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The new place, which he's calling Next, will have a different menu every three months, pegged to a particular place and time. He's starting with Paris in 1906 and then moving on to such pairings as Sicily in 1949, Thailand in the future and so on. It's ridiculously ambitious, but since Alinea scraps 80% of its menu every quarter, he says this venture won't be that much harder. Achatz also hopes to sell the idea as a TV show, for which he would travel the world and explore the history of food. He says that he needs a new challenge and that chopping vegetables for 10 hours a day doesn't do it for him anymore.
But the food at Next and the equally big, equally odd cocktail bar alongside it that will serve high-tech drinks like a powderized gin and tonic isn't nearly as gutsy as the venture's business plan. Instead of making a reservation, you'll have to go online and buy nonrefundable tickets, as if dinner were a concert. Co-owner Nick Kokonas, a former Wall Street currency trader who spotted Achatz's talent early on and raised the money to start Alinea, has had the ticket idea for a while. "Two tables of four cancel at Alinea, we don't make any money that night," says Kokonas, who likens the new system to the way NFL tickets are sold. "If your wife pukes in the backseat on the way to a Bears game, you don't call the Bears and say, 'Take your ticket back.'"
Achatz co-wrote his memoirs with Kokonas as a series of alternating first-person stories. The book, Life, on the Line, comes out in March and has already been optioned as a movie. (It's supposed to be directed by Wedding Crashers' David Dobkin, who imagines it as part artist biopic, part buddy movie.) Kokonas is one of Achatz's closest friends, but he's also a hard-charging businessman who insists that Next won't make adjustments for diners' dietary restrictions or allergies since that would require a couple of chefs to stop work and cook a separate meal with separate ingredients, driving up costs. "We're going to do four-star food at three-star prices, so there's going to be some changes in customer service," Kokonas says. "We can't accommodate every whim."
Achatz looks unconvinced. Especially considering the way he came up with the idea for Next. The day he was diagnosed with cancer, he called to tell Kokonas, who immediately left a golf tournament in Michigan to drive to Chicago. He walked into Alinea at 10 p.m., and Achatz surprised him by making him duck breast with morels and veal jus, an old-school, very un-Alinea dish that Kokonas loved. "I still don't know why he did it," Kokonas says.
When I ask Achatz why he did it, he looks at me as if I'm an idiot. "Because he drove all the way in from Michigan," he says. So maybe, after all, this is a story about a guy who gets cancer and learns that what he really loves to do is connect with people. He just wanted to do it his way.
Back to the Future