By Kevin Pang
2:57 PM CST, November 29, 2012
If there's some grand unifying theory stringing together Next’s 2013 menus, it’s the challenge of how a restaurant can cook under self-imposed limitations.
Consider the candidates from the Next brainchild in the running: 1700s Charleston (inspired after a conversation with South Carolinian chef Sean Brock). Turn-of-the-20th century New Orleans. A menu dubbed “The Signatures,” showcasing the signature dishes of 15 of the world’s best-known restaurants (say, "Oysters and Pearls" from The French Laundry, or Robuchon potatoes).
But rather than food of a time or place (Sicily, Kyoto) or something more abstract and fanciful (Childhood), the three menus of Next’s 2013 season have the feel of conceptual boxes Dave Beran, Grant Achatz & Co. place themselves into, then ask: "How do we make good food given these parameters?”
"The cornerstone of creativity is a problem," Achatz said. "And solving the problem produces creativity."
Take its third iteration, debuting at Next in September 2013: A menu dictated by the rules of the Bocuse d’Or cooking competition. In many ways the Bocuse d’Or is Iron Chef meets the Olympics: The same proteins are assigned to each of the 24 international teams competing (Irish beef, turbot and European blue lobster in the 2013 competition), who then have five hours and 35 minutes to present 14 plates and three garnishes (one of the garnishes must represent the national team’s heritage). The rules are all highly regimented and confoundingly precise.
How Next will translate the platter-style presentation of the Bocuse d’Or into a dining experience remains to be seen (mousselines and gelees, certainly), but Achatz said he's already thinking about diner interactivity, such as letting them vote on the proteins, in the spirit of competition. Achatz himself is a coach for the 2013 Team U.S.A.
Said Dave Beran, the chef tasked with its day-to-day execution: "My first thought [in deciding the menus] is it has to be unpredictable moving into next year. It has to be a complete opposite of what we’ve been doing.”
So the transformation from the delicate, seafood-prominence of its current Kyoto menu to one heavy on blood, game and aggressive flavors is fitting. One of the challenges with "The Hunt" menu, scheduled to debut the second week of January, will be in its ingredient sourcing — expect to see bear jerky and venison heart tartare, for example. Some terms Beran kept referring to in describing the concept: Outdoors, survival, foraging, "Little House on the Prairie," opulent cognac-swilling sport hunters.
When the menu turns again in May, the restaurant will present an all-vegan tasting. I asked Beran whether serving just vegetables would turn off the meat-eating majority, and more importantly, whether they’d be willing to pay $200-plus without a slice of wagyu or foie gras. Beran suggested the term "vegan" traditionally conjures up tofu burgers and raw lasagna. "Don’t think of fake proteins, think of actual vegetables,” he said. Seasonality and ingredients will be the main drivers.
Said Achatz: "The guy who goes to Gibsons and eats a Porterhouse steak and thinks vegetarian cuisine is unsatisfying, I think those people will be very surprised. Knowing the techniques we can employ to manipulate vegetables, we can even, to a point, make it taste like meat."
Also noteworthy: Sometime this spring, Next will be expanding to seven days a week, said partner Nick Kokonas (Plan is for Alinea and The Aviary to go everyday also). The new Monday and Tuesday seatings will be priced similarly to mid-week tickets, which is to say, less than what you’d pay for a premium Saturday timeslot.
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