After experiencing Next's Tour of Thailand, I couldn’t help but to play the music journalist, thinking ‘nice album…when’s the next one coming out?’ For the answer to that (and more), I got Next grand poobah Grant Achatz on the horn.
So, what’s next at Next?
So basically Dave [Berand, Next’s chef de cuisine] and I were going ‘All right, we did Escoffier and then challenged ourselves with Thai—which, side note, we don’t claim to be Thai experts but it was our version of it—so we did those and now what?’ Well, Dave is an Alinea cook. He was there for almost five years, and while he totally respects the creative processes with Escoffier [Paris 1906] and figuring out how to cook Thai food, he wanted the next thing to be a little more Alinea-like. So he was like ‘What if we try to create a menu based on a book of children’s poetry?’ and I’m like ‘Oh Jesus, talk about taking a risk, now we’re opening a huge can of worms.’ But at the same time I thought it was really cool idea, very creative. And the thing is, I have a thing called the Pancake Theory, where even though my Mom made her pancakes out of a box of Bisquick, they were the best, and every one I have after them gets compared to that. Just as if there’s a guy who goes to TAC Quick or Sticky and has the papaya salad three or four times a month, that’s the one he’s comparing ours too. My point with the Pancake Theory is that is if we do a menu based on a book of poetry there is no apple-to-apple comparison because it’s completely our take on it. So we identified a book that we thought we wanted to use as a creative impetus.
What’s the book?
It was Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends. But it turns out, it was very difficult legally because it wasn’t old enough to be in public domain, so then we had to get permission from Harper Collins, and the author had passed away, so we had to get permission from his estate which turned out to be a complete shitshow. So we abandoned the idea of following the book, but shifted to the idea of child’s play, childhood. All of the emotions, the nostalgia, the memories you have when you’re forming your flavor fingerprint in life, when you’re growing up and you experience things for the first time and they’re ingrained in your memory. So we’re trying to harness that idea. Maybe that’s over the top but a group of us sat around until 6am, just going around the table and answering the question: ‘What do you remember from when you’re young?’ The answers weren’t even directly related to food. More like ‘I remember the first time my father pushed me on my bike, pedaling on my own,’ and that launched into 15 minutes about something we can play off of, whether it’s that or Dave’s mom’s meatloaf or Friday night fish frys at local churches.
So it's not so much ‘Oh I always ate Fruity Pebbles when I watched Saturday morning cartoons, so there should be a riff on those flavors’ but more the general idea and feeling of new experiences?
Exactly. We can’t manufacture a menu that’s going to hit every emotional experience for every person—that’s not the point. We’re using childhood as a creative jumping-off point, which I realized was important when we were sitting there, the five of us, and our assistant GM, Ashley, as the only girl at the table, says ‘Wait a minute, you guys are all talking little league, camping, fishing…what about things specific for little girls?’ So in order for it not to be about gender or class, it has to solely be about what it’s like to be a child, the awe of the world. If we can articulate that, and find those things inherently common in children emotionally, those lightbulb moments, we can capture the essence of childhood through the experience.
And how will you do that, the more cerebral theory of it as opposed to literal representation?
It’s important that we’re not serving corndogs and lollipops. It’s important that we’re creating highly refined food that emulates or evokes these sort of emotions. Let me tell you a little story. Back in 2006 when Curtis [Duffy] was chef de cuisine [at Alinea], we had a short rib dish we cooked sous vide, and at one point he grabbed it and seared off the side on a flattop to caramelize the edge, which makes sense. But I tasted it and it tasted like a hamburger, so I go ‘We can’t serve that because it tastes just like a hamburger.’ So I wouldn’t let him sear it because that wasn’t the focus of that dish. But now, with Childhood, where we want you to think about backyard barbecues with your parents and 4th of July—now we have something. So now we’ll intentionally take the sous vide short rib and sear it to make it taste like hamburger but it will still look highly composed, with highly manipulated garnishes that will support that, via ketchup or lettuce and tomato or whatever it ends up being. And ideally when you dig in, you’ll be transported to that place, but we still have to be able to pull it off so it looks like a four-star experience.
When will you get started?
Well, the last day for Thailand is October 9th, and it should take us a week to implement Childhood so around 15th of October or so I expect.
And after it has its three-month run?
Well, we’re leaving in two weeks for Sicily. Dave and I have been focusing on making seasonality a major thing in the coming year. We can’t hide that we’re in Chicago and the growing season is very short. Right now we have beautiful corn and tomatoes at the market but in the middle of February, not a whole lot. So certain cuisines are well suited to certain seasons. For Sicily, we need to do that in the summer so that we can have those ingredients, those squash blossoms, those tomatoes...all of it will help us be more indicative of what it’s really like in Sicily in summer, so that will be on the schedule for summer of 2012.
Why Sicily? What inspired the trip?
Precisely because I don’t know anything about it. The fact that it’s a little island but has this very identified culinary personality, I find that very fascinating. Next doing Italy is a no-brainer, but we need it to be more focused, more honed in.
Honed in enough to assign a time to it as you did with Paris 1906? Or will you do away with the time period like dropping the 2060 for Thailand?
We figured out we didn’t know enough about Thai cooking to extrapolate what it would look like in the future. Andy [Ricker, of Portland's Pok Pok] might be able to riff on what might be happening in Thailand 50 years from now, just based on his intensive familiarity of the traditions and his travels there, but we really didn’t know. I feel like we went very mainstream with Thailand, putting things like beef curry that you see everywhere, but we wanted to start with the basics. It was very important for us to learn those cooking techniques. The thing with the time, when we do Childhood it’s not Grant Achatz 1982, it’s just childhood. It should resonate even with my parents, there should be something universal they can pull from just as well. For Kyoto in Spring do we need to do Kyoto in Spring 1949? No. It doesn’t matter with year like it did with Escoffier [Paris 1906], so we’ll only add that when it’s an important element. For example, we’ll eventually do my first day at the French Laundry, October 28, 1996. I can literally pull out the menu from the first time I was at French Laundry, and we can attempt to recreate that.
So Childhood next, Kyoto in spring 2012, Sicily in summer 2012…what about El Bulli?
Absolutely El Bulli. Dave was the one to originally suggest El Bulli: the Regression. We ate there together in 2007, and of course we were moved by the meal and clearly everyone knows how important Ferran Adria is. Plus, I was there for his last service and when I was, I talked to him about the idea of doing El Bulli and he was excited. Our idea is to do a course a year for the duration of the restaurant, to show the evolution. He took over in 1987, so there are more than 20 years of creativity and expression there. If we can hone in on one course per year to best exemplify the way that restaurant changed things during that particular year, well, that’s going to be big, and I think it’s very important that he comes in on it so we’re going to make that happen.
How many times am I going to have to refresh my browser to get tickets to that one?
(Laughing) We’ll do what we can to make sure the server can handle that one for sure.