Talking to Nick Kokonas about Everything but His Businesses
Nick Kokonas and chef Grant Achatz are behind some of Chicago’s most innovative dining experiences. Starting in 2005 with Alinea—Chicago’s only Michelin three-star restaurant—the team of Kokonas and Achatz later established the Alinea Group to manage Next, The Aviary, Roister, Crucial Detail, The Aviary NYC and, most recently, a pop-up in Madrid. In 2014, under the Alinea Group umbrella, Kokonas launched Tock, the online reservation and customer-relationship-management system that serves tens of millions of diners in twenty-four countries.
My visit with Kokonas at Tock headquarters wasn’t to talk about the business of Tock, nor even his restaurants, although inevitably those topics poked in. The goal was to discover Kokonas’ other passions, which are also among Newcity’s central concerns: literature, art, music and movies.
The culinary accomplishments of Kokonas, largely in league with Achatz, are so monumental—we haven’t mentioned his books, including the stunningly designed, eight-pound “The Aviary Cocktail Book”—that it’s easy to forget there’s a guy in the middle of all that development, who, in what spare time he has, likes to read, listen to music and go to movies.
I’ve known Kokonas for over ten years, and before we met up, I read everything by and about him. His book, “Life on the Line,” co-written with Achatz, contains a lot of detail about his time before he met Achatz and the early years of their partnership at Alinea. Kokonas had an amazingly dense and rich conversation with entrepreneur-author-tech start-up investor-podcaster Tim Ferriss late last year, mostly about business. It went on for over three-and-a-half hours as a podcast.
I didn’t want to cover well-traveled ground about his brilliant business successes. I was eager to find out about life-changing events—particularly aesthetic experiences—that shaped this extraordinary Chicagoan.
Literature: “Gosh, I’m never going to do anything as well as that.”
Kokonas recalls the moment he was gripped by the power of words, by literature.
“I was in high school, I got mono my senior year, really bad. On top of that, I had chickenpox. I’d never had chickenpox until I was eighteen, which is a terrible thing. So I started reading Dostoevsky, ‘Notes from Underground.’ Now that is a dark, dark book, and I remember the feeling of reading it. Have you ever gone to the symphony and looked at all the people who are playing and just thought ‘I’ve never dedicated myself to something as well as every single one of those eighty or so people up there has dedicated themselves?’ And I remember reading ‘Notes from Underground’ and thinking, ‘Gosh, I’m never going to do anything as well as that.’”
An ironic confession, in that Kokonas has probably been a restaurateur as well as anybody has. “Then I got into this big phase of reading the Russian classics, like I remember, reading [Mikhail] Lermontov, ‘A Hero of Our Time.’ The hero in the title is an antihero—this was considered one of the first books with an antihero—and he really was an awful guy. ‘A Hero of Our Time’ is also a really, really great book for right now in America.”
The main character in “A Hero of Our Time” is Grigory Alexandrovich Pechorin, a highly manipulative individual who sees life as a constant struggle to gain power over others. It’s all about the power, so, yes, I can see modern-day parallels to the antihero of Lermontov’s novel.
Kokonas, who attended Colgate University as a philosophy major, is a strong believer in the importance of a liberal arts education, a general introduction to many fields of learning, few of which a person will enter again. He believes one of those liberal arts, literature, may be the best preparation for a career, any career.
“People say to me, ‘I want to be an entrepreneur.’ I get ten emails a day like that because the Tim Ferriss podcast has been downloaded millions of times. I get those ten emails a day saying ‘Wow, I want to do what you did. What business book can you recommend?’ And I’m like, I don’t know! Read old French literature or like read, read, read Shakespeare and Hemingway. It’s all the same. People have been doing the same thing for years and years. Every business is ultimately serving other people in some way and literature helps you understand human nature. I can figure out the accounting. That’s just counting the shekels as they come in and out. Right? Like, I mean, it’s complicated, you know, but it’s doable.”
Art: “Giving the middle finger to authority.”
One of the classic quotes from Pablo Picasso is “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” I was reminded of that as Kokonas explained that he tries to bring innocence and openness to whatever’s being done, and a willingness to ask “why,” and then suggest how to do everything better. That attitude was the motivating force not only behind Tock, but behind the other innovations at the Alinea Group.
“Lateral thinking is the stuff that’s exciting. I didn’t know how to run a restaurant. I still don’t think I really do. I don’t think anyone does. Every restaurant is different, you know. The zen philosophy is that you must have a beginner’s mind. So, if you approach something always with a beginner’s mind, you’re always trying to learn, you’re always trying to look at it differently. You’re always trying to see around the corner a little bit and see how it is done and why is it done that way.”
Lateral thinking, seeing a situation from a different angle, is one of the hallmarks of how Kokonas has led his professional life, the way he has challenged the authority of business-as-usual. Tock, for instance, was formed when Kokonas and Achatz lamented Alinea’s no-shows, the people with reservations who didn’t show up, didn’t call to cancel and ended up costing Alinea thousands of dollars in lost revenue. The answer was to develop a ticketing system that would discourage no-shows and offer significant enhancements to customers’ dining experience at Alinea Group restaurants. In the past, no one had questioned the hidebound, time-honored system of holding a table for a customer and hoping they’d show up. This is the way restaurant reservations had been handled for years and the way most restaurants are still run.
“You come into situations and you look at the way things are done, and you ask, ‘Why are we doing it this way?’ I look for the workaround. I’m not afraid to say I’d rather work less hard to accomplish the same amount. That’s progress. I’m always astonished when you get somewhere and there’s a really long line and there’s a sign there that says, ‘Form two lines.’ But for some reason, there’s only one line that’s been formed. This happened to me the other day, I swear at, of all places, Portillo’s. I walked past everybody, forty people in one line, even though the second line was clearly delineated and functional. People were like, ‘Hey, don’t cut into line.’ I said, ‘The sign says to form two lines. I’m forming the second line. This is it. I’m a line of one.’ And as soon as I did that, a whole bunch of people came and filled in behind me. That, as a metaphor, is how I feel about authority.”
So, given Kokonas’ iconoclastic attitude toward established ways of doing things, did he possibly, when he was younger, have a problem with authority? He laughed hard.
“That is the best question. I’ve been asked a million questions during the past eight years. That was the best, but, uh, I guess so. Yes. Mostly. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, now, I was nearly a straight-A student and, um, I smoked a little pot here and there and stuff like that, the normal stuff, and I was very, very fortunate that I came from a family where I was an only child, so I got doting, devoted parents. Solid people. I’m very fortunate in that regard and I was terrified of doing anything wrong, mostly just because of my dad.
“Even though I was pretty privileged growing up, I was very much aware that I was the son of immigrants. The rest of my family, there’s a lot of double Greeks there. And some of them were from what they called ‘the old country.’ That’s a very Chicago thing, having these neighborhoods and these people. This is a roundabout way of saying I was a good person. The good teachers I loved very much. The people who were just using their authority to keep their authority, I very much subverted.”
Kokonas constantly surprises me with learning that he’s explored. Given the paintings hanging on the walls at places like Alinea and Roister, I was not surprised to hear that he had an interest in art. “When I was in college, I studied in England for a year and studied the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood at the University of London. Then I was at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris over Thanksgiving, and all that stuff I liked in college, I just hated it. And, I think what I liked about it at the time was how they were kind of just giving the middle finger to authority.”
Music: “I could read music before I could read words.”
During a Chicago Public Radio interview with Achatz years ago, I asked about the music that inspired him, expecting it would be Bach, the Brandenburg Concerti, something precise and nuanced like that. But no. Achatz preferred, at that time, Rage Against the Machine, because he found the unexpected twists and turns in that music inspired him to build similar into expectation-breaking lateral moves in his menu.
Kokonas has said that a characteristic of very successful people is that they are not uni-dimensional; they’re multi-dimensional. They don’t go in one direction, they go in many directions. They try a lot of different things. Again, that’s the liberal arts education talking. And it turns out, unsurprisingly, Kokonas might have been a musical prodigy.
“I could read music before I could read words. When they wrote down C, I couldn’t read the letter, but I could read the note. I was three and a half so I could read the notes before I could read words. I remember memorizing children’s pieces at four or five years old. I would make up the lyrics to the music in order to memorize what came next. To this day, I can hear a song once and pretty much remember all the lyrics.
“I try to grow, but I find myself listening to things I listened to long ago. Satie’s ‘Trois Gymnopédies,’ I absolutely love and listen to all the time. It’s so simple and unstructured, and it was written without measures and so it’s completely left to the interpretation of the artist who’s doing it. It’s just a perfect little piece of music.
“I’m a huge Wilco fan. I know they’re hometown favorites and they call it ‘dad music’ and all that, but what Jeff [Tweedy] does with his music is that he can take something like ‘Sunday Morning,’ it’s just the simplest little round, something that could have been written in 1700. Three chords that the band deconstructs and reconstructs. Brilliant. I like things that have that mix of simplicity and complexity.
“If you put in the right music in the morning, it can change your whole day. I’m a terrible singer, just atrociously bad singer, but I’ll be the guy in the car, music blasting, singing at the top of my lungs at the stop light and just not caring who’s looking.”
Kokonas’ love of art and music may come together in an empty space for which he has big plans. “We’ve spent three years on a space next to Roister that we’ve never opened. I remember one of our former employees was like, ‘Oh, they’re never going to get that done.’ And they’re sucking on the rent and it’s terrible and all that. ‘No, it’s doing exactly what we want it to do right now. Which is nothing.’ I really want to open a music venue. You know that stuff in the twenties and thirties, there was a dinner music thing, right? The Copacabana, Stork Club, you know, those kinds of places. And I really want to serve a Michelin-star meal and have world-class musicians.
“So, I talked to world-class musicians. I’m like, ‘What do you need?’ They say, ‘We want a great-sounding room. We want a recording of every night.’ All of which is doable nowadays. We talked to sound design engineers. We figured out the whole layout. We have the plan done for the whole space. We rented the two apartments above it so we could give it thirty feet of volume. And then I realized I don’t personally have the time to get the bookings together. You have to do that a year out. Last year, Tock grew by 300 percent and it’s really a passion. It’s not really a passion of Grant’s. He knows, loves fine dining better than anyone in the world. I start dragging avant-garde jazz or spoken word, or any kind of sound artist on top of a meal, and suddenly, the meal is not the focal point. So, what happens is you now have a new constraint. Like people can’t use forks, knives—it can’t be noisy—but it still needs to be comfortable. We’re only going to do four courses. But I just didn’t think we could get it done before everything was in sync. That’s fine. Let’s not do it yet.”
Kokonas also has plans to put an art gallery in the still-to-be-built supper club-style performance space. “Yeah. Yeah. I love, love, love visual arts,” he says with the enthusiasm evident in everything he does.
Movies: “Nothing is written.”
The most popular visual art form in the last century was cinema. Finding out the movies someone likes is a ready entrée into the way their mind works, the things that please and the things that don’t, the fantasy worlds they enjoy, if only for an hour or two. I asked Kokonas what movie he saw, either recently or in his youth, that shaped him. He had a quick response, the big Oscar-winning movie of 1962.
“’Lawrence of Arabia,’ number one, all-time. Over the years, they replay it at the Music Box in 70mm. So, I have gone and seen it there and I own the Blu-ray of it. I watch it once a year. It’s a very, very inspiring movie. One of the craziest nights of my life has got to be about ten years ago. I saw Peter O’Toole sitting alone at a hotel bar in New York. I was about to go to bed. And I was like, that’s Peter O’Toole, right? I do not bother people, but I have my exceptions, so, I went over to him, I said, ‘Mr. O’Toole.’ And exactly as you’d expect, he said, ‘Uhhh?’ And I said, ‘My God, I really apologize for bothering you. I would like to buy you another, whatever you’re having, if that’s okay.’ He’s like, ‘I’ve never turned down a free beverage in my life.’ That’s exactly what you’d expect he’d say. Right? So, he gets another martini, and I say ‘It’s just really a pleasure meeting you. You were in my favorite movie of all time.’ He’s like, ‘Well, everyone loves “Lawrence.”‘ I said, ‘No, no, “Caligula”!’ That got him a good smile because, of course, it’s ‘Lawrence.'”
It was very telling, the line that Kokonas remembers, the one that really struck home: “Nothing is written.”
“That’s it. Lawrence goes back into the desert, grabs those two young kids, drags them back and says, ‘Nothing is written.'”
Dining and Drinking Editor for Newcity, David also writes a weekly food column for Wednesday Journal in Oak Park and is a frequent contributor of food/drink and travel pieces to the Chicago Tribune, Plate Magazine and other publications. David has also contributed chapters to several books, including Street Food Around the World, Street Food, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org