Grant Achatz: "Everyday You Learn Something New"

An interview with Grant Achatz, one of the jury members for the upcoming S.Pellegrino Young Chef 2015 Grand Final in Milan.

Grant Achatz is very busy at the moment with a new restaurant opening in Chicago, plans for big changes at Alinea and some very exciting news that we revealed recently to bring an Alinea pop-up to Madrid and Miami next year.

The chef, who celebrated the 10 year anniversary of Alinea this year, was also picked as the winner of the first ever World’s 50 Best Restaurants People’s Poll - showing just how popular his innovative tasting menus are with diners around the world.

Achatz will also be joining as one of seven jury members at the S.Pellegrino Young Chef 2015 Grand Final on June 26th in Milan. We caught up with him to discuss this exciting role, some his early mistakes as a young chef and hear some of his advice to the those just starting their careers in the industry.

What’s your best piece of advice for young chefs?
Patience. It takes long days and several years of learning in order to become successful in this industry. It is very much a hands on discipline, a craft that has to be honed and requires a magnitude of hard work and dedication. It is not like a software or product engineer that creates one product and sells millions of them for billions. Everyday you start over, ideally everyday you refine the previous day, and everyday you learn something new. Most young chefs see the TV personalities like Gordon Ramsey, Bobby Flay and so on and think that happens quickly and with less work. The reality is all of those guys worked very hard to become great chefs before they entered the world of television.

Tell us about a time when you remember making a mistake as a young chef? What happened, where were you working and what did you learn?
I have made so many mistakes over the years it is sometimes hard to remember them all. One of the most vivid though was when I was a sous chef at the French Laundry in 2000. Chef Keller had brought in a special side of veal from a small farm in Pennsylvania. He wanted to butcher and prepare the entire animal himself while teaching us how to deal with it. At one point he had to leave for a meeting and directed me to watch over the stock that would eventually become the blanquette de veau. He instructed me to strain the liquid off the meat and bones after 45 minutes, but somehow I misunderstood him and poured the stock down the drain when of course he wanted the liquid to make the final sauce. When he returned from the meeting he asked if I had strained the stock and asked for the liquid. I had to tell him I poured it down the drain. He didn't yell, he knew I was embarrassed and disappointed in myself. He simply shook his head in disbelief and gave me a wry smile, as in ....you will learn from that one. He knew I would beat myself up more than he ever could.

What’s the best advice anyone has ever given to you?
Chef Keller always lectured the team on the importance of patience in not only cooking but our careers. He had learned from experience that most often it is best to go slowly and think things through, it ultimately saves you time.

What’s the worst mistake a young chef can make?
I think the worst mistake a young chef can make is thinking they know everything and there is nothing left to learn. That approach, that ego, not only will prevent you from continually learning and becoming a better cook but will also just flat out turn your peers off from liking you. You need friends in this business.

What do you think about the idea of pairing young chefs with young designers?
I have collaborated with a handful of various designers in the past. Most notably Martin Kastner of Crucial Detail Design Studio going back to 2002. I think working with people in other fields not only helps with the obvious, the aesthetic style of presentations and the guest experience, but maybe more importantly it forces the chef to express himself and articulate. I have found this part of the interaction is incredibly valuable in learning about yourself and your goals as a chef and creative person. Unless you are asked to talk aloud and explain yourself you most often just mumble and whisper.

Why in your opinion is S.Pellegrino Young Chef important?
I think any attention given to the mentoring aspect of young culinarians in critical to personal and industry development. All of the more formal education platforms have deep rooted mentorship and guidance methods to help students learn and grow in their chosen field. This is something that is now just becoming a priority and popular in the culinary arts and it is critical for the advancement of our industry.

You have watched America, its chefs and its cuisine develop over many years - what do you think the young chefs of America will do differently compared to your generation?
I think this next generation of young chefs will have a keener eye on social food related issues. Aspects of sustainability, waste, GMO's, energy and community will play a larger role in the responsibility of chefs.

If you could be a young chef again, what would you do differently?
Not one thing.

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