I am well aware that it is not good manners to tell someone to cook you a meal. What I meant when I asked Grant Achatz to let me see the menu planning for his new restaurant was to let me sit in while he and his chefs were discussing ideas for dishes. Though, when he started cooking them for me, I didn't exactly try to stop him.
Achatz, whose soulful molecular gastronomy restaurant, Alinea, just won three Michelin stars, is getting ready to open his second restaurant in Chicago this February, and the new place, called Next, is ridiculously ambitious. Its menu and style will completely change every three months, jumping from one time-and-place pairing to another every three months starting with Paris in 1906, then likely jumping to spring in Kyoto, Sicily in 1949 and so on. With this menu concept, he's basically saying that he can build the best French, Japanese, Italian, anything restaurant and then tear it down and start over again every few months.
Achatz insists the new place won't feel like Epcot "no waiters in Viking hats," he says and that since Alinea scraps 80% of its menu every quarter, his new venture won't be that much harder than what he's already doing. Still, for the first Next menu, he read 15 books on French food history and ultimately decided to pull all of the dishes from Auguste Escoffier's insanely complicated 1903 cookbook. (Achatz got an assistant to transcribe Escoffier's chicken dishes onto 25 singlespaced pages, which Achatz highlighted and marked with comments such as "Christ" and "let's do this one ya right.")
But Escoffier's book is not exactly a cookbook, in that it doesn't include amounts or tell you how to do anything. It's really just a dense splattering of ideas meant for professional chefs with an introduction advocating the use of technology in the kitchen and the use of personal style. So Achatz will be cooking Escoffier's food not just to prove he can cook classic French food, but to prove that classic French food was as futuristic back then as Alinea's food is now.
Achatz and Dave Beran, the executive chef at Next, served their very first attempt at Next's first menu to me. Not only did I get to watch them cook it, but I watched them them haul in bags from Whole Foods too. In hindsight, I guess I should have offered to help carry that stuff.
They decided to make chicken, since chicken was the prized, noble meat of the time. But the selections were still personal, including one influenced by Achatz's recent bout with tongue cancer. They chose to make Escoffier's cooked cucumber stuffed with chicken mousse and wrapped in bacon because Achatz eats cooked cucumber most days, since it's easy on his chemo-burned throat.
And because Escoffier's cookbook is so vague, Achatz was able to add his signature precision to these century-old dishes, plating them architecturally and arranging things just so with tweezers. Watching him slice hard-boiled eggs for the Salade Saint-Sylvestre, it became even more evident how much of his style will show through in Next's menu. "In the recipe it says 'julienne of egg whites,' but egg whites are round and there's no middle," he says, looking very unsatisfied with the curved slices of egg. "If he would have had the technology we have today, would he have laid it out on a pan and sous-vided it and had a perfect julienne like the recipe calls for? I think so, because he seemed like a perfectionist." I'd be willing to bet a lot of money that at Next, those strips of egg whites are totally straight.
My preview meal started off with an amusebouche: three onebite gougères filled with Mornay sauce with white truffles. They're rich and delicate at the same time very serious, gooey little cheese puffs. But Achatz already is unhappy. Instead of three little gougères, he wants to go with one big one, put in some more black pepper, paint on a little sheen and add a lot more crispiness. Whatever. They're awesome.
The second course was soup: a velouté with hazelnuts and black truffle. It was nutty and deep and, like everything I would eat that afternoon, ridiculously rich. I am very, very proud of finishing everything put in front of me. And for getting on a plane right afterward.
Though Achatz is planning a fish course as well, he wasn't able to get that together in time, since he and Beran only had a day to work on the meal for me. So the next thing Achatz brought out was slices of bluefoot hen breast covered in Albufera sauce, a simple, elegant white-on-white dish with just a touch of gaminess. It was accompanied by slices of the aforementioned cucumbers stuffed with chicken mousse and wrapped in bacon. That's a dish I could eat all the time. Why have I not been cooking cucumbers?
For the next course, Achatz came back with the rest of that hen. The legs were deboned and stuffed with mushroom duxelle and covered with a veal glace but still had their claws attached, which were pointing at my face, threateningly, in a way that let me know this was from another time, when, apparently, people didn't mind having chicken claws pointing at their face. The plate also featured some roasted oyster mushrooms and pommes puree. Those mashed potatoes, as per Escoffier, had more butter (1.5 lbs.) than potatoes (1 lb.). Technically, I was eating mashed butter.
Then he brought over the Salade Saint-Sylvestre, which wasn't a mess of greens, but little carved circles of artichoke, celeriac, and a walnut mayo dressing. And next to them were little coins of potato topped with coins of black truffle. Even the salad was rich.
Beran and Achatz hadn't planned dessert yet, but they made an apple cinnamon caramel soufflé, just so I could have something. You know, in case I was hungry. It was delicious, but, after the dishes I'd just eaten, it was boringly normal.
The Escoffier stuff tasted both classic like there should be waiters in tuxes and murals of French countrysides on the walls and totally weird. Chicken claws, mashed butter, cooked cucumber.
I was excited about Next's timetravel concept because I've always wanted to know what food was like in other eras. Were the food and wine really sweet in ancient Rome? Did the ancient Greeks eat really simply? I'd eaten the food of Lewis and Clark reenactors once, and it was fascinating corn cakes covered in ash, boiled buffalo tongue. I'd want to go to Medieval Times, if it weren't for the cheesy jousting and the turkey legs. Okay, I really do want to go to Medieval Times.
Paris in 1906 didn't let me down. It was ornate and overly decadent, all truffles and butter very pre-modern and unAlice Waters. Not only did I get to learn all that, but I had an amazing and totally different meal as well. All I need to do now is figure out how to convince Time to fly me to Chicago every three months.