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Nick Kokonas on Informality, Exclusivity, and the Critics

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Photo: Gabe Ulla/Eater.com

In part two of our interview with Nick Kokonas (see part one), the "accidental restaurateur" explains how Next shouldn't be viewed through the prism of Alinea. He also talks about how the Aviary might manage to open some minds, how the sixteen-seat Office, their new speakeasy, is far from a fortress, and how he dealt with an exceptionally difficult table one evening.

Let's talk about Next and how you feel that process is going so far.
All the places are running equally now. It takes about three or four months to realize what managers can manage, which servers are going to take leadership roles, which cooks won't burn out. The trick with Next is that you really do need to rip it apart every three months.

What role do you play in conceptualizing and developing the new menus?
I'm definitely one of three or four people that talks with the chefs, and we figure out or argue out what the next menu should be. It's very seasonally driven, so we start with that before moving into the more creative development.

The funny thing is that the ideas for the four menus for next year are more or less figured out, but we're struggling to decide, and it's only six or eight weeks away. We have a lot of dissension in the ranks, but I think it will be childhood.

The debate about Next, which is a bad one, is how authentic it's going to be. Of course the Thai menu isn't authentic. None of us are Thai, it's not a Thai restaurant, we're not in Thailand, we haven't been cooking Thai food for a hundred years. It's just not authentic. But is it a fun, delicious, inventive experience that explores those flavors and ingredients, and do we go through some steps that no other Thai restaurant in Chicago does? The answer to those things is "yes," so I think it's very compelling in that regard.

I see posts where people say things like, "You can get that catfish dish for $10 at XYZ Thai restaurant." Not true, since we source the same way we source for Alinea and our catfish is way more expensive.

That was a major focus of the this week's Chicago Reader review.
Yes, I think Mike Sula got it right, and very few people — be it the bloggers or the press — bothered to notice that. We're putting the best ingredients out there that we can and have a huge staff, and that costs money.

From what you've said today and in other interviews, it seems you're not terribly worried about making money.
No, and that's the other thing that's a misnomer. People think that we're just printing money, because we're full and we sell out. The matter is, if I could sell 70,000 tickets, I would be printing money. But I can't. We're only serving 125 people nightly there. I think we probably, as a percentage, make less than a lot of three star restaurants. If we were a three-star restaurant, we'd make a lot more money.

Three-star Michelin?
I'm saying like a Michelin one-star or Chicago Tribune three-star. Let's say the service was a little bit less attentive. The problem is that the expectations are so high that any little thing can become major. People expect Alinea from Next, and it's not the same thing. One of the things we did when we built Alinea was to have the farthest person from you at your table be closer to you than the closest person at the next table so you didn't have to hear someone else's conversation. Now we have a similar number of seats at Next in a much smaller space. By definition, it's more of a bistro. And that's okay. It's meant to be more casual, louder, lively. The original idea was to have a three-star concept that serves four-star food.

And it hasn't exactly turned out that way?
Unfortunately, the customers have sort of driven that up on their own. I think the tone of the Paris 1906 menu was formal, but the Thai tone is very casual. I don't know why you would get dressed up for that. I think people assume it's more formal than it is. Sometimes when they expect a really refined, fine dining experience, à la Alinea, and they get something that's more lively than that, the disconnect isn't that it was meant to be that way. It was that we failed. So for a while when we were about to open I'd walk around and say to our own staff, "Hey! How ya doing? This is not Alinea."

So even the staff wanted that?
Oh yeah, everyone. Look, the staff at Alinea is fun and funny and welcoming, but there's a fine line between doing everything as perfectly as you can and allowing for mistakes that are done with the right intention. It's hard to explain, but it's really a matter of tone. At Next I would like it to be a little bit below the "this has to be Michelin three-star perfect" attitude.

Would Chefs Achatz and Beran agree with that?
Probably not. These guys are all perfectionists.

You're not a perfectionist?
No. I think that I like to do things well but not perfectly. I'm a 95 percent — I'm an optimalist! [laughs]. What I say to them is that I don't know if I like the experience any better if it's perfect. I'm not talking about empty water glasses, I'm not talking about dirty silverware. I'm talking about just a half-notch of informality down. And I think the Thai experience comes close to hitting that tone, and our customers get that.

How about The Aviary? How has that turned out?
The Aviary is interesting, because it's a restaurant for drinks. It's not a bar, it's not a lounge. We had no idea who the customer would be. We wondered if it would be the young, urban hipster or the after-work business crowd, and the cool thing is that it's ended up being across the board. It really works. We can serve 700 drinks with those five bar chefs really quickly and really consistently. We could probably do double the number of people there. The entire conceit was that when you look at top bars which I like to go to — The Drawing Room, The Violet Hour, Bourbon & Branch — the only thing that seems odd is that there's one guy doing the job of three. If you go into an Italian restaurant, and you order a veal chop and I order a pasta, it won't be the case that one cook does both if it's a large restaurant. So it makes sense for the drinks to get split up.

Around 2007, when they were about to build the Trump hotel here, they came to us and asked if we would do the restaurant there. We didn't do it, but it was an interesting exercise to consider what we would do with it. That's where the idea for the bar/kitchen came about. I wouldn't expect someone at Alinea to get up out of their chair, go into the kitchen, and tell the chef to make a certain dish for him, and that that specific chef would be the one to prepare it. If you think about it that way, it's ridiculous. It only makes sense for a bar with a very asymmetric demand.

But what about the people that say that one of the things they like about going to a bar is interacting with the bartender?
Right. Then you should go to a different bar. Or to your psychologist. You can't be all things to all people. There are bars that I like to go to because I like to talk to the bartender, only in the sense that I like to see what they're working on. Not because I want to chat about my wife and kids and job. But I think that there are other ways to achieve that, first with our servers and then with social media and the videos that we put out that show people what it is that we are working on.

Where do you see The Aviary going in the future?
We're always trying to push more towards a tasting menu. The Aviary is the only place where we don't control your experience completely. But we like controlling in the sense that we can have people try things that they don't usually try. Someone might say, "I don't like gin." Really? Have you ever had a good gin drink? Or is it that you got loaded one night, puked all over the place, and you associate it with gin? And that happened with me. I was never a serious cocktail drinker, but just as is the case with food, it turns out I like everything when it's done well.

As for The Office, a lot of people have criticized the exclusivity. What are your thoughts on that?
Well, we have sixteen seats and we're trying to do something to its extreme, essentially, in terms of quality of the backbar and quality of food. Is it elitist or at the logical extreme of what you can do with a cocktail bar of that size?

I don't think it's elitist. Basically, if you go to the Aviary and you ask nicely and we have room for you, you will be let in there. We're not sorting people out by their looks or how they're dressed. I really don't care. I will go so far as to say we're reverse snobs: the people that are self-important and feel like they belong there are precisely the people we don't want coming. And also, at all of our restaurants, people spend about the same amount of money. You'll go down there and spend a couple of hundred bucks, and a billionaire will go down there and shell out about the same amount of money. All we want to do is have people down there that are psyched about what we are doing.

I will say that I don't eat at Alinea very much — once in the last three years. I do eat at Next during the test meals. But The Office, if I didn't own it, I would be down there twice a week. That place has worked out better than I imagined. You walk in there and have no sense of time. There are no windows. I hate having people that I work with serve me, but I'll go down there, as I did when a friend came into town, and get absolutely hammered. It's so comfortable, but it's not cheap. And I pay for all of my meals, since it's not fair to the staff. I recognize that it's expensive, but where else will you go in Chicago to get something like that?

Recently Chef Achatz wrote a response detailing the pricing down there.
Yeah, but to be honest with you I don't really think he needed to do it. I don't think you should have to apologize. We get a lot of complaints about the ticketing and about The Office, and my attitude is go elsewhere. We can't be all things to all people.

And he also responded to someone who didn't enjoy the Thai menu on Twitter, offering to refund their meal.
That's good customer service, but at the same time, I get emails — oddly, from lots of doctors — saying that our system is patently unfair and that they just want to pick up a phone and call. That would be just as hard, but setting aside the logic, they're basically saying what one of them directly expressed to me in an email: "You must accommodate people like me." I wrote him back, highlighted that line, and just said, "No, I mustn't."

There are a lot of people that come into our restaurants and have a really good time and think it's a good value. If you're not, why would you want to subject yourself to it? We had a table during the Paris menu that came in and said, "We ordered the wine pairing but I only drink red wine. I'm allergic to white." And there was a whole string of requests after that. Our manager came to me at one point and said, "Nick, I'm really trying to make this work, but they're not having fun and they're starting to bum out the tables around them. Is there anything you can do?"

What did you do?
I walked over and said, "Will's really trying to make this work for you, but it doesn't seem to be your type of place. What I'd like to do is end the meal right now, refund your money, and make you a reservation at any other place in this city. And I will pay for it just to get you out of here." They were jaw-dropped. The table next to them basically spit their food out laughing. And they said they wanted to stay, which is amazing. They looked miserable — one of the things they said was that they didn't like French food, and this was the Paris menu. The woman also complained about the chicken, saying it was undercooked. There were several things on that menu that could have had some variations, but that chicken was cooked sous-vide. There was no way. And I told her. She insisted, and so did I. The customer isn't always right.

You've said before that you like to read what's written about the places, and that you respond to both good and bad assessments.
I read everything. We get the Google Alerts on every place. So I'll email one or two people every day and thank them, whether the review was positive or negative. Some of these people have fourteen followers, and I think those are the most important ones to reach out to. It isn't as much a marketing strategy as a way of acknowledging something I appreciate. I care less and less about the traditional reviews and media. That's not to say I don't respect certain reviewers. Just like you agree with some movie critics and you figure out which ones align with you, there are some food writers that I really love reading, are great writers, and I truly respect their knowledge and opinion. But there are a lot of them that I think are idiots, and we all know who those might be. A lot of the ones I don't read are the old-school ones, since it used to be as much of a lifestyle as a profession. But there are some pretty incredible food bloggers out there who have been to more amazing restaurants than a lot of food critics I know. I'm amazed at the level of detail and knowledge that they have about the arch of the Alinea menu and the things that change over time.


· Part One: Nick Kokonas on Grant Achatz and Alinea's Future [-E-]
· All Nick Kokonas Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Alinea Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Eater Interviews [-E-

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