Dave Beran, the chef of Next, called Rodrick Markus, an importer, master tea blender and the owner of Rare Tea Cellar Inc. “Do you have a line on [Japanese] maple leaves?” the chef wanted to know. Maple leaves are virtually impossible to get from Japan: They’re difficult to preserve, and there are many barriers against bringing in plant material.
Not only did Markus have a line on maple leaves, the line was his younger brother, Brent, an expert in rare Japanese maples who owns Rare Tree Nursery in Oregon. He called him.
Rodrick: “I need leaves yesterday.”
Brent: “Well, what [is Next] doing with it?”
Rodrick: “Brent, I don’t have a frickin’ clue yet.”
“Technically, a maple leaf isn’t edible,” Beran explains. So when Rodrick came into the Next kitchen with 15 varieties of maple leaves, the chef blanched each type in sweetened water, cooled them, fried them and tasted them.
“Some of the leaves we had were just bitter—tannic,” the chef says. “Some of them were just flat-out gross.” He was looking for something edible, delicate. Finally, he found it: the Autumn Moon variety. He needed 650–700 hand-picked maple leaves per week, all about 1½–2¼ inches in diameter.
Slight problem: “Later, we found it’s, like, the rarest Japanese maple in the U.S.,” Beran says.
Second choice: the Emperor II. Rodrick called Brent.
Rodrick: “They need 9,500 leaves for the season.”
“We’ve had guys out every week, four guys at least ten hours a week, picking the meticulous examples of this leaf,” Rodrick says. The leaves are overnighted to Chicago, where they’re layered into the penultimate course of Next’s kaiseki-style menu: a plate of roasted black mission figs, fried yuba made in-house, a drizzle of BLiS Elixir vinegar, concord grapes and the maple leaf, dusted with powdered Vermont maple sugar (pictured, above).
For the uninitiated: Welcome to Next. The menu changes every four months. Paris, Thailand, Childhood, El Bulli, Sicily and now Kyoto—the hardest menu to source ingredients for thus far, Beran says. The edible maple leaves are just the beginning. Beran also wanted maple-leaf branches, for plating. “Moon-viewing and changing leaves are a focal point” of the menu, the chef says. However: “You can only cut the trees at certain times of year,” Rodrick says. “We just barely made it through.” The team harvested 2,000 pieces and shipped them to Next, where they’re arranged among sliced bottarga and duck breast–wrapped turnips, with fried shrimp heads and legs dangling from the branches “like they’re climbing up trees, reaching for the moon,” Beran says.
A focus on sensory images continues throughout the meal, and with it come new challenges for sourcing. Rodrick also has a line on matsutake mushrooms—“the white truffle of Japan,” as he calls them—from foragers in Oregon. At Next, Beran makes a stock out of them, then cools it and cold-infuses it with raw matsutakes and seaweed as the base for chawan mushi, a steamed custard that’s then garnished with a fresh slice of matsutake and a pine needle.
“Matsutakes grow at the base of pine trees,” Beran explains, so an arrangement of pine needles are set in the center of the table along with the custard. “The matsutake season was starting off a little slow,” due to the year’s terrible weather patterns, Rodrick says, so he asked his mushroom foragers if they could gather the pine that grows around the mushrooms instead. For Rodrick, these challenges are thrills: “When Dave calls or Grant [Achatz] calls, it’s about as exciting as it gets in this business.”