Alinea, co-owned by Nick Kokonas and Executive Chef Grant Achatz, was named Best Restaurant in North America – and ranked seventh in the world – by San Pellegrino World’s Fifty Best Restaurants, organized by the UK-based Restaurant Magazine.
The restaurant has been steadily rising up the list since its establishment in 2005. Among numerous other accolades and awards, the restaurant recently received the Outstanding Service Award by the James Beard Foundation. “From the onset, we set out to build one of the finest restaurants in the world,” Kokonas said.
He grew up in suburban Northbrook, to a Greek father and Polish mother. Kokonas didn’t grow up in a restaurant, and never considered opening one. After earning a degree in Philosophy from Colgate University in New York, he returned to Chicago, thinking he’d take a year off and then go to law school. In 1994, he founded a trading company; it merged with a New York firm in 1999. “I did private equity and technology development,” he told The Greek Star in a recent interview. “It grew too big and I didn’t enjoy it anymore, so in 2002 I retired from trading.” He took six months off, and then did consulting work in the financial industry. He met Achatz at the former Trio Restaurant in Evanston, Ill. “He was incredibly talented. We quickly became friends. In 2004, we decided to open Alinea.”
They owners don’t think of Alinea as simply a restaurant. “Our goal always is to create an overall experience. We take into consideration what people think about and feel while they’re eating,” Kokonas illustrated. “Even the architecture was planned to improve the guest experience. It’s not about sustenance – no one needs to eat this way – but it’s an experience, like going to the theater or a concert. You leave thinking about something, not just that it was delicious, but that it was fun.” He added that people are always pleasantly surprised to find the place isn’t stuffy. “We provoke thought and emotion, happiness. We do a lot with aromas; they’re a powerful trigger of emotion. Last fall, we had a dish with smoldered leaves that were changing color. If you’re from the Midwest, this evokes memories of hayrides, etc. A guest cried; he said it reminded him of being at his grandparents’ cabin when he was a kid. We’re engaging all the senses.”
“We work with designers to create everything we use – plates, serviceware, etc.,” he reiterated. He indicated that the Alinea experience is not designed to be intimidating, though it is expensive, “because it takes a lot to produce.” Though Alinea seats just 65, a staff of more than 50 employees brings it all to life. The elaborate production requires 25 chefs – a morning prep crew starts at 8:00 am; the last chefs leave at 3:00 am.
Kokonas and Achatz won’t rest on their laurels. On the occasion of Alinea’s fifth anniversary, they announced two new projects – a new restaurant, Next, and a bar called Aviary.
Photo credit: Lara Kastner. www.larakastner.com