From Black Truffle Explosion to Hot Dogs
Henry “Hank” Adaniya / Before he became famous for his gourmet hotdogs, Henry “Hank” Adaniya was renowned for his cutting-edge restaurant, Trio, in Evanston, Ill. Though it’s since closed, Trio was credited with launching the career of several chefs who went on to win James Beard Awards. Among them was Grant Achatz, the creator of the restaurant Alinea in Chicago. Achatz’s unlikely food creations and inspiring personal story–he has turned smoke into gel, paired bananas with mustard and beer, and lost his ability to taste after being diagnosed with stage 4 tongue cancer–has earned him worldwide attention. In his recently released memoir, Life, on the Line, Achatz discusses, among other things, the launch of his modernist cuisine at Adaniya’s Trio. The Weekly met with Adaniya to talk about his experience working with Achatz.
So Grant Achatz’s description of his tryout for you and his time at Trio–is that how you remember it, too?
It’s funny to hear your life through the perspective of someone else. I’ll be honest, there was a little bit of fear of what was said, what was done, what things did I conveniently forget back then. But most of the way that he presented it, it was as it’s told…[For his tryout at Trio] there were some dishes that impressed me he didn’t mention…The one or two that were standouts for me were the lime gelatin ravioli. It was clear. You could see the filling inside of it. That blew me away. The one that took my heart was a pork belly. [It] was straight up pristine, cooked pork belly that was just technically amazing. The one that was crazy and I thought, I don’t know, he did something like olive oil ice cream. Then he took a disc of chocolate that sat on top of the ice cream. So all you saw was a flat disc of chocolate. He poured warm olive oil on top of it and it melted the chocolate on top of it. That’s far out. Olive oil and chocolate, I just didn’t get it at that time.
But you rejected him…
When I brought on my first chefs, Rick [Tramonto] and Gale [Gand], we were approaching food from a different angle. Then switching to Shawn [McClain] and changing the cuisine again–that was two years before we could get it anchored to be accepted. And then to bring on Grant–the Midwest is much more conservative to change. Then I had a deal with this young guy who was very demanding about what he wanted. That’s why the first round, I said no.
So what was the turning point? Why’d you change your mind?
Well, I continued interviewing people. After going through tastings, it’s like, you know what, as radical as it was, [Grant’s food] was the most exciting food that I had come across. That had been what Trio was all about–being unique, inventive, introducing something that was different.
That’s why I’m surprised you said no the first time. Each chef you brought into Trio required change.
Hey, you’re not talking about apples and oranges, you’re talking about a whole new spectrum of food. It was whether people would be able to grasp that. My general feeling was that most of the trends and introductions classically started on the coasts. New York or LA. But nobody started trends in Chicago. There was a lot of negative speculation.
I got a comment [from a cook] in the Alinea kitchen that they missed that time. At that time, it’s all new, and it is risky and it is challenging and you’re going against the flow. Now the movement’s already started. Now they have to course along their path and do their thing and maintain what they’ve created. Grant even said, ‘Yeah I miss that, too.’
You had gone with Grant with initial hesitation and were ultimately successful. Does that experience change your outlook now?
I think there’s a stronger understanding. I’m getting older and supposedly wiser…I don’t take the risk as much. What it is, is financial risk. With Trio, 12 years and over $25 million in revenue, I walked out with my shirt and my car. That was it. And I am a very lucky man to do that.
Did you expect to make a lot of money with Trio?
Oh yeah, but that was my lack of education. Fine dining, it’s very difficult. The margins are very tight. It’s a high-risk, low-profit business. But I did it because I loved the art. I loved food. [Trio] became a trendsetter for food and chefs across the country. That was great. I have no regrets. God knows I might get crazy again and do it. There’s still an attraction to recreate that…of course if anything was in Hawaii, I’d do it with some temperance to understand who’s eating this food.
Did you ever want to build Achatz’s restaurant? Put aside Trio and build what would become Alinea?
You know I thought about it, but really no, Trio was mine. I was offered to be a partner in Alinea. But he was in a different league. It would have been too much of a strain on myself personally. Alinea is a whole different animal. It’s a different restaurant all together. I didn’t want to run at that pace. My sights were still, “I gotta get to Hawaii.”