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Iron Chef Cat Cora Storms Out of Alinea After Reservation Dispute

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The celeb chef and the Chicago restaurant are embroiled in a social media fight

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Cat Cora didn’t eat at Alinea over the weekend.
Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images for SiriusXM
Ashok Selvam is the editor of Eater Chicago and a native Chicagoan armed with more than two decades of award-winning journalism. Now covering the world of restaurants and food, his nut graphs are super nutty.

Over the weekend, Alinea — the prominent Chicago fine dining restaurant — and Cat Cora — a TV host and the first woman with the Iron Chef title — engaged in a social media clash over customer service which may have been (depending on who you believe) a mistake over a reservation or a failed attempt by a celebrity chef to receive special treatment. On Saturday night, Cora, who was not seated, stormed out of the Lincoln Park restaurant yelling obscenities. She posted her account on Instagram on Sunday morning, criticizing Alinea and writing that the restaurant botched her reservation.

A camera caught Cora extending a middle finger to staff as she exited Alinea. Cora, who was in Chicago for the International Home + Housewares Show, criticized chef Grant Achatz for not rectifying the situation and called the restaurant “arrogant” and “disrespectful.” She told staff that she knew Achatz; Alinea’s team disputes the friendship, but Cora was angry that Achatz, who was in the kitchen on Saturday, didn’t personally address the problem.

“We understand that mistakes can be made but at least show your face, come and apologize to your guests,” Cora wrote in a since-deleted Instagram post.

Cora’s Instagram post presented emails as proof of her Saturday reservation. She would head to the West Loop to eat at Girl & the Goat, fellow Iron Chef Stephanie Izard’s Randolph Street restaurant: “Chef Grant — you should take a lesson this from your mentor and my friend #charlietrotter.”

Alinea co-founder Nick Kokonas, eager to defend his restaurant’s reputation, commented on Cora’s post and turned to Medium to share his team’s account of the events. He wrote Cora’s posts weren’t confirmation of her reservation. Kokonas posted screenshots showing that Cora had a confirmation for a Friday reservation and claimed that Cora didn’t like the time slot and no showed. He claimed Cora threw a tantrum on Saturday because she expected special treatment that she didn’t receive.

Cora’s assistant, via a Wednesday email, asked for the reservation with the subject “Iron Chef Cat Cora Visits This Saturday.” Alinea responded the next day replying they had room for a 5 p.m. Friday, March 1 table. Kokonas would post a confirmation for 9 p.m. Saturday screenshot and wrote that Cora’s party paid for the booking. Alinea uses Kokonas’s own prepaid reservation system, Tock. Cora would proceed to no-show for that Friday reservation.

Kokonas wrote Alinea then reached out to Cora’s assistant asking if she wanted a 9 p.m. reservation for Saturday. The assistant supposedly replied and accepted the new time. Later on Friday, the assistant again replied and wrote that 9 p.m. was too late, according to Kokonas. He wrote that Team Alinea asked if there was anything they could to do, and that they couldn’t offer a table at an earlier time. Cora’s camp asked Alinea to let them know if any earlier time opened up.

Alinea’s team and the assistant eventually chatted on Saturday and according to an email screenshot, the team told her that they wouldn’t be able to seat Cora if she showed up at 5 p.m. The assistant, according to Kokonas, told his team that she was worried Cora would show up at that time, and that she was struggling to reach Cora. The Alinea team relayed to her that he’s canceling the 9 p.m. booking. Kokonas wrote that the team proceeded to email Cora summarizing what happened.

On Sunday, Kokonas told Eater Chicago he didn’t like how Cora’s post tagged several industry chefs including David Chang, Thomas Keller, and Dominque Crenn. He said he would have never published a post if Cora left and let it go, even if she acted “disruptive and offensive.”

“I’m particularly sensitive when any customer tries to use social media as a cudgel to get their way. For her to do it in a threatening manner — while her wife tried to video [GM Devin McKinney] as he apologized — is just crazy,” Kokonas wrote via email.

The story, between a well-known celebrity chef and Chicago’s most decorated restaurant, became conversation fodder for chefs and restaurant media in Chicago and across the country. Observers were attempting to decipher what happened. Some local chefs even compared it to the Jussie Smollett case in Chicago, with one chef saying that Cora should have learned that “people will get to the truth.” Others had trouble picking a side. Some wanted more details. Kokonas’s original Medium post included actual emails, but they were removed due to legal concerns.

After Kokonas’s Medium post, Cora deleted her Instagram post. Cora’s wife, Nicole Ehrlich, was with Cora on Saturday at Alinea. Ehrlich on Sunday sent in a statement from Cora.

After a frustrating encounter, the post was originally put up to start a conversation about what hospitality means to people. My wife and I did not like the way The restaurant handled the mistake they made with our reservation. They took their post down, we took our post down. We accomplished what we wanted: A conversation. We wish Grant, who is undeniably one of the most accomplished chefs, only the best. We always try to support local restaurants and chefs where-ever we go and will continue to do so.

Kokonas isn’t one to shy away from spotlight as earlier this year he criticized the spread offered to the national champion Clemson football team at the White House. Meanwhile, it’s another zany chapter for fine dining leaving many to wonder if this was just a mix up of days between Alinea and the assistant leading to social media material. Some preferred the climate of five years ago when crying infants were what Alinea was worrying about.

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