Behind the Soundbite

Behind the Soundbite: Alinea’s Customer Concerns

Zen-like quiet in the Alinea kitchen.
Zen-like quiet in the Alinea kitchen. Photo: David Hammond

You might recognize this Grub Street guest editor from our work as the host/producer of the Chicago Public Radio series Soundbites, which examines how Chicago chefs use sound, everyday, on the job — the electronic blips of their equipment, the chatter of their staff, the sound of food cooking, and, of course, the kind of music played in the restaurant. Today, we’re with Grant Achatz of Alinea — like most artists, Achatz is concerned about controlling the elements of the audience experience. In this transcript from an episode that aired in October of 2009, we talk about one of the least controllable elements in any restaurant: the customers.

“People want very different things from their experience,” Achatz says about his customers. “Some people want to be in the action, so we put them in the largest room so they’ll be surrounded by the most people. In that room, we have the largest tables, two six six-tops. The more people you put in a given space, the more noise you’re going to have. And then people want secluded space so we have a dining room with only three tables in it, so it will be very quiet. When we were laying out the restaurant, our square footage would allow us to put about five or six more tables in the space, but we made the conscious decision to eliminate those tables in order to have more space in between the tables to cut down on some of the intrusions of the experience by having people next to you conversing in a level you weren’t comfortable with or that you felt was encroaching on your experience of Alinea.

“And then some people want to feel the kitchen, they want to feel the pulse, so we have a downstairs dining room that’s pretty close to the kitchen, so if they want to peek in or hear some of the noises of the kitchen or in some cases they’ll get up mid-meal and walk into the kitchen because they want to see, they want to feel that energy. ”

We asked whether the variable element of the diner diminishes the control Achatz can exercise over their dining experience. “Yeah, that ‘s kind of the variable that you are faced with when you, in fact, have a restaurant,” he said. “Two nights ago we had a six-top that was from out of town, and they were very loud, and their conversation happened to be very inappropriate, and the tables around them requested to move. We tried at first to very subtly tell them that it wasn’t an appropriate conversation for a public restaurant, that they might want to wait until after they leave, and that didn’t work,…and the people around them were like, ‘Can we move to a different dining room because this is very disruptive, and it’s marring our experience.’”

“So, what did you do?” we asked. “Does Alinea have a bouncer?” Achaz explained that eventually he had an assistant general manager go over and “as bluntly as we possibly could, told them that if they continued this topic of conversation, we’d have to ask them to cut their dinner short because they were, in fact, ruining the experience of everyone else in the room.

It’s not just the dining room that can be disrupted by noise, though — the chefs can get knocked out of their rhythm by exeptional sound interruptions, too. “Like this morning,” says Achatz. “I woke up to the sound of F-16s flying over my head from the Air and Water Show practices. Well, that also happens when the show is live here in the Lincoln Park, they’re flying right down North Avenue, so there will be times when this building will shake with sound. Obviously that’s not really happening when diners are present, but this quiet kitchen environment, it’s a very Zen like, very focused environment for the 25 chefs that are in there. Any subtle disruption really distracts you. “

If you’d like to hear the rest of the conversation we had with Grant Achatz, you can hear the original Soundbite: Alinea online.

Behind the Soundbite: Alinea’s Customer Concerns