We have, in permanent residence in the TOC offices, a Next Superfan. Of late, he has been unable to sleep out of fear that season tickets will be released the moment his tired head hits the pillow. He follows the Twitter accounts of not only Next's chef and owner but its manager and sous chef, seeking in their 140-character dispatches some coded information on the contours of the upcoming menu. This morning, he politely disrupted David Tamarkin and my weekly planning meeting to share a vision he had for a short film that can be described in no other way than Grant Achatz fan fiction. For Superfan's sake, we got Grant Achatz on the horn to tell us a little more about what to expect from the El Bulli menu. Here's what he had to say.
1. Next is not capitalizing on El Bulli; It's honoring El Bulli.
"It starts with the actual personal connection between myself and Ferran [Adria] and the fact that Chef Dave [Beran] and I shared a meal in 2007 at El Bulli that was profound. For him and I, it was like a pilgrimage to a restaurant that we had heard so much about, and I think that was my third meal there. I’ve eaten there five times. And it was really exciting for me, being that at that point I’d already eaten there a couple times, to introduce him to this restaurant. And this is 2007, this is way before we even knew that we were going to open Next, but it became a very important moment for him and I as chefs and friends. So when we were thinking about what menus can we do at Next, it was like, all right, at some point, we need to recreate that experience. It hit us as chefs, as cooks, in such a meaningful way that it was just natural do that menu. And I think some people are like, 'They’re just being elitist,' and 'They’re trying to capitalize on the fact that El Bulli closed,' and it’s not about that at all. It’s about my relationship with Ferran, which is really, really, really tight, and [it's about] chefs coming together to be inspired. Like, that’s why we went there in 2007. To be inspired."
2. It's not the dishes that will necessarily blow your mind; it's the progression.
"This restaurant is iconic. Like basically it is the Escoffier of our generation. So what is the best way to honor that restaurant? And if you think about it, Ferran took over in 1987, and they just closed this year. That is a hell of a run. And the amount of dishes and the amount of concepts and techniques and innovation that they implemented during that duration is almost unfathomable. So we were like, we need to show one iconic dish for every year that they were open since Ferran took over in ’87. So that’s how we approached building the menu. It’s a 32-course menu right now, and every year from ’87 onward is represented to try to show, again, this is what it’s all about, it’s about honoring an amazing, ground-breaking, historic restaurant. So we felt like the best way to do that would be to show one course from every year and how they evolved and how they shaped gastronomy. We took the approach where we were like, Let’s show a dish from 1987, and now, here we are in 2012, when you look at that dish, it’s not going to blow your mind. But when you put it in context of what they accomplished and how quickly they evolved—stylistically, technically, everything—then you go, “Wow.” It’s pretty amazing.
3. These dishes are personal. But they're also historical.
"A lot of people never got to go [to El Bulli]. I mean, they served very few people a year. So if we can help show the world or show Americans or show Chicagoans the importance of this restaurant and how it impacted gastronomy, then I think that’s a worthwhile pursuit. And then we went from there, and we were like, okay, we want to involve dishes that resonated with us personally. I staged there in 2000. Coming right out from the French Laundry and going there to stage, there were certain dishes that just blew my mind. Like, blew my mind. So to me, I have a personal connection to those. So we’re going to put those on the menu. And subsequently, all the meals that I had there afterwards, there were certain dishes that I just felt were amazing, and those will be on the menu. And then when chef Dave and I ate there, there were certain dishes that we just sat there and looked at each other and were just like, 'Wow.' So the ones that we felt really were compelling and powerful, those are going to be on the Next menu as well. And then, honoring El Bulli itself, it’s like, there’s certain things that they did in gastronomy that were groundbreaking. So we want to show the world that. We want to show the first hot foam, the first hot gelatin, the first time that they made a foldable gelatin sheet. These techniques to the culinary world are very important, and we want to highlight those. Basically we looked at the menu from two angles: We looked at it from the signifance of our personal opinion—times that I’ve eaten there and staged in the kitchen, times that Chef [Dave Beran] and I have eaten there together—and then what we feel they contributed to the culinary world throughout the duration of 1987 up until 2011.
4. Next is flat-out copying. Which is not the same as copycatting.
"They’re flat-out [recreations of El Bulli dishes]. We’ve been working really closely with Ferran and three of his chef de cuisines. And a lot of the books that they have are incredibly well-documented, but there’s some gaps. So if we have a question on how a dish should come together, we literally just email him, and he’ll send us the recipe. Here’s the thing: It went up on Eater the other day, and people were just ripping us apart. Going like, you know, 'These guys are copycatting.' No. It’s not about copycatting. It’s about honoring. And what they don’t realize is that Ferran and I are actually friends. And we had this idea, and I was like, we need to talk to him about this. And when he was in Chicago and Chris Borrelli did that thing in the Tribune where he interviewed us, I flat-out said to Ferran, if this isn’t going to make you feel comfortable, then we won’t do it, but for me, this is something that’s going to honor you. And he was just like, 'If anybody’s going to do it, you guys should do it.'...A big part of the impetus was to try to honor him, and we’re working so closely with them. They’re going to fly out their chef de cuisine and a couple of their front of the house people to help us make it very, very authentic. It’s really really cool and incredibly generous. I mean, the materials that they’ve sent us so far have been mind-blowing in their attention to detail and precision: recipes and training manuals and everything."
5. Next food will be El Bulli's. But Next is not El Bulli.
"Here is what I’m afraid of: People obviously are going to go, 'I never had the opportunity to go to El Bulli, so I’m gonna go to Next and experience El Bulli.' Well, you know what, that will never happen. That’s impossible. Because part of the romance of El Bulli is driving up the Costa Brava, and having the Mediterranean right there, and the smell of it and the mist, and it’s right in your face. You can’t replicate that in Chicago. What we can do is we can make the food as close to what they would serve at that restaurant, and that’s what we’re trying to achieve. The romance of that restaurant is one thing, and the food is another. And I think that we’ll genuinely give people an experience of El Bulli food that’s gonna be pretty spot-on. Chef Dave has already tested four [dishes] at this point—the spherified olives, the liquid tortilla—he’s done a lot already, and they taste exactly like they did when I ate there. So from a food perspective, it’ll be amazing. But, again, like we’re saying, El Bulli was a magical restaurant that Next looks nothing like. The tables are way spread out at El Bulli. You’re perched up on a hill top with the Costa Brava right there and the Mediterranean. It’s a very different thing. We’re not saying that we’re gonna recreate it in general, but I think we’re going to get really close actually.