June 19, 2016
BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
You’ve been given three months to bring a new face to a three-star Michelin restaurant, chosen by several critics as the “Best “Restaurant in the World.” Since closing its doors with a New Year’s Eve celebration on December 31, Alinea has appeared in pop-up locations as far afield as Madrid and Miami, and a little closer to home at the former Moto location here in Chicago. But all the while, all eyes have been focused on Halsted Street and the famed restaurant’s new incantation.
Architect Steve Rugo, working along with supreme Chef Grant Achatz, Co-Owner Nick Kohonas, and Interior Designer, Tom Stringer, have created a tranquil and uncomplicated backdrop for the performance element of the dining experience. The artistry of the food – and all of its vibrant colors, varying textures, and distinct shapes – may be taken in wholly against calm canvas of the interior.
We spoke with Rugo about the renowned restaurant’s reimagining.
What was the thinking behind the look you were working towards?
The look you first see is austere and there is a false perspective. You might feel a little uncomfortable, and thus aren’t chatting about vacations to be taken or play dates for the kids. You are brought into another world and your senses go to another state of consciousness. There is like an earth, wind, and fire experience, created partially by candles and wind chimes. There is no relation to the outside world.
Is it somewhat intimidating to design a kitchen for a world-famous chef?
The back of the house is completely different in each of the Alinea Group restaurants – each chef has a different approach. For the fine dining world of Alinea, there are 35 chefs, each of whom arrives at 11:30 a.m. to begin the prep work for the dishes to be served to the 70 guests who will arrive that night. The focus is totally on the product the Chef de Cusine will enforce. The cuisine team will literally go through the design of each refrigerator, laying out the plan on the floor and studying it until they are satisfied. The workstations are so important when you are trying to do multiple presentations simultaneously. There are whole storage rooms for the serving pieces. The Alinea group works with a favorite industrial designer and some of these products, such as the porthole dish used at Aviary, might be sold to other people.
How is Alinea different since the renovation?
There are some menu changes. For example, there are no more black truffle explosions. There are also some changes in service. When you go up an oval staircase you now find three elegant rooms where the food is more affordable, while the downstairs area is for diners seeking more courses.
You work closely with Interior Designer, Tom Stringer, and have several collaborators on the new restaurants you are considering in Asia, Europe, and Los Angeles. Each owner is seeking a unique appeal. How do you address this?
Our goal is to provide a seamless environment, where the guest isn’t distanced from the food being served. There is the loud, bistro-type place, where everything is very attractive – you want the eye to dance a little. There are restaurants where the focus is on comfort – where you are enveloped in your chair, and are able to have the feeling of favorite seat at home, but still experience something a little more special. In this type of restaurant, the architect and the designer want to eliminate all distractions so the guests can relax.
The goal is for all is to create an experience that you don’t have at home, and hopefully you haven’t see elsewhere.
As architect for the Alinea Group, you work on several restaurants simultaneously, what else have you been working on lately?
With Alinea up and running, we have been working in New York on the Aviary, which is in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel at Columbus Circle. It is sort of a cocktail lounge that will be handling breakfast and lunch for the hotel, plus a high tea that will surely redefine that concept. Like Chicago, the New York Aviary will have an Office within, a speakeasy kind of space. I collaborated with building designer Adam Tihany on this project. Tom Stringer and I worked together on Alinea 1.0 and 2.0, Aviary, Office, and Next here in Chicago. For Roister, I worked with 555 design and fabrication.”
Based on your experience, what should we look for in a three-star restaurant, which is Michelin’s highest rating?
The service has to be impeccable and there has to be consistency and vision, as well as visually stimulating food. A premier restaurant is filled with complexity, but great partnerships evolve.
You are known both for the restaurants you design as well as clubs, hospitality venues, and homes. Are there similarities?
Collaboration is so key. I have designed homes for people in the restaurant industry, and with many people, we know one another’s work and we can put things together. With a home, you have similar decisions – whether it is classical or minimal, or what the historical precedent is – and then also to think about what fits the person who commissions you.
What was your first restaurant commission?
Danilo Lenzi asked me to design Piccolo Sogno. It had been four loft apartments previously.
If left to your own devices, what would your dream restaurant be?
I would want a restaurant that would be different every time you walked in, you just wouldn’t know what to expect. That could be achieved with projected images, possibly.
Steve and his vibrant wife, Old Masters Society of the Art Institute President, Laura de Frise, recently returned from Los Angeles, where daughter Aubrey graduated Phi Beta Kappa from USC. Son Peter Rugo, who began his career in digital music marketing while a student at USC, credits his father’s entrepreneurial abilities for own fast-moving career.
There are few things that move faster than the restaurant world and we look forward to seeing what space Steve will dazzle us with next.