takes chances for them. It has the guts to say "We're in the driver's seat. Trust us...you'll enjoy the ride."
- Alinea respects its surroundings. Nothing is random. There is a reason for everything. And there is no compromise. On anything.
- Alinea respects its raison d'etre. You'd figure the ingredients must be transported via private jet and pampered in a spa before being prepared in the kitchen. There is indeed a love, a passion for what is being concocted, and it shows.
- Alinea respects the need to make a profit. Expensive as hell. But no cutting corners. As I said before, despite the Zimbabwe-like state of my overall bill, I didn't just get what I paid for...I got more. Way more.
So imagine American business being built on this backbone. I know, I know...this is one restaurant; one tiny microbe in the behemoth that is the economy.
But if more people gave a damn, if more people treated customers as partners in a journey and not just a necessary evil, if more people dared to delight and lead instead of follow the latest onslop (a word I just made up) of surveyed public opinion, and if people did this in such a way that whatever you paid seemed worth it, well...the business world--the world itself!--would be a better place.