Walking into Chicago restaurant Alinea, one is struck by the precise orchestration of the entire operation—as if décor, service, design, and food were all hatched from a single mind. Not a small accomplishment, for a venture funded by first-time restaurateur Nick Kokonas. “When I start on a business problem,” says partner and co-owner, “I try not to look up much about how that business usually works. I make naïve assumptions on purpose.
“Most restaurants strive to succeed only as businesses. We’ve always tried to do something more.” According to Kokonas, restaurants that cater to market trends—whether current tendencies toward downscale comfort food or the decadence of the ‘80s—live and die by the whims of the public. Alinea, on the other hand, has always been “completely chef driven” since its opening in 2005. The food comes from chef Grant Achatz’s “influence, guidance, and genius,” while the space and concept are a joint collaboration between Kokonas, Achatz, and Martin Kastner, their design partner. “There will always be a market for something that is that singular.”
With meals starting at $225 a head—before drinks—Alinea serves a type of cuisine that is most often described as “molecular gastronomy,” though chefs tend to look down on the term. Chef Achatz attempts to engage all five senses at once in delicious, often surprising ways, far more than other high-end chefs. An artfully plated dish of seared scallops is placed atop a pillow that slowly deflates, filling the air with the scent of orange blossoms. A small cube of tempura-fried pumpkin pie is eaten hands-free, off the end of a burning oak branch suspended from a wire rack, its leaves crackling and smoldering—instantly evoking family holidays and fireplaces (even for those who didn’t grow up with them). It’s cuisine that for “the vast majority of people is exciting, inspiring, emotional, and unique.”
Kokonas, an only child who grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, always knew that innovation in business was in his future. “My dad was an entrepreneur, and I knew I’d be one too.” After attaining a degree in philosophy from Colgate University he decided to drop out of his PhD studies in order to start a business selling art. Eventually, he found himself on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, where he started a company trading currency options; he cashed out after it merged with a New York firm.
It was at about this time that Kokonas met Achatz, then chef at restaurant Trio and proposed they work on a restaurant together. Despite Alinea’s technological and ideological bent, Kokonas insists that he “always invests in people, not the technology or the idea.” Achatz, a famously hard worker trained at chef Thomas Keller’s celebrated Napa Valley restaurant The French Laundry, seemed a safe bet. “When someone has ownership over a project, it doesn’t feel like work—it’s their life.”
Core to their concept of Alinea, whose name derives from the typographic symbol indicating the start of a new paragraph, is the idea that “every 15 or 20 years, a group of high-end chefs will make leaps forward in the art.” To design a business around such a novel cuisine, Kokonas used what he calls the ‘professional-amateur’ mentality. “We came up with spreadsheets and assumptions based on how we thought a restaurant should be run, not on how they are usually run,” explains Kokonas. “We found out a few years later that our assumptions were on the mark.” It was a bold stance to take, especially at a time when even strictly by-the-numbers restaurants, designed only with regard for their bottom line, were struggling.
In the end, it’s this originality of thought, unity of vision, and authenticity of its key members that separates Alinea from scores of less successful followers in its wake. “It’s a joint effort of ideation, creativity, and make-it-happen attitude,” says Kokonas of his relationship with Achatz and Kastner. “If it doesn’t come from one of us, then chances are, it won’t feel like Alinea.”
“You can experiment with technology from other industries and find novel applications [like Grant has], but ultimately, just like a great visual artist, if you don’t understand the basics, then the tools and technology can’t help you. A restaurant is all about fun, and deliciousness. Once you have those two elements, then you can cross the line into more artistic pursuits like evoking emotion and memory.”
For Kokonas, the most memorable part of the 2009 Oscars was when Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio rolled his eyes towards Mondrian-esque sauce patterns and shrimp bobbing on wires during a Diet Coke ad, with the advice to “Keep things simple.” The commercial was an obvious dig at them (though all in good spirits). “That Coke ad with Colicchio just validated for us how far into the mainstream we’ve pushed.”