Eat to the Beat: Grant Achatz

Where rock-star chefs talk about their taste in tunes.

Grant Achatz is the award-winning chef at Alinea in Chicago, which Restaurant Magazine named the best restaurant in North America last year. This spring, Grant published his memoir, Life, On the Line, and is opening the cocktail bar Aviary, as well as the high concept Next, which named the best restaurant of 2010 (even though it hadn’t opened yet). Here he serves up his thoughts on snacks, grub and rock & roll.

Let’s talk starters: What’s your ultimate side one, track one, and what’s your ultimate appetizer?

You’re going to quickly understand my taste in music here, but it would have to be “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns ‘n Roses. I remember buying Appetite for Destruction when I was like 12, popping it in the cassette player, and my dad going, “Oh God. What are you listening to?” The appetizer would be Thomas Keller’s Cornet of Atlantic salmon with red onion crème fresh and chives at French Laundry. It looks like a miniature ice cream cone, and was the most mind-blowing thing to me as a young cook. It’s like the best three bites ever.

Let’s talk seduction: what’s your go-to soundtrack for getting it on, and what’s your go-to meal for getting a lady in the mood?

For music, I’d go with Van Morrison’s “Moondance.” And for food, you can’t go wrong with oysters on the half shell, chocolate-covered strawberries, and you’ve gotta have champagne. Rosé champagne.

First times: what’s the first record you bought? First meal you cooked?

The first record would have been Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms in 1985. I thought the video for “Money For Nothing” was just hilarious. And the first was breakfast at my grandmother’s diner. Eggs over hard, because I couldn’t flip them and keep the yolk soft without breaking them. I was six!

On the road: what’s ultimate road food and what are the best driving songs?

For a short road trip, you have to have your bag of Doritos and your Mountain Dew. And if you’re driving along the east coast or in the south, all the great barbecue seems to be in gas stations, so that’s good. Although when you’re driving and trying to navigate barbecue, things can get messy. On a road trip I’d be listening to the Eagles or Steve Miller, but when I’m driving to work, I like really heavy stuff: Disturbed, Rage Against the Machine, Mötley Crüe, Tool.

Food and music pairings — can you pair a dish with:

Marvin Gaye:
Well it would have to involve grapevines right? At Alinea, I used to do a take on peanut butter and jelly, where we’d get a big cluster of grapes, and strip all of them off except one, but leave the steams and grapevine intact. Then we’d peel that one grape, dip in peanut butter, wrap it in bread and toast it. It was pretty cool. 

The Ramones: For some reason I think of a de-constructed Gin & Tonic, like Michael Carlson serves at Schwa in Chicago. He takes the flavor profile of Hendricks gin – so cucumber gelee, juniper, some saffron, some fennel – and deconstructs it into a salad that tastes like a cocktail. It’s kind of edgy, kind of punky, but kind of familiar.

Elvis Presley: Fried chicken. It’s classic, you know what to expect, and when it’s good, it’s really, really good.

Lady Gaga: I think of a high-end cupcake, with really funky colors, since she’s always changing her look. So, a fluorescent pink cupcake that’s made out of peppermint and chocolate chips. It’s a sugar rush, and it’s not necessarily good for you, but everybody likes it.

Guns ‘n Roses: Something messy, edgy, rough-around-the-edges, and a little bit wrong. Not pretty, but delicious. Like a rare New York strip steak with a Jack Daniels sauce and peppercorns. You’ve got to have some booze in there, it’s bloody, and the stinging peppercorns are like Axl’s F-bombs.

If you could invite all your favorite artists, living or dead, for a dinner party, who would you invite?

Again, I’ve gotta say Axl. Plus John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis, Jimi Hendrix, Robert Plant. Oh, and Steve Vai. I mean, he’s a vegetarian, but I just like that guy.

What would you cook?

We’d do burgers, potato chips and a big pot of really good chili. Fire up the grill, everyone can customize their burger the way they like it, you’re out in the backyard, drinking beer, nobody’s complaining, everything’s good.

Who is the one artist out there now that you want to see live?

Damn. You know, I’d really like to see Joe Satriani. I love that guitar-based craziness, and I’ve heard he’s pretty incredible live.

What’s the one restaurant you haven’t eaten at yet that you’re most looking forward to?There’s a restaurant in Tokyo called Aronia de Takazawa where there’s only one table, the chef/owner runs the kitchen and his wife runs the front of the house. It’s kind of modern, in the style of Alinea, but Japanese, and it’s like the hardest reservation to get in the world. I would love to go to that restaurant.

What is your rock & roll fantasy?

Well, when I graduated high school in 1992 I was still very much in the heavy metal mode, Guns ‘N Roses, Def Leppard, stuff like that. And I never paid attention to bands like Nirvana, and when I look back now, I’m like “Damn, I should’ve paid attention because there’s some really good music out there!” So I’d go with Nirvana.

And your food fantasy?

Well, being it would have to be from a place or chef that I have never experienced that I feel was a very significant movement or style in gastronomy…I would have to say Auguste Escoffier when he was cooking at the Ritz hotel in Paris circa 1906. And of course, because of that reason that will be our first menu at Next….I know that I will never be able to make music like Cobain, but I can recreate Escoffier so I can see what it was all about.

Grant Achatz’s memoir, Life, On the Line, is out now.

Want more? Check out our profile of the innovative chef here.