How Creativity and a Leap of Faith Paid Off for Alinea's Nick Kokonas

Headshot of Nick Kokonas, partner at Chicago's Alinea
Nick Kokonas (Alinea, Aviary, Next, Roister) says that listening to instinct is part of what leads to creative success in the long run.

With this year’s Tales of the Cocktail keynote address surrounding the value of creativity, it seemed only natural to call upon a duo who knows the practice all too well: Nick Kokonas and Grant Achatz of Chicago’s Alinea, The Aviary, Next and Roister. One could argue that risk taking has been a part of their modus operandi ever since Kokonas first approached Achatz about opening a restaurant. “He asked me what kind of restaurant I wanted to help open, and I said I don’t know — it better be one of the best in the world, but I’ve never built a restaurant before,” recalls Kokonas, who was working as a derivatives trader up until that point. “Oddly enough, that was the right answer.” The following week the two met to discuss the project, and a year later to the day they opened Alinea, the gastronomical playground that has made dining headlines worldwide thanks to a series of covetable accolades and a constant need to reinvent itself.

Last year was good to them — so much so that they took home the title of Outstanding Restaurant at this year’s James Beard Awards. But for Kokonas and Achatz, that meant that things needed to change, and in no small way. In January the team closed the restaurant for a five-month renovation, not short of ripping out a staircase, revamping mechanicals, lighting and sound, and creating three entirely new dining experiences — all while keeping their 60 staff members employed, to boot. Such a move during such successful times sparked a lot of chatter and begged the question: “Why fix what’s not broken?”

Aviary drinks side by side In its unabashedly untraditional approach, Aviary has reimagined the kind of experience a bar can create for its guests. Photos: Matthew Gilson

For Kokonas it was an instinct. “I remember Grant coming up to me and asking what I wanted us to do for the restaurant’s 10th anniversary, and the first thing I thought was, “I want us to give everyone a sledgehammer so we can rip it down and start over,” he says. “We started building Alinea in 2004, and what was modern then is not going to feel modern in 2020 — the time to create change is when you’re at the peak of success; when you’re on the downslope, it’s too late.”

The redesign is just a large-scale example of what the team handles on an everyday basis at the restaurant, whether that means evoking the smells of autumn via burning oak leaves or creating edible balloons come dessert — ideas that might seem impossible to the creatively naked eye, but ones that Kokonas and Achatz feel obliged to pursue. “We try to figure out how to do it once the right way, and then we try to figure out how to do this for every guest that comes in,” he says. “We’ve gotten pretty good at not kiboshing ideas on the first step.”

Still, it doesn’t mean every choice is free of immediate second guessing or occasional pangs of doubt — a feeling Kokonas encountered as soon as they embarked on the renovation. “I remember going in there on January 6 and being like, “Put it back together, why are we doing this, this is ridiculous,’” he says. “There’s always self-doubt, but at the end of the day we’re very good at pushing each other and getting it done, and there’s a high degree of personal satisfaction when you get something done well.”

If there’s ever been a dynamic to ensure that things get done well, it’s the one Kokonas, a big picture planner, shares with Achatz, a minutia-driven operator. “I’m always looking two years down the road and planning a lot of long-term things, and Grant is often the guy who’s worried about the detailed implementation of those ideas and what we’re going to be doing next Tuesday. I think you need both.”

The forecasting pays off. Five years ago when Kokonas and Achatz saw the increased inequality between back of house and front of house wages they opted to eliminate tipping from all of their restaurants — a practice that has since been carried out by a handful of prominent restaurant groups nationwide. Tock, a ticketing system Kokonas released last year to help restaurants create and manage reservations, only further proves that point. “Every time I hear someone in our company say, ‘That’s the way we were taught to do it,’ or ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it,’ that to me is a big red flag,” he says. “I just assume that no one knows the perfect way to do anything, and the best way to find new ways of doing things is to test them.”

For Kokonas, it’s less about risk taking and more about simply seeing what sticks. Take, for example, the Aviary — an establishment intended for drinking but conceived of in a much more unconventional way. “It was built entirely around the idea that the way a typical bar works is incredibly inefficient relative to the way a restaurant works, so we built a bar that operates like a restaurant,” he says of the Fulton Market space, which runs on reservation bookings and table service. “It’s about looking at the same thing we look at every day and going, how can we do that differently? Let’s try this, and maybe it works and maybe it doesn’t, but if it doesn’t, let’s not just stop — let’s try something else.”

From our partners