The guy who gave us Grant Achatz | Bleader

Monday, September 8, 2014

The guy who gave us Grant Achatz

Posted By on 09.08.14 at 12:30 PM

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Henry Adaniya (right) at the Aviary, with Ryan McCaskey (Acadia)
  • Michael Gebert
  • Henry Adaniya (right) at the Aviary, with Acadia chef Ryan McCaskey

Grant Achatz's time at Trio, from 2001 to 2004, is the subject of Next's latest menu, but if Achatz got his start as a head chef there, Trio didn't start with Achatz by a long shot. The Evanston restaurant was already ranked among the most creative and innovative fine dining restaurants in the Chicago area—along with Charlie Trotter's, Ambria, Cafe Provencal, Carlos, and others of its day—and the job Achatz got was open because it had just lost Shawn McClain (Spring, Green Zebra), who'd replaced Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand when they left to start Tru. The personality consistent through Trio's 12-year run, from 1994 to 2006, wasn't any of the chefs but, rather, owner Henry Adaniya, who set out to offer a unique dining experience at a high, but also relaxed and accessible level of service. And who also, he points out bemusedly, turned Achatz down twice before finally hiring him.

Adaniya was the unmistakable guest of honor at last week's reunion party for Trio and Alinea veterans, and I approached him there about an interview the next day. He had a better idea—wait until after the next night, when he'd be dining at Next, so he could evaluate the 2014 take on Trio. After Achatz left to start Alinea in 2004, Adaniya reconcepted Trio one more time as Trio Atelier with Dale Levitski, but closed it in early 2006 (the space is now Quince) and moved to Hawaii, where he became sort of the Hot Doug of Honolulu, running Hank's Haute Dogs. Here's our conversation.

Michael Gebert: So how was going back to Trio for dinner last night?

Henry Adaniya: I was curious what it was going to feel like, I knew it would taste very well, in fact I think they made some of the dishes even better. A few were very impactful because they were personal favorites that I liked. One of the biggest goals was to survive the dinner—I don't eat 20-plus courses anymore! That was a feat in itself, but it is just kind of amazing what Next can do in terms of that kind of a replication of a time and a place and the food.

I think a lot of the difference, as I reflected on it today, is that Trio was about this particular moment in time. Right at the start of the introduction of modernistic cuisine in Chicago. We were attempting to do things that had never been done before. There were probably spots of it across the globe, but to introduce it to the midwest, which has typically been [home to] a conservative diner, was really quite a feat. Spending that time at Tuesday's event . . . that was very touching for me, to be honored that way. It's hard for me to realize the impact that it had and I had on the people who were there.

So I wonder, did you feel like they advanced on some of the things that Grant was doing ten years ago? Did things come out differently than you remember them?

Actually, yes. They definitely tweaked a few of the dishes, but in essence a lot to me what Trio was about was an experience, and certain dishes did that very, very well. The Truffle Explosion was one of my all-time favorites, and fortunately I've been able to relive that experience a few times at Alinea. One of the other ones was the balloon of mozzarella, which at that time was an amazing dish, and it really hit me the same way.

But it's funny, now, some of what Trio did seems a little simplistic. They keep pushing the boundaries. But a lot of what we did is still relevant today but perhaps a notch less complex. To me it's like the invention of the lightbulb, you take it for granted—to make a pun on words there. So many things have developed out of what was being done at Trio over ten years ago. It's not that it's this "classic" modernistic cuisine—it's very much what's happening now.

Serving Black Truffle Explosion

Let's go back to how Trio came about in the first place. How did you go from Shawn McClain to the much more radical food that Grant was going to do? I remember it was the idea of 24 courses that people talked about at first—how could anyone survive that?

When I opened Trio, a good friend of mine, and we had conspired together about working together, was Takashi [Yagihashi, of Takashi and Slurping Turtle]. As I was putting my business plan together, he was my man. But Lettuce Entertain You saw the same value in him that I did, and gave him a position that he couldn't refuse [chef de cuisine at Ambria].

Then a good customer of mine, Terry Fryer, recommended that I speak to Rick and Gale, who had just returned from England. I saw their food, it was very unique, their presentations were groundbreaking, and that was what I was looking for—food that hadn't been seen before. So that's how Rick and Gale started, and of course two years later they left to do their own project [Tru], so Shawn McClain, who'd been working in the kitchen, was the obvious choice; a very talented guy.

The hardest part for me was actually switching gears. It's very risky to do that, to take something people know and all of a sudden change the food. So we changed to Shawn's food; I loved the way he put his food together. Shawn had a rather long run—what was it—seven years I think.

So in looking for Grant, I don't know if you knew this, but I turned him down twice. The first wasn't directly, because I had been doing a national search for chefs, both local and national. I posted this national ad or something, some kind of internet thing, hoping for a Hail Mary response. And Grant sent an application. And I see he's 27 years old, he's been at the French Laundry and that's really good, but I'm going to have some young guy, a cocky kid, who's been working at a great restaurant—I threw it out.

So time passed, maybe a month or two, I'd been interviewing people and I just wasn't impressed. And some purveyor said, you know, you should probably talk to that guy. So I sent him an email, saying I want to see what you're about, I want to get a feel—I really did it half-heartedly, not really expecting anything. What I did was start a dialogue with him, I asked him a hundred questions, to get a sense of who he was. And he's a very eloquent writer. So in that first battery of questions, the answers that came back were like, whoa, this is not just some young punk looking to take on a prominent restaurant.

Eventually it led to flying him in for a tasting. And the week of he says he can't come, I'm sick. And I'm like, "Yeah, there it is, sure, you're sick, tear the ticket up." Chalk it up. But he calls like two days later and says, "I'm coming." And I'm like, all right, I'll follow up. Of course he arrives, and he looks like he's dead. Knowing Grant today and what he's been through, he'd have to be on his deathbed not to do anything. He has amazing stamina, but he was truly pale and frail. But he pulled off a flawless tasting, it was Thomas Keller, all the abilities of an incredible chef that he exhibited.

Then we talked, and he had his wish list and it was like—changing everything. And I'm like, ehhhh, I can't do that. You're going to be risky, with his food, amazing food but I don't think anybody's going to understand it. Chicago's not ready for it. So I round back and say, listen, you're great, but I can't do this. It's too much to invest in.

Rosemary in hot water scenting the dining room

I kept interviewing, I kept not finding the right people . . . a couple months must have gone by and I thought, after seeing all the other applicants I thought, this is the only thing that gives me any verve, that makes me want to do this. So I reconnected and said, let's try to negotiate. And we did.

He did evolve at Trio—there were much more classical, French Laundryish dishes in the beginning. And we looked at the numbers and I said, look, you've got other talents, and we made a shift and the food just came flying out of there. And Alinea today—it's ten times what Trio was.

I ate at Trio when both McClain and Achatz were the chefs, and one thing I've always thought is that it was good for him to go to a restaurant that already worked well. A young chef opens a restaurant and sometimes it takes itself very seriously, but the service is not really that polished yet, and it's not really that much fun. And I think he benefited a lot from being introduced to Chicago in a context that was a smooth-running operation, with service that was very professional but also kind of warm and unpretentious.

Definitely. And, really, the service was an integral part of pulling that off, because you could not set those dishes down and walk away. It required some interpretation, and I knew that we'd have to hold some hands with people and introduce them to what we were doing. And still it wasn't easy—even some critics were like, ho-ho, this is really a step outside the box, waaaay outside the box, we're halfway down the street with this.

And you see that has even evolved—the service was amazing last night, and it's teaching and mentoring people to really appreciate the knowledge that goes into it on even a chef level, to understand the mind of a chef and communicate that to the public. Because, quite frankly, most chefs can't do that.

I think at that time, the goal was, to make it okay to go out on a limb. I always wanted this sophisticated, unpretentious service to hit our customers. But it was a move, and fortunately most of our existing customers were encouraged to move with it.

Well, that was the next thing I was going to ask—how did people react initially, when all this was new and very different from anything they'd known?

I think for the most part, my good clientele, they followed what I did, they trusted in what I was trying to do, that I would give them a dining experience. Most of the public, they can be like, your chef's gone, you're dead. That happens to a lot of restaurants—the chef leaves, the restaurant goes. It was trying to, first, find the talent and then say, here's another great chef to showcase.

I always looked at myself kind of like a gallery owner. I found a great piece of art, and it's hey, come and look at this, share this, appreciate this. We gave them that platform to build on. Because without that support, without adapting that restaurant to each of the different chefs—a lot of owners say, no, you're going to do this food. I said, we're going to do your food. Even if it's a little risky at times, we're going to push it.

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