moved up the aisle of the plane, his carry-on draped over his gaunt frame. It was October at Reagan National Airport, a rare moment of calm for Chicago's top chef, whose wary eyes belong to a man older than 36, and whose life has been blessed and cursed with incident. He was traveling with his two young sons, and they had just visited with the parents of his girlfriend, food journalist Heather Sperling. They were headed home to Chicago, trudging through the cabin of the plane toward coach, when his younger son, Keller, swung his backpack into a well-dressed man in first class.
He smacked the guy in the head. Achatz saw this from the corner of his eye, and he sighed and turned to apologize. The man was
"Hello, chef," Trotter said.
"Hello!" Achatz replied, embarrassed, stammering out something rote like, "You know how kids are."
"But Charlie's looking at me like, 'Yeah, and yours just hit me in the head,'" Achatz says, recalling a moment almost too lyrical to be believed (though Trotter confirms the incident, with a chuckle), so rich in meaning that it could be a metaphorical one-act play about the Chicago fine-dining establishment: The culinary guard had changed.
Almost 25 years ago, chef Charlie Trotter and his eponymous Lincoln Park restaurant dug deep into classic European restaurant tradition, lent it a slight Asian minimalism and put fine dining in Chicago on the map. In the mid-'90s, Achatz, a Michigan son fresh from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., set out to work for him. And he did so, unhappily, for less than a year. According to Achatz, Trotter told him, essentially: If you don't work for me for a year, you haven't worked for me for a day — never use me as a reference. (As for Trotter, he confirms that, yes, a cook "needs to work for me several months before they can learn anything or contribute in any meaningful way.")
Achatz moved to Northern California and went to work at the French Laundry in Napa Valley. There, they called him "golden boy," and he was made sous chef at 25, working alongside a man often called the best chef in America with the best restaurant in America, Thomas Keller.
Keller became his idol, his mentor and the namesake of his youngest son, and he even catered his wedding (though the marriage to Angela Achatz, a former director of group sales at the French Laundry and the mother of Achatz's children, lasted only a few weeks). Four years after he started at French Laundry, Achatz returned to Chicago and found fame as the chef at Trio, in Evanston.
Then, about a decade after his time at Trotter's, Achatz opened his own restaurant, a radically unusual spin on fine dining named