Omi

Is this how we can find you on a day off?

Yeah, it’s been a long week.

Your life must be one long week after another.

Right? We were in New York catering a friend’s wedding then we flew right from New York to New Orleans to film as a guest judge on “Top Chef” then went right from New Orleans to Boston, so it’s been a lot.

Did you ever imagine your life getting to this point?

No, I don’t think you could ever feel like you’re going to get to this point. But I don’t even know what point I’m at, you know? When you look at your mentors and the people you look up to like Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud you just think, “I’m never gonna get to that spot.” 

Well, thank you for having us over for a margarita.

Excuse my glasses but it’s Jabba the Hutt! You can’t argue with Jabba the Hutt. He’s pretty cool.

And fresh guac? It doesn’t get much better.

With lime and salt? Done!

Being one of the world’s most innovative chefs, is it a lot of pressure to live up to that title?

Yeah, I’d say there’s pressure there. Everybody looks at you and they either criticize you or give you praise for what you’re doing. 

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What’s one of the coolest experiences you’ve come across on your journey?

Part of it is watching people who wouldn’t typically be recognized in the food world be into food. For instance, we have a party next week with Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake. I don’t know what they’re doing in town but they’re buying out the Aviary on a Monday night. But here’s the thing, I’m not gonna be in town. So we had to go back and forth deciding, should I change my flight schedule? Should I be there for that event? I made the decision to not be here because at the end of the day, does it really matter?

How do you prioritize and come to decisions like that?

The thing with me is that there are certain people—not that I dislike Jay-Z or dislike Justin Timberlake—that I connect with. I’m sure that’s also fair in your world. We were talking about it and if it would have been, let’s say Larry David, I would have changed my flight!

You couldn’t miss Larry David.

No chance!

“Curb Your Enthusiasm” fan?

I mean, even “Seinfeld”. It would have been awesome. But even with sports figures, I’m not into sports. My mentor Thomas Keller says to me all the time, “What is your legacy gonna be?” and when you start thinking about that and start thinking about the people who have legacies; your Michael Jordans, your infamous actors, those are the people who you want to meet.

So what do you hope your legacy will be?

Hopefully changing American gastronomy. I feel like what we’ve done at Alinea and then subsequently with Next was very different than what most chefs would do. Not to take anything away from anyone but typically you open your flagship and you open that Michelin three-star restaurant and then you open a bistro. That’s usually the way it goes. We had offers from New York, Vegas, Tokyo, Dubai, Miami and San Francisco but we said no until we came up with what we thought was an original idea. Basically what everyone wants you to do is clone an original. Think about it, even with movies everybody wants to make the sequel because the first one was a hit and then it’s just found money all the way through, right? But for us, if New York is better than Chicago then Chicago loses. If Chicago is better than New York then all the New Yorkers go, “Told you!” So when everyone was telling us to open Alinea New York or to open Alinea Tokyo we were just not interested.

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Can it be difficult working with high-profile customers such as Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake?

Here’s the deal, Jay-Z and J.T. are not in contact with us directly. Their tour managers are managing their lives and say to us that they want cheeseburgers and fries. Well, that’s not what we do. Not that there’s anything wrong with that but Aviary’s not that sort of place. Go to Maude’s, go to Au Cheval, go to Bavette’s, go to Publican, wherever. But you don’t go to Aviary for that.

So no cheeseburgers, but what is on the menu you’re creating for them?

That’s actually an interesting question. Literally just a few hours ago I told my director of operations that I don’t want to compromise the brand. We said to them, “We’re happy to have you but you need to play the game, you need to have our food.”

How did they respond?

Well, I’m waiting to hear back. Timberlake was at Alinea two or three years ago. Super foodie. Really cool guy. He came down into the kitchen after his meal and he was very effusive and a really, really nice guy. It’s like their personal assistants and their tour managers and their handlers or whoever are making the decisions without even talking to them.

Writers often use the word provocative when referring to your work. Do you consider yourself a provocative person?

I don’t know. What does that mean, provocative?

Thought provoking, risky, something that elicits a reaction.

Absolutely. I think it embodies a lifestyle. Even given my cancer diagnosis, you can take the traditional protocol or you can look at it and decide maybe that’s not the best way. Maybe there’s a, like you’re saying it, risk-taking or more aggressive way. The result might not be good but you’re going to take that risk and I did that. And I like to play blackjack as well, so… 

Are you any good at blackjack?

I play very untraditionally. I do things that make people very, very mad. We can play right now! I’m not kidding, we have a table in the house. We also have giant Jenga here.

Giant Jenga?

You’ve never played giant Jenga? Oh, it’s great! Especially after margaritas. We’ve had a couple of parties here that’ve been fun. 

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How has your friendship with business partner Nick Kokonas evolved over the years?

Him and I are really, really good friends and business partners. We talk twice, three times a day, maybe more. It was more difficult in the beginning [to balance a friendship and business relationship] because, literally, we did this on a handshake deal. We didn’t really know each other at all so I think there was a good deal of stress in the beginning just from getting to know one another. Now it’s super easy. I feel like now we’re just, it’s a wash. Does that makes sense? There’s no stress, let me put it that way. We just vacationed with [him and his wife, Dagmara]. We were with them in Sonoma a couple weeks ago.

What led to the concept of Next

When I got diagnosed with cancer [in 2007] I called Nick and said, “Dude, I’m f-cked. Stage IV cancer. I’m screwed.” He was in Michigan at the time for a golf match and said he was going to drive home. I was like, “Don’t. There’s no point. I’m working. Don’t even bother,” but he hopped in a car, drove back from Michigan, walked into Alinea and the first thing I said was, “Are you hungry?” We never, ever [usually eat at Alinea]. We have a policy in the restaurants that none of the employees get to eat any of the food but he just drove five hours and was hungry so I prepared him a really classical French duck dish. He went downstairs in the office because he didn’t want to eat it in front of everyone in the kitchen and when he came back upstairs he goes, “Dude, I’ve never had that good of French food in the city of Chicago.” I was like, “Yeah. I can cook.” [Laughs] Then he asked, “Why don’t we open a French restaurant?” and I said, “Well, that would be boring because after three months I wouldn’t want to cook classical French anymore,” so he said, “Great. I love pasta, why don’t we open an Italian restaurant?” and again I said, “That would be boring.” Finally he goes, “Why don’t we open a Thai restaurant? You like Thai food,” and I go, “After three months, that would be boring.” And that’s when he says, “I’m not talking about three different restaurants. I’m talking about a restaurant that changes every three months.” I was like, “You’re out of your mind. How in the world are we going to develop the menu, train the staff and get the wine pairing program set up every three months?” and he goes, “Well, that’s what you do at Alinea.”

And there it is.

I was like, “God damn it!” It was genius because, like I was saying before, everybody wanted us to clone Alinea and we had no interest in that. We were looking for the equivalent of Alinea but new. We weren’t interested in making up any other restaurant unless it was original and creative so when all of a sudden he goes, “Let’s do this,” I just went, [shrugs] “Alright. Let’s do it.” The wild card was when he wanted to change the menu every three months. That’s when I thought what would be more interesting is to frame the menu on a geographic location and a date and time. So that was how it originally started.

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You’re on this year’s Techweek100 list, not often is a chef recognized within the tech community. How has the city of Chicago fostered innovation for you?

Chicago has always been a city of embracing originality and creativity. People think of Chicago as meat and potatoes, right? Not true, not true. The reason I came here and the reason that we’ve been lucky enough to be successful with our progressive approach to cuisine is that the people of Chicago embrace risk-taking, they really do. Whether it be music, architecture, cuisine, whatever it is the people of Chicago embrace it. When I came here in 2001 I was 26 years old working my first chef gig at Trio. I was doing food that was way different than the norm but the local critics and the local dining public embraced it, they loved it and they talked about it. And that is what fueled Alinea and that is what fueled Next and that is what fueled the Aviary.

Looking back on that 26-year-old Grant, what has changed the most about you since then?

I take a day off.

Is there anything that has come with your level of success that you don’t enjoy?

The thing that I think bothers me the most, and this is going to sound horrible but, we have three restaurants now and I’m always traveling and doing this and that so when people come to Alinea or they come to Next and they expect me to be there and I’m not they’ll blog about it and they’re like, “Oh, chef wasn’t here tonight,” or whatever. That kind of bothers me.

Do you think other restaurants are held to that standard?

It doesn’t seem like it. What they don’t understand is like, you know Paul Kahan, right? He’s got Avec, Blackbird, Publican, Violet Hour, Publican Quality Meats. Does anybody expect to go into any one of his places at any time and see him? Thomas Keller has Per Se and French Laundry. Does anyone go to Per Se and expect to see Thomas Keller? However, to be my own worst enemy, if you go to a U2 concert do you expect Bono to be singing? Yeah, you do. So when I look at it like that it’s like—again I’m nowhere near Bono, however—if you go to the Rolling Stones, you want to see Mick Jagger. You go to U2, you go to Aerosmith, you want to see those people.

What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about you?

I think due to the nature of our cuisine—and call it what you want, molecular gastronomy, progressive cuisine, whatever—people tend to think you’re a brainiac and I’m not. I mean, I failed chemistry in high school.

If you could have a drink with anyone, who would it be?

The first person who came to mind was John Lennon. Right here on the porch would be great. And we’d probably be drinking… Champagne?

Ten years from now where do you think we’re going to find you?

St. Barts. We work 18 hours a day so at some point you have to go, “Okay, at what point do I just need to cut that off?” And for me? That would be at 48.

How do you know you’ll be ready at 48?

Don’t you have to make it ready? There’s that saying, “You have to set your timeline backwards.” You almost have to re-engineer it. If I’m 38 now and I look at the clock and I go, “Wouldn’t it be nice to retire at 48?” then I feel like that’s your incentive to make that happen, right? I doubt it but you never know! I’m going to try to make it happen.

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Omi