At Next, there is rarely such a thing as just a centerpiece.
"I don't want to bore you," Dave Beran says, searching for an image on his laptop. The chef opens up a photograph of a bare tree, standing amid a field of just-bloomed flowers: "This reminds me of the start of spring," he says. This, and—having grown up in upstate New York and Michigan—budding apple trees. The picture is the prelude to Beran's explanation for why the tables in the southeast corner of Next's rectangular dining room, which on Friday hosted "friends and family" for the first run of the restaurant's new menu, were crowded with vases filled with apple-tree branches covered in reindeer lichen (an edible, whitish-gray moss).
"I hate when things like centerpieces aren't relevant. If you put flowers on the table, they should be relevant," Beran says. For those who see Next as a dramatic production, beware the spoiler ahead: These branches' relevance comes not just from their function as a serving piece (the giant crackers tucked among them make up part of the first course), but also as a motif threaded into the menu's narrative. They resurface in a later course, the lichen-covered apple trees reimagined as fermented apples (cured in salt and sugar for two months, yielding a fizzy, carbonated texture and savory flavor) paired with raw green apples, green-apple ice, "a bunch of different cashew textures," the bitter-tasting lichen and a Faviken-inspired apple-cider vinegar that's been aged in a charred oak log, out of which it's spooned, tableside, onto the dish.
By the way, these aren't just any reindeer lichen. "If I'm a purveyor in the city, and I have reindeer lichen," Beran says theoretically, "I'm gonna call the handful of top restaurants that I know, and the next thing you know, it's on the menu at restaurants one through five." The lichen in the vases at Next didn't come from a purveyor: It came from Next's Research and Development guy's wife's parents' house in Washington, narrowly saving the fallen apple trees from the wood chipper. "So I'm excited about ours because it comes from basically our family's backyard," Beran says. You get the sense talking to the chef that after manning turn-of-the-20th-century Parisian, forward-thinking Thai, kaiseki-inspired Japanese and homespun Sicilian menus (not to mention the one where they replicated dozens of dishes from what was, at least for a while, considered the best restaurant in the world), the novelty of sourcing rare ingredients just for the sake of it doesn't cut it anymore.
To trace the significance of this vegan menu back even further, it might help to know what Beran—who comes across as earnest, thoughtful and preternaturally conditioned to perform an amount of labor most people would find soul-crushing—was like in high school. "I grew up in Syracuse, New York, and there was a huge straight-edge, vegan population there," Beran recalls. "And I was into music and just the whole scene in general." Beran was a vegetarian for seven years—sophomore year of high school through college—and an "off-and-on" vegan for two of those. The following quotation sums up his culinary interest during that time: "So you're gonna eat two bags of salt-and-vinegar potato chips; that would be vegan, technically." ("I didn't know anything about food," Beran explains.)
Whether because of Beran's teenage vegetarianism or in spite of it, the chef displays an eagerness about working sans animal products that one would have a hard time imagining many of his fat-and-offal–loving peers evincing. Simply in preparation for this menu, he has been a vegan for the past three months, during which time he has eaten at nearly every vegan restaurant in Chicago (including breakfast "like three times a week" at the Flying Saucer). "Before we opened Next, I was talking about wanting to do a vegan menu," Beran says. But the menu he's had in mind was something different from the vegan tastings he worked on at Alinea, where meat dishes were essentially adapted to accommodate non-animal–eating guests. "I could always replicate dishes as vegan dishes," says Beran, "but it doesn't really do them justice."
At Next's vegan menu, which officially launches this week once Beran returns from the James Beard Awards (where he's nominated for Best Chef: Great Lakes), the focus is on vegan food, sui generis. In general, Beran "tried to avoid fake meat," but when Next does serve it, the restaurant simply calls it what it is: "We're saying, this is tempeh. Dressed in soy sauce with fresh basil growing on top. It's a one-bite course." There's quinoa—made into a dimensional "wire" inspired by the chocolate and masa wires devised by Alex Stupak, the chef of New York's Empellón. ("Unless I get vetoed," says Beran, "the menu says: Red onion, inspired by Alex Stupak.") There's radicchio, kale, French white asparagus with a circumference larger than a quarter. There's a mushroom "cart," inspired by French cheese carts, that's wheeled to the table to showcase to diners the mushrooms that will be featured in a later dish, the restaurant's riff on that ubiquitous vegetarian entrée, mushroom risotto. (Next's is with farro, sunflower seeds and whipped sunflower milk.) All of this is to say it's evident the loss of animal products has not led to a loss of ambition on the restaurant's part. "Aside from El Bulli," says Beran, "this is the biggest menu we've done." And although this might change, "right now it's bigger—in terms of course number—than Alinea." And just like the apple branches that give way to actual apples in the current iteration of the vegan meal, the menu itself will change significantly midway through its run, as tomatoes and stone fruit take over from the current first buds of the season.