To avoid a midday website crash, Next restaurant put tickets on sale for its latest concept, Childhood, sometime after midnight last night and sold out before 10 a.m. today. Don't worry, the restaurant has held seats to be pushed out as same-day offers.
While some things had been revealed about the new conceptual menu, the full idea of how childhood would be transformed into a meal has not yet been released. Eater, however, sat down with chefs Grant Achatz and Dave Beran to discuss what eager diners could expect of the menu, which starts Saturday night and will continue for the next three months at which time Next will introduce its elBulli tribute menu.
So how will you translate childhood on to a plate?
Achatz: I think it's going to take people by surprise, what we've come up with. I feel like people think we're going to just make mac and cheese and meatloaf, but this menu is very Alinea. It's highly manipulated, conceptual, highly refined. The childhood theme is the creative jumping off point. Clearly we're not going to give you whole wheat bread with PBJ. We're trying to wrap our heads around quintessential childhood growing up in the late '70s, '80s and early '90s in the Midwest. I think it's going to be a lot of fun.
So does this follow the idea of having each menu at Next fall into a specific place in time?
Achatz: It is, think St. Clair, Mich., in 1984 and Paw Paw, Mich., in 1987. I think this one lends itself way more than Tour of Thailand did. Now we're really framing it on our experiences as children. That's from the ages of five to 12. They say that 80 percent of your flavor fingerprint is established in that age range. You look at that and you go, well, every Friday night my mom used to make mashed potatoes and meatloaf and every time I have meatloaf, I think of her meatloaf.
Where did the initial idea come from?
Beran: it started by wanting to do a menu based on Where the Sidewalk Ends. For me, there was a desire to do something where we weren't cooking someone else's food. But, we couldn't get permission to do Where the Sidewalk Ends; the estate wouldn't grant permission.
So then that idea morphed into childhood?
Achatz: It was Dave's idea to do the book, but when we realized we couldn't accomplish that, we both fell in love with the idea. If you think about it, we've been cooking and trying to play with emotions of nostalgia at Alinea forever.
Beran: It's like taking one of the single dishes at Alinea, like the pheasant oak branch and extrapolating out the entire menu. That dish is one of those dishes that takes you somewhere that even if you're not familiar with the oak leaves you can somehow relate to that dish. The idea is that this menu is a collection of those. So for three months, we have the ability to build on that idea.
What was the process like of coming up with the menu?
Achatz: You come up with the iconic Midwestern things: PBJ, macaroni and cheese, hamburgers. Beyond even that, [Beran] was like "One of the things I think about in childhood is licking something directly off a beater that you made chocolate chip cookies with."
Beran: Sneaking something like, when your dad finishes his cocktail and you steal that olive. It's also about the sense of wonder or discovery. When you're little everything is giant and you think, "What's fun when you're little?"
Achatz: Dave brought up the scale, where [when you're a kid] buildings look bigger than they are and we thought of that in the progression and how we could highlight that. In one point in the meal you'll eat something very small and then eat something very large. Creatively speaking, you can really hone in on those emotional touchstones and articulate that through service or food or serviceware itself.
You used things like Thai newspapers for Tour of Thailand and we already know you're using lunch boxes for a course. How else will you present the food?
Beran: We didn't want too many of the kitschy things. We didn't want it to be perceived as a joke. We talked about materials for the table top and in the end we decided it was good to do one or two things like lunch boxes or a jello mold.
Achatz: Then there are things like a giant bowl with a little soup in it. Most kids have placemats. I had Scooby Doo and Superman. Are we going to put those down? No, but we will have adult versions of that like a high-end material. There will be literal elements, beyond that it'll be more a grown up version of childhood.
So how many courses are on the menu?
Beran: There are 11 in the dining room menu and 15 on kitchen table. But the lunch box has six bites in it.
Tell me about some of the dishes.
Beran: Well, the campfire is really iconic. For a while I wanted to set something on fire in the dining room. My mom makes sweet potato pie every Thanksgiving. It's like a casserole with sweet potatoes and marshmallows on top. I was thinking about how that felt like fall to me and then started playing with this idea of making things look like charcoal. I threw sweet potatoes into the stock and they came out looking like charcoal. Then I asked, "What if we can set this on fire?" Sitting around a campfire feels familial and like fall. Everyone has that experience. I figured out how to powder alcohol with aroma and put it on the logs and set it on fire in the center of the table so you have a campfire on the table. As it burns, the rest of the course comes out: apricot puree, streusel, bourbon ice cream, side of english toffee caramel sauce to pour with it. When the fire goes out, the powder tastes like the outside of a burnt marshmallow that's coated with sweet potatoes and you put it on top of this course. I wanted to avoid serving a s'more because everyone thought we had to serve a s'more. This is the final dessert.
So you mentioned a big bowl, are you doing a soup course?
Beran: So it's a chicken noodle soup, but there's no noodles. The noodles are made from chicken.
Achatz: It's "chicken noodle" soup.
Beran: At the end of it, when it's done, it tastes like a really good roasted chicken noodle soup.
You also talked about a painting. What's that about?
Achatz: I said at one point, "What about fishing? I take my kids fishing." Then [Beran] said, "What about painting or drawing?" We then said we should do something that a kid painted that you'd want to put on the refrigerator.
Beran: We started Googling a lot of little kids paintings and there's always a cloud, and a stick figure and the sun in the corner. And then we started asking what the flavors are for each image on the plate. So what it ended up being is fried fish.
Ah, you drew on a plate. What goes on it?
Beran: We've been calling it Fish and Chips: a layer of tartar sauce base, beer batter, caper, cornichon, fresh dill, sea beans, sea grapes -- the coating of beer battereed fried fish with the sauce. These are cucumbers for waves with a Vichy Catalan, a sparkling water from Spain that's minerally and salty, put on top. It's a Meyer lemon sun puree. Fish, a walleye, is wrapped in a potato net and fried.
Any other dishes you want to reveal now?
Beran: Apple cider doughnuts with foie gras frosting. This was kind of a happy accident. At Alinea, we did an olive oil jam and so I was trying to do this technique with foie gras. What happened was I got a weird sweet, syrupy foie gras. I was a good base for something, but wasn't functional. As we whipped it, it started looking like frosting. It tastes like foie terrine and we had the idea of serving it with the beater, but we're not sure if it's going to be on the plate or mark the table with it. We talked about different cakes and ideas of what you'd put frosting on. It's the fall and we'd always gets apple cider doughtnuts in the fall and it all worked together.
What about drink pairings?
Achatz: They're working on cardamom verbena lemonade for the chicken. That'll probably carry over to the Fish course. In the lunchbox there's a thermos that will come with a homemade punch based on apple cider, fig juice, cherry juice, blueberry -- and idea is that it comes [non-alcoholic] and then we can spike it table side or leave it N/A.
Well, it sounds pretty cool. Thanks for the time guys.
Recently, Achatz and Craig Schoettler, his exec chef at The Aviary, took part in a culinary lecture series at Harvard. During the video, they discuss the campfire dish that will be served during Childhood. Get a sneak peek below; it starts around one hour and 11 minutes in.
· Next Ticketing System Crashes With 20k Unique Logins; Causes Uproar on Facebook [~EChi~]
· Next to Begin Service for Childhood on Saturday; Introduces Teaser Video [~EChi~]
· All Next Restaurant Coverage on Eater Chicago