Two of the most acclaimed chefs in the nation have embarked on an extraordinary, unprecedented switcheroo. By the time you read this, Grant Achatz of Alinea will have completed a five-night stretch of cooking his food at Eleven Madison Park in New York. Daniel Humm, chef and owner of that restaurant, is preparing to fly to Chicago, where next week he will run Alinea for five nights.
This is no casual, toque-swapping flight of whimsy. This is a pop-up restaurant event on the logistical scale of Hannibal's Alps crossing. As Achatz did in New York, Humm is essentially re-creating his restaurant — from the staffers to the forks and knives — 800 miles from home.
The dinners sold out; even at $495 per person (closer to $650 with tax and tip), tickets were snapped up almost as soon as they became available. But Humm chatted with me a bit about what those privileged few customers can expect.
Q: So, when do you arrive in Chicago?
A: We will get to town Sunday and open Wednesday, so we have 21/2 days to really prepare. Most of us are flying, but we're driving a U-Haul over as well. That makes the most sense, because with all our plates and service pieces, there's just a lot of stuff to bring.
Q: You're calling the dinner "21st Century Limited," a play on the old New York-to-Chicago luxury train. Will the dinner be like Eleven Madison Park, your take on Alinea or something in between?
A: We're bringing the current Eleven Madison dinner here, though we've definitely added a few more dishes. But it will feel like a true sense of place, honoring the culinary history of New York.
Q: You could have arranged something like this in many other cities. Why Chicago?
A: First of all, I'm really close to Grant, and it's just super-exciting to work with him and his team. We love those guys and respect them so much; it's inspiring, really.
And then, I love Chicago. My wife is from Chicago, and every time we go, I just love it. I love the restaurant scene, and people here are so into the food. It's one of the most exciting food cities in the country.
Q: How did the kitchen-swapping idea come about?
A: It started last November, when I had a book-launch event at Aviary. We just said, "OK, what can we do that's cool, and hasn't been done before, and really shows creativity?" And late one night, we thought of switching restaurants and kind of stuck with that idea.
Q: How much prep work went into this?
A: We've been working together since spring. The teams talked and shared recipes, we did testing in both kitchens to make sure the equipment was right for us. They visited us a couple of times, we visited them a couple of times.
And a lot of training needed to happen, running through both restaurants' entire meal. The servers need to know how every dish is prepared, even the dishwasher needs to know just how to handle things. It's kind of a study on how to open a restaurant.
Q: Grant was in New York from Sept. 26-30, and you're here in October. Why not swap restaurants at the same time?
A: You know, it would have been easier that way, but it wouldn't have been as much fun. Part of the reason behind this is for (me and Grant) to spend time together and collaborate on things.
Q: Alinea remained open during Grant's absence, and Eleven Mad will remain open next week. How do you work that out?
A: We both had to order more serving pieces to operate two restaurants at the same time. Our team helped when Alinea was in New York, and their team will help us next week.
Luckily, we both have two restaurants (Achatz's Next and Humm's NoMad, respectively), so we have more people, more resources.
Q: So you know each others' cooking techniques?
A: They need to be able to do our food, and vice-versa. Basically, after these two weeks, they've showed all their secrets and we've showed ours. It takes a lot of trust to do an endeavor like this. But we believe by showing everything we do and seeing everything they do, we think both of us are going to be better restaurants.
Q: Given the quick sellout, the market has spoken regarding the dinner price. But $495 is an awful lot of money, isn't it?
A: I think $495 definitely sounds like a lot of money, but in our restaurants, with the regular tasting menu and wine pairings you're almost there anyway.
This idea definitely is not driven by making money. We're bringing 18 people; they all need hotel rooms and all that. We didn't want to be too ambitious with (number of tickets available), because we want to guarantee an amazing experience. So we definitely were conservative in the number of covers (tickets). It was the same in New York.
And we're making less money at home, because we cut back on the number of reservations while we're away. The whole week Grant was here, we closed for lunch, and we're usually open. So I think — no, I know for sure — we'll make less money than we ordinarily would. This is just something that's really cool to do.