8 Innovation Lessons I Learned from Grant Achatz - Chef's Table
Grant Achatz (Head chef and owner of three Michelin stars Alinea restaurant in Chicago, Illinois, United States. Alinea is ranked 15th on the World's 50 Best Restaurants 2016 list)
Chef Grant Achatz is one of the leaders in molecular gastronomy and progressive cuisine. He pushes the boundaries of a meal with dishes that are fun, emotional, provocative and blur the lines between art and food. A TIME Magazine article describes him as "If most chefs are musicians — soul, rock-'n'-roll or punk — Achatz is a poet."
Here are the eight lessons I learned from Chef Achatz's story:
1. Do things differently (or do things that have never been done before). An innovator is someone who embraces creativity and builds environments in which his or her teams are given the tools and resources to challenge the status quo, push boundaries and advance to a brand new level.
Backstory: (Chef Grant Achatz) Early on in Alinea, we had this realization that… there are other disciplines that we can draw on for inspiration! We would go to art galleries and you would see these giant-scale pieces of art. And I would always say, "Why can't we plate on that?" It frustrated me that, as chefs, we were limited to scale that was determined by plate manufacturers. Why not a tablecloth that we can eat off of? Why do you have to eat with a folk or a spoon? And why does it have to be served on a plate or in a bowl? Why cannot we come up with something new?"
2. Always follow your core values, authentic philosophy and guiding principles.
Backstory: (Grant recounted how he found Alinea.) "I found the alinea symbol, and then looked at the definition. It was this perfect meaning - the beginning of a new train of thought. The whole philosophy of the restaurant is going to be, "This is new, and then it's new again. And it's new again. And it's new again." We gather the staff, and I say, "Everybody just needs to believe the fact that we're about to open the best restaurant in the country and anything less will be a failure." A week later, we opened."
(Francis Lam, James Beard Award-winning food critic) For Grant, creativity means doing something that's impossible, and has never been done and is new. I think really what they did when they built Alinea was start from the very bottom and think about "What is every element of a restaurant guest experience and how can we change it?" What they've done is make something that looks and feels enough like a restaurant for you to think that what you're doing is having dinner, when in reality, you're having an experience that you can decide is dinner or theater or performance or therapy or you know… feeling and thinking about it."
"What is important? Is it a signature dish? No. It's about having a restaurant with philosophy, where the creativity is the priority." Grant noted, "We could have created a greatest hits menu, but I think if we do that we fall into that trap of almost counter-creativity."
3. Innovators are genuine leaders committed to building dynamic and highly motivated team members. They also give them opportunities to grow, make them feel valued and respected.
Backstory: (Grant spoke about the origin of edible balloon) "I remember sitting at the table with the chefs, and I go, 'Back in 2002, I had this idea where we inflated a piece of cheese. But what if this was floating? We should try to come up with food that floats." And Mike just said, "I'll do that." Everybody else just went quiet, because they knew that's basically asking the impossible."
Later, Grant commented, "All chefs want to be known for using a knife. Cutting, creating, sauteing… doing all of that, but maybe that's not the most important thing. Maybe the most important thing is taking that idea, that little nugget, and handing it to someone else." "And then next thing you know, somebody's holding a balloon."
4. The key difference between creativity and innovation is execution. Creativity alone is not sufficient for innovation: innovation also requires the development, production, and implementation of an idea.
Backstory: For a course, it started tiny. It was the idea of a centerpiece that's evocative and produces conversation, and then, ultimately, it becomes part of the meal. Now you have something that's both beautiful and functional. So then we take that idea and we just go, "How many times can we do that in the course of the meal?" We took all the tools out of the belt and we used them all.
5. Innovators are not afraid to break with the norm, and push past conventional wisdom that causes people to think in a box.
Backstory: "Every element of the restaurant we try to break down and go, "Is this the best way it could exist, or is there a better version?" Rules? There are no rules. Do whatever you want. " says Grant. "The leading chefs in the world know that they can make delicious food. So we have to take it a step further. At Alinea, we're actually trying to curate an experience. I want the guest to have a sense of wonderment. "What's going to happen next?" They shouldn't go, 'I know what this is going to be like.' "They should expect the unexpected."
Grant professes, "The thing that's important for me is the guest has the a-ha moment, where they feel that they've discovered something. It's like being a kid and opening the present at Christmas. Until you lift that lid and peer inside, you don't really know what's in there. And then there's the reveal. And then there's the reward. It's a magic show!"
6. Team work. Innovators value, build and sustain active, vibrant networks of people, assets and organizations. Instead of viewing collaboration as a challenge, they see it as an opportunity to identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.
Backstory: "He would sketch a dish on paper and take a photo of it and send it to us (During the time when Chef Achatz lost his taste buds due to his cancer treatment), recounts by Dave, "This is going to kind of sound weird, but I honestly think him being sick taught him how to be a chef. Before, it was always he had to do it, and he would plate the dish for the first week or two weeks before anyone was allowed to plate it. Now he's creating food without ever touching it."
Grant also stated, "I realized that, to make a world-class restaurant, you can't do it yourself. You have to take the voice of all these people." So I said, "We need to engender this. We shouldn't box it in. We should blow it out."
7. Innovators have a sense of courage to take risks and pursue their curiosity-driven intuition.
Backstory: "We are closing the restaurant in January (of 2015) to renovate, and obviously, use that downtime to learn and create new techniques and a new style of serving." says Grant. "We're ripping apart a restaurant that is working incredibly well. It's the busiest it's ever been. Why fix something that's not broken? Well, because if we're wholeheartedly going to uphold that philosophy that we started ten years ago -- The beginning of a new train of thought."
Francis Lam, James Beard Award-winning food critic shares his thought on Alinea's renovation, "We talk about creativity and we talk about innovation. That's at the core of what Grant does. You cannot be creative and you cannot be innovative without being risky. That's the thing that's also so interesting and so dangerous. Because now they've done so much for ten years on. What can you keep doing that's new, that people will still like? And will you destroy yourself or destroy your reputation, or destroy the restaurant as a business in the pursuit of doing something new? How are you going to know? How are you going to know if it's going to work?"
8. Be a forward thinker. Innovators possess a futuristic mindset that helps innovators identify greater opportunities in the market.
Backstory: Dave Beran, Grant's Next restaurant executive chef, recaped, "There have been times where we've literally looked at him and he's been like, "You know what? Scrap all those dishes. Just get rid of them all." And you asked, "This is good. What are you… Why are we getting ride of this?" With him, there's always the hunt for, "What's the cooler plate? What's the better plate up? What's the better ingredient? Where's the better place to go? What's the better thing to do?"
"I feel like that's our obligation. We have to make it a clean slate.", says Grant. Now, we're asking ourselves, "Can we eliminate what we've been doing for the last ten years and start over?" And, the answer is, "Yeah." (After tumbling to number 26 on 2015's World's 50 Best list, Grant Achatz's recently-renovated flagship gained more than half of those spots back in 2016. Now it is at no. 15.)
“People like to think the creative process is romantic. The artist drifts to sleep at night, to be awakened by the subliminal echoes of his or her next brilliant idea. The truth, for me at least, is that creativity is primarily the result of hard work and study.” ~ Grant Achatz