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Grant Achatz & Dave Beran Discuss the Inspiration and Creation of Next's elBulli Menu

Photo: Dave Beran and Grant Achatz creating cuttlefish-wrapped coconut ravioli, an Achatz favorite

Next's hugely anticipated elBulli menu kicks off this Wednesday, Feb. 8, and while many have been awaiting the release of the restaurant's coveted season tickets, the first batch of limited seats are being awarded to a lucky few who have been stalking the Next Facebook page. On Saturday, a note was posted instructing people to email in requests by Sunday at midnight for the concept's first five days to not only let Next to kick off the newest iteration, but to also allow staff to continue a slow push before the madness truly sets in.

When it does, people can expect 29-courses over a span of about four hours that reflect a greatest hits of sorts from elBulli's last 25 years before chef/owner Ferran Adria closed it last year. Originally, chef Grant Achatz said the menu would consist of one item from each of the last 25 years, but once he, Next exec chef Dave Beran and their team started compiling the menu, with the assistance of Adria and his team, they realized it couldn't work that way. "We had to make a decision to [either] sacrifice conceptually doing a course from each year or making a well-crafted menu," Achatz said. "[The elBulli team was] pretty opinionated on making sure people enjoy the menu as opposed to making it a museum piece."

What resulted is a spectacular dinner inspired by hours of research, discussion and practical experience of either indulging in the cuisine at elBulli in Roses, Spain or, in the case of when Achatz spent time in the elBulli kitchen, preparing certain dishes. Eater sat down with Achatz and Beran, along with Next general manager Will Douillet and assistant general manager, Ashley Fees, to see just how much went in to re-creating, in their own way, elBulli for Next.

Just thinking about what is going into this menu and the demand from the public makes it feel, well, pretty insane. What do you think?
Beran: It's insane. We've got 11 cooks prepping 30 dishes for 62 guests a night, from arguably the No. 1 restaurant in the world. They had 30 to 40 cooks doing the same number of dishes a night.

Achatz: Logistically, operationally for many reasons this is the hardest [concept] thus far, exceeding Paris, which should have been, in theory, the hardest one because it was the first. But with this one, in my opinion, expectations are incredibly high because you're replicating a restaurant that only recently closed and was considered the best in the world. This is by far the priciest menu we've ever run and we're doing the fewest number of covers a night; we reduced it by 50 percent a night. elBulli was one of the most sought after reservations in the world for years and now everyone is viewing this as an opportunity to experience the restaurant because, in a way, it's been brought back from the dead, which is kind of false. This is as close as anyone will get [to elBulli] until Ferran opens a restaurant again.

Beran: We’ve been working on this for 10 weeks. From the back of house point of view we didn't want to just sit here and look at [Achatz] and say, "Explain your experience to us." We didn't want to just do a greatest hits menu, but find what was great and influential and something we had that may have not been in their top 100, but that we loved.

What went on during the 10 weeks, how did you prepare?
Beran: I read every elBulli menu cover-to-cover, [Adria's] biography, the four DVD set of the history of elBulli, any lecture —everything. Then we tried to define what we wanted. Then the front of house has had a two-hour class session a week for eight to 10 weeks, wine pairings, history of elBulli, Spain, key points about the region and background—even learning Ferran's birthday.

Achatz: Dave got a 10-hour-long DVD that recounts the entire history of elBulli, way before Ferran. It starts when it was founded and follows the arc all the way through [to 2011]. The history ... it used to be a café with a putt-putt golf course. That's the thing with a restaurant that's 50 years old. They had chefs that wanted to elevate it.

Do you feel pressure to live up to its history?
Beran: I don't feel pressure of living up to other people's as much as our own. Everyone will walk in and expect a lot of the trickery and magic and they only know elBulli from seeing it on the cover of the New York Times and don't know the concept of anything before that. And only maybe less than a third of the menu is 2003 or newer. Everyone expects to have the liquid nitrogen [create] smoke to come out their nose. It's more important to me to show that's it more than just a restaurant with tricks; it's really a Spanish tapas restaurant that evolved.

Achatz: This iteration of Next is the most accurate representation of being a culinary historian. What we've done is identify a restaurant and chef that has made such an impact on gastronomy and has such a long duration and drastic evolution in style that we're able to take a snapshot from 1987 to 2011 and not only talk about it, but feed you so you can understand how that restaurant has evolved over the 24 years or whatever it is.

So why was it important for you to do an elBulli menu?
Achatz: I said that Ferran is the modern day [Auguste] Escoffier, and here we are even before we open Paris we're totally focused on Escoffier and we're asking who is the next Escoffier and can we capture that. And we have personal connections to that. Dave's the one who first came to me and said we need to do an elBulli regression.

Why a regression?
Beran: Every time they added a new concept or technique, it was always added on to the front side of the menu. As they continued to add, they separated things into categories. They always add new things and we thought, "What if we work backwards in the history of El Bulli?" But what we found is that we couldn't write a menu that made as much sense; you would not be able to include Albert Adria because everything influential came from him after 1994. Then we wrote a menu and sent it to [Spain] and they gave us feedback and choices and then we finalized the menu. As it is we probably missed six or seven years. In 1994, we had the first foam ever from them. In 1998, we have their first hot foam. We had them both [when we tried to hit] a course every year and they said we should pick one. That's when we started veering away from doing one course from every single year.

How did you narrow the choices when there was so much food created there?
Achatz: It was probably a trifecta of things. One, we have personal connections. I've eaten there four times and [Beran] and I ate there together [in 2007]. When I staged there in 2000 and worked a particular station, I made the cuttlefish and coconut ravioli and fell in love with it. From our meal in 2007, we had things that we made sure were on there. Two, we wanted it to be delicious so we literally went through and based it on our past experiences and also knowing the American palate and knowing our guests. We were like "Would they really like that sea urchin foam and white bean puree or would they like crab and aspic?" And then, third, there's product availability. elBulli was never open at this time of the year. They would shut in October and open in April. That in itself eliminates a lot of products from our availability. We can't get some fresh Mediterranean seafood they have. Those three things together collided.

What excites you most about this menu?
Beran: It's seeing these influential courses. You look at ... there's plenty of courses on the menu that we look at and wonder why would we do it that way now, but they you see that it's 1994. They did their first foam when I was eating chicken wings after hockey practice. It amazes me how far ahead of the curve they were. Things that absolutely blew me away three years ago, they were doing before I started college, before I considered cooking whatsoever.

Achatz: The thing that excites me most is being able to have the platform to honor an amazing chef that's been so visionary and to provide an experience for people to have this food. We fully admit that people who have eaten at elBulli will come here and will flat out say that wasn't exactly like elBulli. But, it's on a cliff overlooking the ocean.

Beran: We're serving a lot of old dishes. The first time they put a dish on the menu they intentionally challenged the guest with it. Sea cucumber, rabbit brain and urchin is one [Achatz] had the last time he ate there. We have a dish from '97 that was one of the first times they decided to do that. There's a point they try to inspire emotion and try to pull something out of you. It's supposed to be something that makes you think and maybe messes with you. Every course isn't designed to be absolutely delicious. I think there's more delicious than challenging on this menu.

Were there any dishes you wanted to do, but felt may have been either too complicated or wouldn't translate to Chicago?
Achatz: If you've ever been to Spain, Europeans eat differently than Americans. It's a cultural thing. Sea urchin is a good example. Or puree of crab innards. If you go to Europe and have shrimp you're going to get a shrimp with the head on it and if you don't suck the juice out of the head they look at you like you're weird. How many people in this country will do that?

What's something on the menu that won't look anything like it's name or flavor profile or some ingredients people may think are weird?
Beran: Weird ingredients? I don't know that there are. But the doughnuts ... they're not doughnuts. It looks like a mini chocolate doughnut, but it's liquid coconut.

Achatz: It's hard for us to identify because this is what we do and it's not surprising or weird for us. The strangest ingredient may be the rabbit kidneys.

You have said Ferran was lending his staff for this. Are they still coming in to help?
Achatz: Yes, we've been in really good contact with them. They've been so generous and forthcoming with information that isn't out there for the public. There are books that don't exist [for the public] and some recipes that weren't in the books we've had. It's been more collaborative than I expected it to be. They sent us recipes and photos ... they're so incredibly organized that they had lists they considered their top 50 or 25 dishes of all time they sent us, which helped us make the menu. And on the cocktail side, too. They've been helpful with cocktail recipes and the snacks. They've been great with any questions. As Dave mentioned before, we submitted our original rough draft of the menu and they edited it and said, "Maybe there are too many of these and let's reorder this." They've just been great about it.

When are they coming to Chicago?
Achatz: I can't say. Everyone will want to come that week.

Is Ferran coming in?
Achatz: I don't know. Maybe. [Laughs.]

People, for months, have been seemingly harassing you to experience this menu. What's the most ridiculous request you've gotten for tickets for this?
Ashley Fees: We had someone when we first announced we were doing elBulli say they already bought plane tickets and they were going to fly in regardless. I don't think they really did, but that's probably the most weird.

That doesn't sound that weird. What about crazy?
Fees: Nothing was overly crazy. I don't think ... I mean everything. I've been offered money, a couple of thousand [dollars]. Otherwise, it's more a plea of something: It's a birthday, or I ate at elBulli and want to see it again. It's more people begging.

Achatz: I'm at the grocery store and I hear people ask, "How can I get in?" And I say, "I can't even get in" and that diffuses it. It shuts it down. People are doing a lot of begging. People are coming out of the woodwork.

Beran: Every former cook I've ever cooked in the kitchen with has said they want to come in. And a guy brought me a box of chef knives.

Did you keep them?
Beran: I gave them to the cooks.

From the front of house perspective, what has been most challenging?
Will Douillet: To understand exactly how the restaurant worked and to gain the confidence that it will take to try to convey the message of what elBulli did as a restaurant. The amount of knowledge it takes is one thing ...

Fees: There's not a lot about the front of house anywhere. We had to dig for photos for what the table settings look like. We can't re-create the setting of an antique parlor at Next. It's been a challenge of creating without re-creating it.

Lastly, in the teaser video you released this week, a quote reads, "Legends Never Die." Talk about that.
Achatz: It's very fitting in that when you look at the body of work that Ferran and the elBulli team compiled over the years they were open, the contributions to gastronomy they made is very obvious that the legacy will live for ever. It's an appropriate quote because we started [Next] with Escoffier and the contribution to cooking was very similar, I feel. It's very fitting in its immediacy because the restaurant just closed and in a way just popped up six months later. But 50 years from now, people will still use and reference these dishes. What Ferran always says, when we were at the last meal, he made it clear to everyone that even though the restaurant was closing, the spirit of elBulli will live on. It sounds cliché, but it's so right. You have restaurants like Alinea, Noma, Mugaritz, Osteria Francescana ... you look at the spider web effects with all these chefs that are using forward thinking cuisine. That's elBulli. We all worked there. That's why it'll never die.

· Grant Achatz, Friends Pay Homage to Now-closed elBulli [~EChi~]
· Grant Achatz, Dave Beran Using 2007 elBulli Dinner to Gain Inspiration for Next Menu [~EChi~]
· All Next Coverage on Eater Chicago [~EChi~]
· All Grant Achatz Coverage on Eater Chicago [~EChi~]

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