A leader in culinary innovation, Alinea has been a regular fixture on The San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurant lists since 2007. Leading the charge at Chef Grant Achatz’ three-Michelin-starred restaurant is former sous chef, Mike Bagale. Chef’s Roll recently had the honor of catching up with the now executive chef to find out more about his culinary journey, creative process, the Alinea: Madrid pop-up, and most memorable dish of 2015.
Why did you become a chef? And what is the most important part about being a chef?
I became a chef because I wanted to be an artist. I wanted to create food that made people think. I wanted to be respected for creativity.
Since starting at Alinea in 2009 your creativity and presence in the kitchen has seen you rise to the position of Executive Chef in a little under six years. What has that journey been like?
It’s been a process unlike any other. Most importantly it’s been a journey of self-discovery. The type of dedication it’s required from me to run a kitchen at this caliber has helped me find fresh ways of looking at life itself. The pursuit of achieving greatness in originality has helped mold my individual character as well.
Alinea was one of the first restaurants in the US to involve science in manipulating how food tastes and feels. Why is it important to you to be among one of the best/most progressive restaurants in the world?
I want to be a participant in something extraordinary. A contributor. A leader. That’s all.
What inspires you to keep reinventing? Keep pushing boundaries, breaking the rules? Maintaining Michelin Stars?
It’s very important to me to have my own voice. I don’t want to lose my identity as a freethinking artist. I use my creativity to do that. Maintaining the Michelin stars comes entirely from a team effort and the direction of Grant Achatz. Chef Achatz at the end of the day is the reason for the stars, and I am honored to be given the role of maintaining them.
What is the process like working with the Alinea team and Grant Achatz? How would you describe the creativity & collaborative aspect of the dynamic?
I came to work for Grant because he is brilliant and extremely organized. He’s the hardest working chef in the industry in my opinion. Which is why I wanted to study under him. It’s a process that like anything needs refinement and constant editing. However we have what I would say, is a very successful blueprint when it comes to concept design. And of course it’s difficult to plan dishes because much of our creativity is spontaneous.
How does your collaboration with Grant play a role in each new dish?
Grant and I have very similar palettes, in the sense that I know what he likes in flavor capacity. Grant’s role changes depending on the amount of influence he wants on a particular dish. Sometimes I present dishes that need zero editing, sometimes they don’t make it on the menu, and sometimes they are the seed that becomes a completely different plant entirely. Grant has an amazing way of looking at every minute detail.
From edible balloons to abstract dessert paintings, what inspires the narrative to the dishes you create at Alinea? How does it change? What’s your process?
My process varies incredibly. Sometimes an aroma alone will inspire an entire dish. Flipping through a comic book, painting at home, eating street food in foreign countries, anything and everything makes my mind wander.
How do you decide on the progression of the menu?
It’s a collaboration with Grant. Obviously a fluctuation, not entirely a classical approach in design, but like the thought process behind Alinea, the menu pulls the diner in different directions, not just savory to sweet, but emotionally, challenging, surprising at times.
Is there a dish you are especially proud of?
The balloon would seem like the most appropriate answer but being classically trained in French, I don’t want something like the balloon to typecast me. Many years ago an Italian chef taught me how to make a classic risotto that to this day is lights out good. Can’t answer that question, maybe in ten years.
One dish on your menu at Alinea you are particularly excited about right now and why?
Morels, foie gras, Lapsang tea, and blueberries: because it’s elegant, seasonal, and delicious. No smoke, no mirrors.
How was the experience of (the month-long residency) Alinea: Madrid, and where can we expect Alinea to pop-up next?
The experience was amazing for the whole team. I truly believe it made us all better. Stronger. Tighter. Next pop-up? Can’t say. I wish I knew.
If you could have any chef prepare a meal for you, who would it be?
Right now, Jiro Ono.
A favorite off-the-beaten-path restaurant, hole-in-the-wall or bar in Chicago?
Most memorable restaurant dish you ate in 2015?
Charcuterie board at Bouchon Bistro in Yountville, California.
We hear you are quite the waterman. When and where was the last place you got to dive or go surfing?