Five Lessons From Grant Achatz on Unleashing Creative Potential

My mind was blown as I watched the Alinea episode of Chef’s Table featuring Chef Grant Achatz.  I am not sure I have seen a better story for understanding how we can unleash our creativity while carving our own path.

Here are five big ideas I took away from the episode:

#1 People rarely set truly bold goals

While building Alinea, Grant decided he wanted to be “the best restaurant in the country.”  Anything else would be a failure.  This seems like a hard goal, but has two benefits:

  1. Few people (if any) set such lofty goals, meaning you have less competition
  2. It self-selects for the type of people that crave such challenges and brings a level of excitement to work every day

If you are creating something, ask yourself, “what is the most incredible, awe-inspiring version of this I could create?”

#2 Willingness to blow it up and “fix something that’s not broken”

When people reach a certain level of “success,” few have a desire to start over.  Yet, Grant craved this continuous reinvention throughout his career.  After being named “best restaurant in the world” he feared the complacency that came with success.  Although such accolades likely guaranteed he would never have to worry about his restaurant failing, it was about a deeper curiosity and energy that comes from creation.

This spirit was part of the original name of the restaurant, Alinea, which means “the beginning of a new train of thought”:

We are ripping apart a restaurant that is working incredibly well. It’s the busiest its ever been. Why fix something that is not broken? Well because if we wholeheartedly gonna uphold that philosophy that we started ten years ago “The beginning of a new train of thought. I feel like that’s our obligation. We have to just make it a clean slate.

Alinea now re-creates an entirely new restaurant every four months.  How could you embrace this spirit of re-invention in your own life?

#3 Courage to leave the path that made sense

In culinary school, Grant read chef Charlie Trotter’s book and was inspired by such an accomplished chef.  He ended up going to work for Trotter but was discouraged when his personal vision didn’t align with how Trotter led his kitchen.  Trotter has been described by the New York Times as a “control freak” and someone who is known for the “radical extent to which he takes his quest for excellence.”  While this approach has resulted in personal success for Trotter, it was a stifling environment for Achatz.

When Achatz was contemplating leaving, Trotter told him there would be no record of him working at the restaurant.  He left anyway.

Robert Greene has written about mastery and creativity and found that there is always a point when people must go out to carve their own path.  Greene finds that most people wait too long to start experimenting: “you must force yourself to initiate such actions or experiments before you think you are ready.”

Achatz left Trotter without any plan and ended up joining the French Laundry before it became famous.  There, he found the right environment to experiment and push his limits under Chef Thomas Keller.  The French Laundry was named best restaurant in the country in 2003.  Achatz could have stayed.  But again, he left a path that seemed to make sense.

When you talk to successful creative people, it is easy to simplify their path in a way that makes it seem logical or planned.  That is rarely the truth.

What path have you been on that doesn’t make sense anymore?

#4 You are never an “expert”: “Taste to leave taste”

While Achatz was building Alinea, he was diagnosed with cancer and the treatment made him lose his sense of taste.  For a chef, nothing could be more frustrating.  Yet as his taste slowly started to reappear, he looked at the experience with wonder and realized that his sense of taste was literally being reborn as if he were an infant.

…when you’re first born, newborns can only perceive sweet. They’re not, their palates haven’t developed yet. They can’t taste salt. They can’t taste bitter. They can’t taste acid. And obviously, the reason for that is so that they’re drawn to eat, tasting the natural sweetness in the milk. So the same thing happened to me. I started from zero and the first thing back was sweet. So my palate developed just as a newborn, but I was 32 years old. So I could understand how flavors were coming back and how they synergized together…

As he said, “I think it made me a better chef, because now I really, really understand how flavor works.”  In the book Art Of Learning, Joshua Waitzkin describes the challenge of learning as a continuous process of mastering the details to move to the next level, or “numbers to leave numbers”:

It is important to understand that by numbers to leave numbers, or form to leave form I am describing a process in which technical information is integrated into what feels like natural intelligence. Sometimes there will literally be numbers. Other times there will be principles, patterns, variations, techniques, ideas.

As Achatz notes in the show, “All chefs want to be known for using a knife.  Yet Achatz’s experience with cancer and his loss of taste forced him to think about how to convey his vision to others.  While sitting in the chair receiving chemotherapy, he drew out new dishes on a sketch pad and experimented with new types of language to communicate his vision with his team.  During this period he realized that he “can be a chef without being able to taste.”

Taste to leave taste.

Cancer is a terrible way to learn, but Achatz’s experience offers a lens into the limits of our thinking.  We are often too confident in our understanding of how the world works or get too comfortable with our own perceived competence. How can we question even the most fundamental realities of the way we perceive the world to open up new ways of looking at the world?

#5 Question everything: “Why can’t food float?”

When Achatz started his journey in food, he wanted to question everything.

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 fork or a spoon? And why does it have to be served on a plate or in a bowl?

In his evolution to creating on his own to inspiring others to create, Achatz found that true success for him was “maybe the most important thing is taking that idea, that little nugget and handing it to someone else. And then next thing you know, someone is holding a ballon.”

Image result for sugar balloon achatz

In contrast to Trotter, Achatz asked bold questions and challenged his team to create.  The balloon he referenced is one of Alinea’s most famous creations that all started when he asked the question “how can we make food that floats?”  His executive chef Mike Bagale, likely knowing that Achatz would give him the space to experiment jumped at the challenge and simply said “I’ll do that.”

To question the fundamentals of your work or life is to invite criticism.  Yet the people that ask these questions are often the people we look to for inspiration or the ones that give us hope that we can unleash our own creativity and carve our own paths.  Achatz not only questioned the fundamentals in his own life, path, and pursuit of creativity but also created an environment where others leaped at the challenge of doing the impossible.

Here’s to finding a piece of Grant Achatz inside us all.

About Paul Millerd

Paul is a writer, creator, and curious human that is passionate about how people can reimagine their relationship with work to do things that matter. He published The Pathless Path in 2022.

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