Grant Achatz and Daniel Humm Talk American Cuisine, Fine Dining, and the Future at Madrid Fusion

The Madrid Fusion conference is taking place right now in Spain, and chefs, writers and other food industry people from all over the world are there to talk about innovation, inspiration, and what post-avant garde cuisine looks like. Grant Achatz and Daniel Humm spoke with writer/moderator José Morán Moya about American cuisine, the state of fine dining today, and what inspires and terrifies them. 

Moya: How do you define American cuisine for people outside the U.S.?

Achatz: We get labeled as a country that has only fast food, food that is not curated, not artisan-driven, not about craftsmanship. That’s not true. I feel that right now, American cuisine is in a revival. It’s finding its identity and locality, which I feel European cuisine has always had. The U.S. is a very big country, and we have pockets that make each region unique. You can be in New York, the Midwest, the Atlantic, and all of these mean different things. It’s unfortunate that we are labeled as a country that does not prioritize gastronomy.

Humm: When I moved to America 12 years ago, in my mind I wondered why I would go there. I first worked in San Francisco, and I was so blown away by the quality of ingredients, the restaurants, the passion for food. I think in some ways, in Europe, fine dining seemed a little tired; it had been around for a long time. In America, there was this excitement for restaurants; it felt new. We were almost limited, all of us who grew up in classic French cuisines. In the U.S., they didn’t know the rules, but that made them free. They created a cuisine that was fresh and new and exciting, and it has grown in the last twelve years. Then, it was limited to New York, San Francisco, and Chicago, but now you can find a great restaurant in the middle of nowhere.

Achatz and Humm at Madrid Fusion.
Photo: Madrid Fusion

Moya: What influences you in the kitchen?

Achatz: Speaking for us, we look to a lot of our travel. There’s also that draw and inspiration from American risk-taking and ingenuity. We can talk about restaurants like Brooklyn Fare, David Chang’s restaurants, that have transcended into fine dining, but aren’t traditional. Being able to blur that line, that is happening in Copenhagen, in Paris, in Madrid, in Barcelona. What is happening in New York and L.A. is spreading to Europe and informing gastronomy.

When we travel to all these cities around the world for conferences or inspiration trips, we bring that back. It’s important to consider that at Alinea, we have always said we are a globally inspired restaurant. We consider locality, but also global influences. That’s important.

Humm: New York has a lot of history. People brought their traditions from all over the world, and some have evolved over the years. New York is a very inspiring place for food culture. In Europe, every region is famous for something—a ham, a dish, a pastry. When I go to a new place, I think, ‘What can I get here that I can’t get anywhere else?’ When I got to New York, I was looking for that, but it was hard. You can find everything in New York: Japanese, Italian, Chinese, French. I found myself wondering, 'What is New York?'. The best restaurants are French, Italian, Japanese. People say New York is one of the best places for everything.

But as I lived there a little bit longer, I discerned these things are there, off the beaten path. New York delicatessens came from Germany, but evolved into this unique thing. Delis, black and white cookies, egg creams; those are all New York.

Before opening Eleven Madison Park, we went around the world to the great restaurants, to see what are they doing to be great. We took things we like and made them our own. It worked; we got to three Michelin stars that way. But five years ago, we realized that there was more from New York. We can use plates made in New York and not France. We don’t need to fly asparagus from France; we can get it there. We're trying to figure out a question we ask a lot: 'What is New York cuisine?' We try to answer it. 

Achatz: Something that's really becoming prevalent in high-end dining is that you don’t have to follow a template. We were trained in a very traditional French template—to get x, you have to put in y. Now were seeing a lot of individuality. We’re seeing personality in food, service and ambiance. It’s super-exciting for us. We get to create more exciting restaurants, that reflect our personality, and that people will love.

Humm: It's much more of an art form. It's a reflection of who we are, respect for all the expressions out there. It used to be more formulaic, the only creativity was on the plate. Creativity was limited, but now, restaurants turn everything upside down. When I ate at Alinea for the first time in 2008, that changed everything for me. I felt like I didn’t know anything anymore. It was one of those really, really inspiring meals that made me feel more free. The way Grant looks at food, the inspirations and concepts were so foreign to me. You could be inspired by a color. It was so different than what I knew of food. I felt liberated, like I don’t need to follow those rules anymore, because you don’t follow them.

Moya: What do you get out of being in Spain?

Achatz: A lot. I’ve been coming here at least once a year since 1999. The products are phenomenal. We are like, 'Shit, we have to go back home and we’re not going to be able to get this seafood or these chanterelles.' Also, the diners; the way they interact, the way they eat. Back home, we have a 19-course menu at a very fast pace. We were concerned when we came here that we were giving them too much food. It was the opposite—people are like, 'Wow, we are done?' It’s how people take the experience in; nobody wants to leave. All of these things will reflect our renovation and our approach to what Alinea becomes in the future.

Moya: What other chefs and restaurants in the U.S. are progressive? 

Humm: I think Sean Brock, who really celebrates the cuisines of the South. The South in America is a really strong food culture, and he’s making people aware of that. In Napa Valley, Chris Kostow, who follows Thomas Keller’s path and defining Northern California cuisine. There’s a lot of incredible chefs. Saison in San Francisco; what’s they’ve done, I’ve never seen before. The music that they play, the service, the layout, the food. I would say it’s not going to work, but they really challenged what fine dining would be. They broke a lot of rules, and it’s working. 

Achatz: That’s the thing that we’re talking about. What's both exhilarating and extremely terrifying is that back when Soltner and Ducasse and Frédy Girardet and Bocuse were at the head, that templates we knew. Now we’re finding more and more people are breaking the mold, and questioning everything. Do you need your front of the house in a suit and tie? Do you need an immersion circulator, or can you go back to cooking over fire?

It’s exhilarating, because it gives us the creative freedom to experiment, but terrifying because we don’t know where that hammer is going to drop. What is that Michelin model, and do we even care anymore? Can we be more modern by going further to the edge?

Humm: For both of us, we built our restaurants a little bit on some of the rules and we were able to establish ourselves. But for a young chef coming up, and trying to learn about fine dining, how does he know? There are so many ways, but few that succeed. Kind of terrifying for a young chef. Now there isn’t a recipe for creating a restaurant anymore.

Achatz: Who would ever thought it would remotely be acceptable for a cook to deliver food to the diner? But now it’s almost expected.

Moya: What changes are coming to Alinea?

Achatz: The answer to that is that we’re not really sure. The interesting thing with the position we’re in now [with the Alinea guest residency at the NH Collection Hotel in Madrid] is that the environment is different, the products are different, the diners are different. All of this is informing what we do every day, and will inform what we do when we get home. That space needs to change. A chef needs to understand the space before producing an experience for the guests. None of us know what that is next, so it’s kind of crazy.

Humm: All my career, I’ve been attracted to minimalism. My dad is an architect, so I grew up attracted to beautiful things, minimal things. I’ve been cooking for 25 years, but for the longest time I couldn’t cook that way. I was not experienced or mature enough; I thought for a dish to be complete, it needed another purée, another sauce, another technique. I wanted to show more. I think that was an important process. Two years ago, I created a dish that for the first time was me, and what I was searching for. We photographed the dish, studied it, and tried to figure out what we did to make that dish successful. I came up with a recipe for a recipe to create a dish. I came up with these four things:

Number one—it must be delicious. This is instant. You don’t need to think about it, it’s delicious or not. Number two—it needs to look beautiful, appealing, minimal, natural. Number three—it needs to be creative. There has to be an element of creativity. A texture that surprises, a combination of flavors, or techniques. Number four—it has to have purpose. It has to make sense why this is the dish, it can’t be random. It has to have a story or purpose.

In the last two years, we’ve been able to move our food forward, and it got really minimalist. It’s hard to do these four things with only two ingredients; there’s no room for error. If one thing is off; it’s a failure.

We have to take this and apply it to the entire dining experience, not just the plate. To remove all things form the experience that aren’t necessary.

So we went from 14 courses to seven courses at Eleven Madison Park. It changes things. If the server interacts with you 14 times and two aren’t perfect, you forget about those two times. But if he interacts with you seven times, and two of those times are bad, it’s bad. So we are applying to everything

Achatz: I think it’s exciting that restaurants can have multiple personalities, or they can evolve. Before, you expected for it to be the same every time, but now, people expect change; they want different experiences. 

That’s where fine dining is going as well. You take the risk, but adapt to what people want.