Coffee, With Grant Achatz

Nick Kokonas and Grant Achatz.
Nick Kokonas and Grant Achatz. Photo: Lara Kastner

Earlier today, we sat down with Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas over cappuccinos and coffee cake at Torrisi Italian Specialties to discuss their new book, Life, on the Line, along with a few other topics: Grant’s new favorite New York restaurant, why Charlie Trotter won’t be reading their book, Justin Timberlake’s food expertise, and why Achatz won’t be reading Blood, Bones & Butter.

Is there a part of you that wishes you had a little, low-key joint like this?
GA: I don’t even know where we are, to be honest, but here’s the thing: It’s all the same. We all have the same goal. We all want to provide an emotional experience and we all want people to feel comfortable. Whether it’s my father’s diner, or this cappuccino here, or a meal at Alinea, it’s all the exact same. Outsiders don’t realize that. They look at Alinea and they think, “Pretentious, artsy, whatever … ” and it’s not. It’s this [touches the wooden banquette]. Why is Le Bernardin different than Per Se? Why is Per Se different than El Bulli? Aren’t they all the same? Of course they are. We all approach it differently, but the end result is exactly the same. We want to make delicious food and charge people emotionally.
NK: We started to build this place. You know what we ended up with? Next. But with us, we start going through everything, we start refining everything and we get obsessed with decor, and so on. Being simple is not in our DNA.

While you say it’s all the same, Grant, your restaurants are particularly demanding, wouldn’t you say?
GA: Who wants it to be easy? Definitely not me. Sure, I wake up some mornings and wish I were on a beach in St. Barts, but I’ve never ever woken up some morning and wish I had a 9–5 job. Never.

Between Alinea, the book, your family, your health … does it ever feel unmanageable?
GA: The secret is, I’m not even realizing that I’m doing it. You just keep going. Keep doing. I also think I’m motivated by fear. We’re hyperconscious of the fact that the public perception comes from a place of wanting us to fail. You have to worry. You have to keep pushing forward.
NK: We just work and work hard. We don’t dwell on it; we just do it. People underestimate themselves. We refine things 30 or 40 times to get things right, but that doesn’t take any more time than people wasting their lives, making bad decisions and doing bad things.

Was anything off limits in the book?
GA: Not really! I talked a lot about my love life. I spoke the truth. I think that’s what makes the book good. We were totally up front and honest about things most chefs would have edited — our finances, our personal relationships, the concept of death. I always wonder why people say we come across as frigid or sterile. I thought we put all our emotions out there.
NK: Well, I don’t think people say you come off as cold, just that you’re a quiet guy. There’s no crazy Charlie Sheen moment with you. Although I think the basement of our new bar might in fact become the Charlie Sheen room.

Any good celebs been to Alinea lately?
NK: Oh, name the world’s fifteen biggest stars and Grant will recognize one of the names maybe, if that.

Kim Kardashian?
GA: I have heard of her, but I have no idea what she looks like.

That’s too bad.
NK: I actually have no idea what she looks like either.
GA: Barbra Streisand was at Alinea recently; I actually knew who she was. But when Justin Timberlake came, I had no idea who he was. There were fifteen screaming girls at our front door just trying to touch him; it was like a tidal wave … and I looked at our Maitre d’ and he said, “Justin Timberlake is at table 42” … and I was like, “Okay, but why were people screaming?” The name didn’t mean anything to me. Now it does. He came back to the kitchen and he was an awesome guy. He’s a major foodie. People don’t know, but he was so cool — he knew his stuff.

Why no foreword or acknowledgments in the book?
GA: [Sighs as if this topic has ruffled some feathers.] Regarding the foreword, the person I wanted to write the foreword was Dr. Vokes, the guy that basically saved my life. But that doesn’t sell books, so no one would have gone for it. Yes, I literally could have called up Thomas [Keller] and said, “Do you want to write this foreword?” and in a second, he would have said yes, and the publisher would have been ecstatic. But why do that?

Um, because it would sell books?
GA: Exactly. And that’s not how I work.

Um, okay. So, do you like the cover?
GA: [Gives us a look and changes the subject.]
NK: I like the spine. Seriously. There’s an eye on the spine and when you stack up the books it looks really cool.
GA: Yeah, the spine is awesome. Here’s the thing, I think we acknowledged the people we wanted to throughout the entire book. We talked about the doctors.

You even say you named your kid after Thomas Keller!
GA: Yeah, there are so many calculated messages and thanks all over the place. But that’s the thing that bothers me about the book … I guess you can draw the parallel to food … people don’t really read it to process it. But there are some very strong parallels and foreshadowing, things that were very purposeful, and people don’t get it. No one even gets the comma in the title. That comma is very purposeful. Even the publisher said it was grammatically incorrect. Even talking about Trotter, developing his character, there was a reason for that. There’s depth. But nobody sees that, they just think, Oh my God, he’s bashing Trotter.

Has Trotter read it?
GA: No way. Doubt he’ll ever pick it up. Ever.
NK: Are you crazy? I’ll bet you any amount of money that he’s already read it. It’s human nature.

Are you going to read Blood, Bones & Butter?
GA: No. I won’t have time.
NK: I’m going to. Why not?

Tonight you have the panel with Amanda Hesser, what else is happening in New York?
GA: I had one of the best meals of my life last night. A vegan Japanese place, Kajitsu. What that guy did with vegetables … you don’t even know. Mind-blowing. Mind-blowing.

Did the chef know who you were?
GA: I don’t think so, but later I went to Poisson Rouge
NK: I love that place. Coolest music venue in New York!
GA: I go up to the bar to order a beer and the bartender is looking at me. I ask what they have for beer, and nothing was that great, so I get a Heineken. And she was just staring at me and finally she was like, “Are you … that chef?”

Are you one of these “I just want to be anonymous” people?
GA: No! Let’s be honest, who wouldn’t like the attention? Anyone who says otherwise is lying.

Coffee, With Grant Achatz