Behind the Business of Grant Achatz’s Next Restaurant
PAIR OF ACES: Grant Achatz has assumed the mantle of Chicago’s hottest celebrity chef. But Nick Kokonas—the money guy behind the scenes—may be his equal in innovative thinking
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Kokonas (left) and Achatz Nick Kokonas feels lousy. On a sunny late-winter afternoon, he’s on day 3 of a course of antibiotics to swat down a severe ear infection—that, on top of a yearlong, gray-hair-producing stint as the de facto general contractor of Next, the new restaurant he is building with his business partner, the chef Grant Achatz. Shambling around his Old Town home in jeans and a T-shirt, Kokonas leads me up a flight of stairs, lined with neat stacks of unopened mail, to his light-filled office in the attic. He brings up a spreadsheet on his computer and pounds the cushioned seat of his old drummer’s stool, a signal for me to sit as I peer over his shoulder at the numbers behind Alinea, the newly minted three-star Michelin restaurant in Lincoln Park and one of Chicago’s great success stories.
“The only reason I’m willing to show all of this to you, frankly, is because people criticize it without stopping to think from a business standpoint,” he says. He’s referring to some grousing on the web about the decision late last year to drop Alinea’s $145 multicourse menu in favor of offering only the larger $195 version. “It’s not because we want to make more money. It’s because we’re thinking long term. We’re really, really trying to steer Alinea toward being the best in the world.” Alinea actually makes less money since eliminating the cheaper menu. Because the 22-course meal takes four hours to consume, the restaurant can book its 18 tables just once per night, except for the handful that can be reseated by 9:30 p.m. “We can do two [seatings per table of the] $145 menus,” says Kokonas. “Which would you rather bring in? It’s a net loser for us to do the $195 menu only.”
The only child of a Greek entrepreneur from Chicago who wanted his son to become a lawyer, Kokonas, 43, is the majority stakeholder with Achatz in Alinea and its recent spinoffs, Next and The Aviary. (Both were scheduled to open in April, after this story went to press.) He met Achatz shortly before retiring from a lucrative ten-year run as an independent derivatives trader; he was a customer—at Trio, the four-star Evanston restaurant and precursor to Alinea—who became a fan. Married to his college sweetheart, with whom he has two school-age children, Kokonas fits the mold of a certain kind of restaurateur: the high-energy control freak who prefers to remain anonymous (“It’s better to be rich than famous,” he tells me offhandedly one day). But with the publishing in March of Achatz’s memoir, Life, on the Line, for which Kokonas takes a cowriting credit, he is stepping out a bit.
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Photograph: Nathan Kirkman