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Spend a Day in the Next Kitchen During elBulli

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Eater writer Joe Campagna immersed himself in the Next kitchen for a full day of prep and service during the elBulli menu to get to know the players behind the food. Below is part 1 of the experience.

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[Photo: Joe Campagna]

All restaurant kitchens face the same challenges, whether it's your favorite Sunday breakfast spot or the fine dining place to be. Their goal is to deliver consistent, seasoned-correctly food that tastes good every time a plate goes out. The tightrope restaurants may walk can vary from a few feet off the ground to miles above the earth.

At Next, the expectations are as high as they get and the price tag for the elBulli menu, most would argue, match. Shortly before the restaurant's one-year anniversary, Eater spent a day in the kitchen to learn more about the team of cooks behind the madness and what makes them tick. Many people on the outside looking in may assume the cooks all have fine dining pedigrees, working with mad scientist tools driven by a passion for culinary excellence. You would assume wrong.

The kitchen team isn't made up of Alinea veterans. Many have never cooked in fine dining at this level. Some have moved here from other parts of the country specifically to work in this kitchen. The team is a solid core that has had one spot change since day one.

"One cook who was good had personal issues and couldn’t maintain the pace; we really liked him," said exec chef Dave Beran. "Others just never came back." Some cooks can't take the pressure and are never heard from again—here one day and gone the next. "I wanted this to be a family," Beran said a few times throughout the day. "I didn’t want to have a rotation of stages and interns. This first year I wanted the team to be together and be a family."

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[Photo: Joe Campagna]

Beran's second in command, sous chef Rene De Leon, is an Alinea veteran not only in the kitchen, but also in the front of house. He expedited and learned how to think about what goes on in the entire restaurant. As for the rest of the team, it ranges in age from 23 to 33 years of age. Beran, who himself is 30, said, “If I didn’t know Dan [Jeffery] I probably wouldn’t have hired him at 33, most older cooks don’t have the pace for this kind of restaurant."

The kitchen team at Next starts working on this particular Saturday at 11:30 a.m.; some have snuck in a little earlier to get a jump on the day. They prep until 2 p.m. when they all call out two in unison and immediately stop their prepping to break down and clean the entire kitchen. Scrubbing, sweeping, mopping and refocusing for the next block of time. Thirteen minutes later, they’re all back prepping as if the cleanup never occurred.

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[Photo: Joe Campagna]

When you have a 12-hour day, five days a week, you learn a lot about the person next to you. Bryan McClure worked in a hotel in Richmond before coming to Chicago for this job. Next to him, in the back corner, Matt Kim has a Chicago pedigree of working at Sunda, The Peninsula and graduating from Kendall College. He’s one of the quiet cooks and, being closest to the window, he doesn’t notice the outside as much as you would think.

Wandering down the hot line to the "front of the kitchen," John Klaskala is the youngest on the team and speaks at a quick pace. At 23, his youth is apparent because he speaks of wanting to learn in every answer. He was one of the few with any Alinea time since he spent his externship there from the Culinary Institute of America. His cohort next to him, Mike Pryor, is another quiet, deliberate cook. Focused on his station and prep, he's from Maryland and worked at Top Chef contestant Bryan Voltaggio's Volt before coming to Next. When asked where he likes to eat on days off, he replies, "I can’t justify sit-down dinners." I mention to him this is the hottest ticket in town, which gets a shoulder shrug. He later reveals he's saving for a wedding.

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[Photo: Joe Campagna]

The team continues prepping until 4:20 when family meal is served. Nell Flemmer is the morning cook and the sole female on the team. She worked at Alinea and enjoys the mornings, but looks forward to getting back "upstairs" for service. She'll still work a 13-hour day during her rotation; she just starts earlier than most at 5:30 a.m. Today's lunch is a hearty tomato soup, ham and cheese sandwiches and a salad with a "pancake" cake dessert complete with maple syrup and soft butter. Sitting in the kitchen on stools the cooks eat and joke, enjoying a quiet 15 minutes. Beran sits with the team and also prepares the evening's pre-shift-meeting agenda with his sous chef and general manager.

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[Photo: Joe Campagna]

The lull from the end of family meal until service begins is a little more than an hour. At this point, the team is completing some final tasks and ensuring they have their station mise en place organized. They have that veteran look about them and can communicate with a gaze or through shorthand phrases to get what they may need from someone across the room. They've executed this menu for a few weeks and, while doing it well, Beran knows it will continue to get better.

With the six hours of prep over, the mood shifts as the team calls "doors" at 5:45 p.m. The first guests have arrived and the show is set to begin. Tomorrow: part two will uncover how the heat gets turned up during service.

Next Kitchen Fun Facts
· They have 62 diners each night for 29 courses or 1,798 plates. A typical restaurant serving three courses generates half as many, at about 900 for 300 covers.
· The youngest in the kitchen is 23 and working his first kitchen job. The oldest is 33.
· Three of the cooks moved to work here, from Virginia, Maryland and Washington.
· One cooks first job was at a Waffle House.
· They all like spots that serve good late night food: Yusho, Maude’s Liquor Bar and an unnamed gyro spot.
· One cook was hired because he saw a want ad on Craigslist.
· Beran has a degree from Lake Forest College; he majored in business with minors in philosophy and psychology. He also played goalie for the school's hockey team and never went to culinary school.
· The elBulli menu requires 20 pounds of carrots a day, 12 cuttlefish (or two pounds) a day and three cases of large trumpet mushrooms a week.

Next Restaurant

953 W Fulton Market, Chicago, IL 60607 312 226 0858 Visit Website

Alinea

1723 North Halsted Street, , IL 60614 Visit Website

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