"At some point, you just feel antiquated, you feel old. And I would argue that cycle happens faster than ever now."
Nick Kokonas has a lot to say when discussing the latest magic trick his restaurant is trying to pull off this winter. He leads me through the front of the cream brick loft serving as his office on Fulton Market, and lets me gaze around at the open collection of terminals, populated by a smiling, bespectacled staff of developers, UX designers, and engineers, before sitting down across from me on an olive green couch, urgently sipping from a glass of water, and changing posture and position in his seat every few seconds.
The whole thing feels more like a Silicon Valley computer lab than the back end of a three-Michelin-star restaurant. Brian Fitzpatrick—the former head of Google's Chicago office, now one of Kokonas's associates—stops over to clue me in to a new Steam game that team members have been playing together during downtime, only adding to the ambience.
Apart from running three restaurants from the space, the owner of Alinea—what is perhaps the most celebrated gourmet service operation in the Midwest—has his hands full running a new software startup here called Tock. Created to support a system he and his staff developed when they grew frustrated with the inefficiency of traditional restaurant reservations, the endeavor shows how Kokonas has pushed not only to innovate the food we put in our mouths, but the way fine restaurants operate on a fundamental level.
"We've had our most successful year ever this year with Alinea, and once it ends we will gut the place and re-concept it," Kokonas says, wryly. "It's still gonna be Alinea, and it's still gonna be progressive, but we're looking at the next ten years, not the last ten years."
From January through March next year, Kokonas and his partner, chef Grant Achatz, plan to remodel Alinea's interior entirely, and retool the menu—no small task for a restaurant that over the last 11 years has featured balloons blown out of apple taffy, exploding balls of chocolate, and single courses that may comprise dozens of unique bites from a single ingredient. The effort will require a temporary shuttering, and new ways to keep busy in the interim. And the solution on which they've landed seems like an insane task: Moving the entire operation—staff, food, and ambience—all the way to Madrid to share the experience they've carefully developed as authentically as possible with a new audience.
"Grant was doing a Ferran Adrià tribute dinner in Spain about eight months ago or so, and Alinea was just so well-received there," he says. There, Achatz met the famed Andalusian chef Dani Garcia, and his business partner, Javier Gutierrez, who had heard of his and Kokonas's need for a temporary space. "They said, 'We'd love to help you put this together in Madrid,' and Javier very quickly found a venue for us to accomplish that."
It's a romantic idea, sharing one of the Midwest's most celebrated culinary operations with another continent, but it's come with some unexpected costs. First, Gutierrez helped establish a partnership between Alinea and the Hotel Eurobuilding in the Spanish capital, who will provide kitchens, a dining room, and accommodations for the restaurant's staff. But in the mean time, Kokonas has had to work to establish visas for 42 staff members, including FBI-certified background checks for all of them.
"On a weekly basis, my mind is blown by the next hoop we need to jump through," he says. "We had to set up a joint venture in Spain. We had to have Spanish banking accounts, we had to have certified documents. They literally wanted wax seals on these documents. They asked, 'Where are the seals on your contract?' And we said, 'Well, they're notarized,' and they said, 'Well, anyone can do that.' It feels very Middle Ages sometimes. I assume that'll all get figured out and we'll get all 42 people over there, because otherwise we're completely screwed."
The devil has been in the details. Kokonas explains how he and Achatz have worked with a number of local suppliers to assemble needed smallwares, and leveraged their metallurgist's European office to devise custom-designed equipment they will bring back to the States once the restaurant's Chicago remodel is completed. But sourcing the rare ingredients used in Alinea's cutting-edge dishes has been a real challenge.
"Luckily, Grant has great relationships with a lot of chefs who have shared their contacts, so the suppliers there know who we are now," he says. "But even basic ordering is going to be a surprise since we don't know entirely how those orders will be packaged. Having access to the proper wine cellars, so we can get wine with a proper age on it—these are all things that we're working out. We have amazing partners who are helping us every day."
And the remodel in Chicago isn't the only one they'll be executing.
"Obviously, we have a very different room we'll be in, in Madrid," Kokonas continues. "We're in a part of the hotel that's essentially where people have breakfast every morning, with a buffet in the middle. So we're taking the sneeze guard off and making it into a kitchen in the middle of the room. We have all new furniture. We're putting down carpets, painting the walls, literally redoing the space, and putting it all back the way it was in the end."
He admits the move is a risk, because ultimately, he says, Alinea could continue serving the same menu, in the same space, and remain booked for months in advance. But doing so would defeat the restaurant's real purpose: pushing the experience of taste to its limit, and delivering new perspectives on what it means to serve diners.
"Part of it is just in the doing it, knowing it's possible," he says. "It's a unique opportunity."
For more information about Alinea in Madrid, visit AlineaInResidence.com.