Grant Achatz Talks 'Spinning Plates,' New Projects

By Kelly Dobkin  |  October 22, 2013

Spinning Plates, a documentary by Joseph Levy, will officially premiere this Friday, and features Grant Achatz's Alinea, 150-year-old Breitbach's in Iowa, and the now-shuttered Tucson Mexican eatery La Cocina de Gabby. We sat down with Achatz to talk about the filming process and common threads that unite all three restaurants, among other things. We also discovered that Grant is planning some new projects in Chicago (although for now he's staying mum on the details), and that he's working on some crazy ideas with Eleven Madison Park's Daniel Humm and Will Guidara, including an awesome-sounding 21st Century Limited train ride experience (from NY to Chicago) that will feature dinners at both eateries. Seriously. 

And of course, we broached the topic of food TV and found out he has a guilty affinity for Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. Check out the whole chat below.

Zagat: How would you describe Spinning Plates.
Grant Achatz: I think that Joseph did a really good job with capturing three very different scenarios but linking them together in a really good way. So to me the movie is about creativity and overcoming adversity. So you’ve got Breitbach’s that burned down twice and you’ve got the Mexican restaurant in Tucson that failed, and it’s about my cancer story. It's about the loop. It's about perseverance. And what you can do when you don't take 'no' for an answer.

Zagat: How long did the filming process take? And was it odd to have the camera on you at all times?
He shadowed us for five days. It was intense, but it was good. There’s a lot of stuff that didn’t make the film, thank goodness. The timing was such that Joseph was there right when we won Michelin three stars and we threw a big party, probably good that some of that didn’t make the movie. [Laughs.]

Zagat: What do you think the three restaurants in the film have in common besides adversity?
I think there’s a lot in common. When you watch the movie, Thomas Keller says at one point it’s about nurturing people. Whether it's Alinea's crazy manipulated food or a country diner, at the end of the day, it’s all the same. We want to make people feel comfortable, we want to nurture them.

Zagat: After seeing the film, do you feel that it portrayed your experience the way that you see it?
Yes. I’ve watched it now four times. I think he did a really good job, capturing the spirit of Alinea and what we do. I’ve never met the Martinez family [of La Cocina de Gabby] or the Breitbachs, but we’re going to meet them actually this Sunday. We’re throwing this premiere party at Aviary and they’re going to drive in from Iowa. 

Zagat: After doing this film, do you have any other movie projects you’d like to do personally? I know that your book might be turned into a film?
We sold the life rights to the book and we’ve been talking about doing a feature film. We’ve had a lot of interest, and it will probably happen at some point. Nothing immediately. Hollywood is a tough go.

Zagat: Who would you want to play you?
Hmm. Leonardo DiCaprio? I don’t know. [Laughs.] Does it need to look like me?

Zagat: I think you've got a little Val Kilmer going on. Maybe one other person.

GA: What’s his face…the one guy, he’s got red hair and a goatee...who is he? Anyway.

Zagat: What are you working on at Alinea and Next right now?
We’re always moving forward, so at Next we’re doing currently doing Bocuse d’Or and that will switch January 1 and we’ll go to the next menu. Alinea is always doing new stuff. We’re always pushing forward, seasonally but also technique-driven - whatever we can come up with.

Zagat: Any new projects in the works?
Not officially. We’re going to open a couple more places in Chicago this year.

Zagat: Any details?

GA: No. But I will tell you that what we're trying to figure out is...well, we had dinner with Daniel Humm and Will Guidara. You know we did that really cool restaurant swap, and we’re trying to figure out something else with that. We have a couple crazy ideas. We’re thinking about buying a train, because, historically, the 21st Century Limited ran between NYC and Chicago. So our idea was, "What if we sold tickets?" What if you boarded the train in New York and had dinner at Eleven Madison or NoMad, and then you had dinner on the train and then got to Chicago and had dinner at Alinea? I think it’d be cool. Will and Daniel are excited about it. We’re working on it. They’re going to hate me for saying that.

Zagat: Awesome. So I re-tweeted a tweet of yours from a few months ago that was hilarious. It read: “Why does every episode of food TV need a have a mohawk?” So I’m assuming you watch it.
Absolutely. I love it and I hate it. I feel like it’s become very important just for gastronomy. You’ve got Graham Elliot, you’ve got Bobby Flay, Gordon Ramsay, even going back to Emeril. They’ve popularized cooking, which is not a bad thing. It makes people more aware of restaurants and gastronomy, and I think that’s good. Right down to the housewife level. My father watches Food Network. But I will say this, as a criticism of food cooking shows, they’re all the same. Let’s get creative, people. We watch Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. I can make a cooking show that would be interesting.

Zagat: Would you want to?
We tried. We were in conversations with Radical Media here in New York. Nobody wants to take the risk. They all want the template. They all want Top Chef, Iron Chef, Boy Meets Grill - they all want that. Which is fine, I get it. They’re making money. Everybody’s fine.

Zagat: Of the food TV out there, would you say that Diners, Drive-ins and Dives is your favorite?
 Yeah. [Laughs]

Zagat: It's a good show, as much as we'd like not to admit it.

GA: Damn. I hate liking it!

Zagat: Have you been to his restaurant? You’d get a kick out of it.

: After I read the Pete Wells review, I can’t go there. Gatorade cocktails and...no. Here’s the thing with food TV, everybody loves to hate it. There are two camps. You love to hate it or you love it. You can’t complain about them. Bobby and Tyler Florence and Guy Fieri - they’re sorting themselves out.

Zagat: At this point I think the industry can’t live without it. For better or worse it drives people to go to restaurants. I think some traffic would die off without it, don’t you?

GA: I agree. There’s some people on there like Tom Colicchio and even the host of Chopped...Ted Allen. Those guys are great. In the industry they have credentials.