Interview: Grant Achatz on Plagiarism, Social Media, and the Celebrity Chef

Tell me about your new restaurant Next — what is this “unique ticketing system” I’ve heard about?

There’s two kinds of different aspects to this. The concept is built around a quarterly changing menu that morphs from one restaurant to another based on a geographic city in the world and a date and time. Our opening menu is “Paris 1906,” so we’re gonna replicate that menu you would’ve had in Paris in 1906. Three months later, we might do Thai street food circa 1989. The menu, beverages, everything switches in that direction.

The other component is the ticketing. Like, if you were gonna buy a ticket to a Broadway show, you’d go online, pick your seat, date, which performance you want to go to, buy your ticket; then you’d get it when you show up. We’re gonna take that same concept and put it in a restaurant format — you select your date, time, number of people. You get to the restaurant, you sit and have your experience, you get up and leave. There’s no monetary transfers at the restaurant.

Alinea’s been open for about six years. Once you’ve been open and you understand how businesses operate, you understand that restaurants are a crappy business. They have to offer a perishable project and an elevated levels of service. We pay five reservationists a sum of over $175,000 [a year] to tell people that they can’t come to our restaurant because we’re full. It makes absolutely no sense. We spend $90,000 a year on flowers to make the rooms look pretty. It’s endless how flawed it is.

No more reservations; we’re gonna do it via computer, we’re gonna come up with design elements that aren’t perishable. If you book a reservation for four at Alinea, and right before you’re about to come, one of your friends gets sick and doesn’t show up, now that fourtop is only three people, and since the profit margins are between 10 and 20 percent, we just lost 25 percent of that table’s revenue; it’s a break-even table. If we can eliminate that by having people pay in advance, we’ll be sure to get the maximum profitability.

The reason we do this is so we can implement a variable pricing program. Much like an airplane, if you’re sitting in first class and flying on primetime, then it’s gonna be the most expensive ticket. If you’re willing to sit in economy and take the red-eye, to get from Los Angeles to New  York will cost you $2,000 less. Everybody wants to come to the restaurant Saturday night at 7:30; everyone in the world wants that reservation time, and I’ll charge you $100. But if you’re a little more flexible, I’m gonna say, “Well, you can come on Wednesday at nine o’clock and you can have the exact same food, the exact same experience, for $65.” We’re trying to fill the restaurant at maximum capacity.

And how will paying up front affect how waiters get tips?

We’ll do an autograutity like other restaurants are already doing: 17-18% up front.

Can you give us any hints as to what will be on your spring menu at Alinea?

We’re currently changing over to the spring menu, but the funny thing with Chicago is you never really know when it’s going to be spring. It could be May, it could be June, it could be July. We’re doing our research and development, our protoyping, our documenting…

You’ve got to start with the actual foodstuffs, so we’re thinking about morels and rhubarb and English peas and ramps — those are the jumping off point, highly seasonal local and sustainable ingredients. I know that we’re gonna do a small rhubarb-focused dessert course with saltwater taffy infused with bergamot; and a morel dish with a sumac foam and some pickled ramps, lots of different herbs. We’re also working on a dish that will emulate aesthetically the spring thaw, that last layer of snow on the ground and the very new sprouts and plants poking through.

The food is very progressive, very emotionally charged. We’re trying to take you on a journey and tell you a story, and if we do our job right it will resonate with you on an emotional level. We play with aroma a lot, try to trigger those elements of nostalgia; [for example] burning oak leaves from my childhood. That smell always reminds me of my childhood. We try to really use every sense available to us, to make the experience really rich.

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