Ingredients For Success From Great Chefs – Achatz Edition

Let’s get this out of the way up front, I am obsessed with Chef’s Table. It feeds my soul! I suspect this post is simply the first course of many in the meal that is “Ingredients For Success From Great Chefs”. All puns intended, but I will try to limit them from this point forward.

Introduction To The Series

Many world class chef’s are amazing people, many are jerks. I am going to try to write about the one’s who I believe are amazing people that add more to the world than they subtract. Obviously their cuisine adds value or they wouldn’t be believed to be great chefs, but I want to look deeper. I want to try to see what we can learn from the chefs who create amazing experiences for BOTH their patrons and their kitchen.

Why look at chefs in the context of a minimalism themed blog? Chefs, while their recipes are complex, have a clear purpose…create experiences around food that feed body, mind, and in some cases, soul.

Grant Achatz – Alinea

Learning about Grant Achatz has been a mind blowing experience. Grant was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People, has won essentially every culinary award, and appears to have made a lot of money. He is clearly a success by any normal standard. But if you have been following this blog, you know that is not what The Minimalist Manager is all about. I am writing about Chef Achatz because I believe he is truly inspiring others with his purpose driven work and is empowering his team to do the same.

In watching the Chef’s Table and reading about Achatz, three lessons emerged regarding success.

There Will Be Pain

In Chef Achatz’s life the pain was both quite real, life threatening in fact, as well as figurative. Grant didn’t graduate from culinary school and immediately start a world class restaurant. In fact, his first big opportunity was a flop. When he landed a position cooking under Charlie Trotter (a world class chef who I will never feature) he learned from an anti-mentor about how not to run a kitchen. He saw a cut throat environment that was all about individual rather than team pursuits…he was miserable and did not last long. Painful learning experience. Grant thought about hanging up his apron. The culinary world is obviously glad he didn’t.

We can all learn from this experience. Most great success does not come easy, there is usually failure along the way that causes people to consider what they really want. Purpose is called into question! Sometimes this leads people to understand that they are truly off track and need to make a major change. Other times it simply clarifies what people truly want and better illuminates how they need to move forward.

The literal pain came as Chef Achatz and Alinea where hitting their stride. Chef Achatz was diagnosed with stage four tongue cancer…yep, a world class chef with tongue cancer (you can read the amazing details of his treatment and recovery elsewhere). He lost his sense of taste for a time, but actually used this to his advantage. This trial led him to a greater intellectual understanding of what made great food and to a greater trust and use of his team…breakthrough stuff in the world of fine dining.

We all have trials, most less dramatic than his. What can we learn from our trials that will make us better moving forward?

Curate Experience

To fully understand the degree to which Grant’s team thinks about experience you will need to dine at the restaurant (I have not but would love to if someone would like to take me), but through Chef’s Table you get a sense. Every decision is made toward the goal of blowing the guest’s mind. Foods are made to look like other foods, restaurant decor is turned into food before the guest’s eyes, and foods literally float. Even the way patrons enter the restaurant is viewed as part of the dining experience. Notice I didn’t highlight the flavor of the food. It obviously tastes amazing, but that is simply the start. 

Chef Achatz is also curating a work environment that maximizes the creativity of himself and his team so they can continue to create these amazing experiences anew. Team members are given voice and encouraged to create. Achatz has also created a cuisine skunk works where he and his team experiment until innovation is achieved. He believes that innovation is more a product of hard work than flashes of brilliance.

What is your singular goal? Your team’s? What experiences are you curating for your clients/customers/patrons and team that lead toward execution of your goal?

Find and Be an Amazing Mentor

After Grant’s painful experience in Charlie Trotter’ kitchen. He found his way to Northern California and The French Laundry. When he walked in to inquire about a job he found a man sweeping the floor only to learn that the man was Thomas Keller. In short he found a mentor who ran a world class restaurant in an empowering way. A leader who created a culture of continuous growth and creativity. Grant’s understanding of his purpose was clarified through this relationship. He was given the opportunity to learn to create for himself. When Achatz created his first signature dish Keller asked Grant if he was ok with his creation forever being known as a French Laundry/Keller dish or whether he would like to save it for himself. Grant gave back to his mentor.

Fast forward several years and you find a culture at Alinea that is reminiscent of French Laundry and a cook being mentored by Chef Achatz who has figured out how to make sugar float…yep. Grant of course asked his protégé, “are you ok with this dish forever being known as an Alinea/Achatz dish?” Protégé again gave back to mentor.

Greatness begets greatness!

Who should you be learning from? Who should you be mentoring?

Chef Achatz is an inspiration. Time for me to do some imagining about how to better curate experiences in my context! I wonder if Chef Achatz would mentor me?



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