New York's Eleven Madison Park and Chicago's Alinea — three Michelin-starred restaurants both — will swap chefs, kitchens and dining rooms, opening in essence pop-up restaurants in each other’s space. Alinea will occupy Eleven Madison Park in New York beginning Sept. 26 for five consecutive nights. Eleven Madison Park will do the same in Chicago starting Oct. 10. Tickets go on sale in coming weeks via its Facebook page.
A collaboration was first hinted at through a YouTube video released Friday. In it, both restaurants dismantle their kitchen and dining rooms, packing everything up in boxes (including chef Grant Achatz).
In layman's terms, at least to non-foodies who don't recognize Thomas, Heston and Ferran by a first-name-only basis (respectively chefs Keller, Blumenthal, Adria), it's the culinary equivalent of the New York Philharmonic and Chicago Symphony Orchestra trading concert halls for one-week residences.
Experiencing this will come at a premium. For Chicagoans hoping to score one of several hundred tickets for Eleven Madison Park, the exclusiveness of a five-night stand and hefty price tag means casual diners might sit this one out ($495 in both cities, not including tax and service). But for devotees of high gastronomy, the band of Michelin guide-clutching food tourists, it's a chance to sample one of the most-lauded New York restaurants in recent memory.
The James Beard Foundation Awards — the Oscars of the restaurant world — has awarded Eleven Madison Park its two highest honors in consecutive years: Outstanding restaurant in 2011, and outstanding chef this past May for its 36-year-old Swiss-born chef, Daniel Humm. In the most recent "World's 50 Best Restaurant" rankings, a survey of 800 international restaurateurs and food journalists, Eleven Madison Park was voted the 10th best restaurant in the world, jumping from 24th place last year, and from 50th place in 2010. Alinea was No. 7 in the rankings.
Those who previously dined at Eleven Madison Park will likely not recognize the iteration it plans on bringing to Chicago. Jeff Gordinier in The New York Times wrote the restaurant will soon reinvent its concept, "treating diners to flashes of Broadway dazzle: card tricks, a glass dome full of smoke, a blast of sea mist from a tabletop clambake and a cheese course that emerges from a picnic basket ... a risky move to convert the Eleven Madison Park experience into an extravagant, participatory, close-to-four-hour ode to the romance and history of New York."
For Achatz, who with partner Nick Kokonas have rebuffed numerous offers to open an Alinea outside Chicago, it's a chance to present their cooking in the world’s most discerning food city without the full-time commitment.
"I can't tell you how many chefs have said to me, 'Yeah, you're a big fish in a small pond. The only reason you're so popular is because you're in the Midwest.’ In a way, we're amped up," Achatz said. "I want to introduce Alinea food to the jaded New Yorker. We're going to show New Yorkers what Chicago food is all about.”
The collaboration is being called "21st Century Limited," a reference to the "20th Century Limited," a luxury passenger train that ran between Chicago and New York during the first half of the last century. The idea was born last November at The Aviary, the cocktail lounge owned by Achatz and Kokonas, which played host to Eleven Madison Park’s cookbook party.
It was after hours in the lounge, with everyone full on pizza and wine. Achatz recalled the night: "Daniel said, 'Why don't we take this a step further? You come to New York, we come to Chicago.' It was a handshake deal. Don't get me wrong, it's gonna hurt. It's a tremendous amount of work. But we don't want to be the rock band that plays the same song over and over. There are very few people in any given industry that have the opportunity to have that carte blanche."
Logistically, they say, the collaboration is a headache in waiting, as both restaurants will continue operating in their home cities during their week on the road. The challenge will be running two restaurants simultaneously in two time zones while maintaining some semblance of consistency. Both say they view this as a challenge to both fear and relish.
"Really for us, it's about giving our staff something difficult and interesting," Kokonas said. "We don't want to get too comfortable."
Three days before the Sept. 26 opening night, Alinea chef Grant Achatz and chef de cuisine Matt Chasseur will fly their team of a dozen staffers to New York, and in a 72-hour crash course, effectively train the Eleven Madison Park staff to replicate Alinea. The process repeats when Humm, general manager Will Guidara and team arrives in Chicago Oct. 7. Recipe cards have already arrived in both kitchens in preparation.
Despite the expensive cover charge, both restaurants insist the cost of purchasing serviceware, shipping custom equipment, plus flying and housing a dozen staffers means they’ll lose money from the project.
"People sometimes don't understand why we're doing this when there isn't an economic benefit," Guidara said. "Sometimes we do what we do because we love doing it."