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Next’s Grant Achatz, Nick Kokonas, and Dave Beran on Making Decisions

This week, Eater is running a four-part interview series exploring the collaborative creative process at Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas' Chicago restaurants Alinea, The Aviary, and Next, as well as the collaboration among them. Part three of the series explores Next today as it is guided by executive chef Dave Beran.

When Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas opened their constantly evolving —and insanely unique — restaurant Next two and a half years ago, the restaurateur duo tapped long-time protege Dave Beran to run the kitchen. Naturally, Achatz and Kokonas are part of the decision-making process as the team mulls each new iteration that the restaurant will undergo. But it's Beran who oversees the small kitchen through its regular transformations from a Japanese kaiseki restaurant to a vegan restaurant to a miniature version of the Bocuse d'Or. (And, coming in 2014, a Chicago steakhouse, a modern Chinese restaurant, and Achatz's alma mater Trio circa 2004.)

In part three of this four-part interview series, Eater met with Achatz, Kokonas, and Beran in the Next dining room to talk about how they work together to build a new restaurant every four months. Beran shares his philosophy on team-building that has led to what Kokonas calls "a very happy kitchen," as well as his process for deciding upon and then researching each Next menu. The men also talk about the (perhaps surprising) success of the Vegan menu, and how they balance their own excitement about a menu with that of the dining public.

Chef Beran, how has it been for you now that you've been with the group for seven years? How has your power within the restaurant evolved?
Dave Beran: I'd at least noticed in previous jobs that I tend to get bored after anywhere from six months to a year and a half. My tenure at this company thus far, every time I've hit a point where it's feeling stagnant or time to change, there's a new task or a new role. At Alinea, I was a food runner for a little over a month, then I was a cook for seven months, then I was a tournant for six months, then I was a sous chef for a year or so, and then chef de cuisine. And then all of a sudden this comes up. Every four months it's something [new] here, so it's not like you have time to sit back and say this is boring. So I wouldn't really say it's been like a climb in power as much as getting new goals that take the skillset you have and push it beyond what you're already capable of. You succeed or you don't.

Grant Achatz: I think he's being very humble in that I feel like this restaurant is very much under his control from the kitchen perspective all the way through the dining room. If you watch the pre-service meeting, the team is very much put together by him. There's a phrase around here where he's Chef, but I'm Chef Chef. Right? But on a daily basis, he's the one driving the boat, coming up with the creative aspects of the menu, and making sure the team is tight.

Nick Kokonas: I think that's been well-documented, actually. I think people kind of miss that in the really big picture, but from day one I know that we've always said that and looked at that as a good thing. So I think part of our frustration is that sometimes the press doesn't understand the different roles and the fact that you have important input from Chef Achatz, but it comes in a very different way than Alinea.
DB: [When] we first opened, Chef and Nick both were here all the time. You ran the morning team essentially for the first month we were open. He was here at 6 a.m. every day and leaving at 9 p.m. And he was my butcher. They were gonna push me to do as much as I could, but not let me fail. So the more our team was able to take on, the less [Achatz and Kokonas] had to be involved, which gave them more opportunity to do more things.
NK: That's a great way to phrase it. Support, but not letting you fail. Not that that was a danger.
DB: It builds confidence. At Alinea, it's not my name on the door and it's not my restaurant. It's still Chef's. Here, they gave me the opportunity to grow under them and with them and then when it was time they slowly broke away. After the elBulli menu, they just kind of said, "Go." Each menu is a little more freedom and a little more confidence for everyone.

"After the elBulli menu, they just kind of said, ‘Go.’"

How do you lead your staff?
DB: I thought about what for me was the most magical time in the kitchen at Alinea. That's what I wanted to recreate here. The most chaotic time at Alinea was when Chef wasn't there, when he was sick. We ended up with nine cooks, three managers, no difference in covers and we did a menu change. The thing that I learned from that is that if it's required of you to not only do your own work, but help other people, then it doesn't become a point of contention. You're not mad you have to help the person next to you. You're excited and inspired to get them to where they need to be so that everyone can help each other. We talked a lot about how to create a familial aspect in the kitchen. What roles could we move? We don't have someone that's dedicated just to floating and plating. Instead, when two of the stations are busy, one is not, and those two guys are tournants. So we have everyone essentially work together. Everyone pushes each other and polices each other.
NK: This is a very happy kitchen. I'm not a chef, but you go in there and, on a day-to-day basis, there's a very collegial environment in this kitchen. They're still pushing, they're still working their tails off, they just seem like happy campers for the most part.
GA: It's a different vibe at Alinea. Distinctly different.
NK: I didn't want to say that, but yeah.
GA: I mean, it is. Not that it's a bad working environment, it's just different.
DB: When I was at Eleven Madison Park's kitchen last time we were in New York, they have a brigade that's like the size of this entire restaurant. In an environment like that, you really have to run it almost like a militant despot. In a case like this, if we all bark back like that, all eight of us, it might 1) sound kind of silly, and 2) you're basically sitting in the kitchen right now [in the dining room]. So it has to be different. The space defines our interactions. It's a smaller kitchen, we're a lot closer together, we have to work differently, there's only a few people. We struggled with it very early on as far as the difference in dynamic at Alinea. But as the work came through and we figured out that the team didn't really have to expand, it became a work environment where the goal was to get that aspect of friendship. I mean, you have to spend all your time with the guy next to you.

You sort of start planning upcoming menus right away after a new one launches, right?
GA: You start right away?
NK: (laughs) I was going to say the same thing.
DB: I try to. Typically it takes anywhere from two to four weeks for the kitchen to stabilize to the point where my sous chefs won't let me do any prep. They try to take it all away and at that point I have nothing to do essentially, so that is when all the research begins. There's always a thought process. During The Hunt, I went vegan because that was research [for the next menu]. We were in Japan two menus before the Kaiseki menu. Sometimes it's just the way timing works.
GA: We went to Paris for the opening menu.
DB: So the goal is from four weeks into a menu, I should have books laid out in front of me and I should be taking notes and Googling and eating at every Thai restaurant in the city. Eight weeks into a menu, I'm at the halfway point. I try to present Chef with a template or he'll come to me with ideas or things that he's seen. Usually by week 12, I'm putting food on a plate. And then hopefully by week 14, the menu is done, so we have two weeks. Some of the menus have worked that way; some of them have been during friends and family we're finishing it up. But for the most part it's a 12-week process.

"It’s crazy. It’s building a whole new restaurant, essentially."

GA: It's crazy when you think about it.
NK: I was going to say exactly that. It's crazy. It's building a whole new restaurant, essentially. Not the physical space, but the service. Small changes. We put in the TVs for Bocuse d'Or because it was difficult to describe what the Bocuse d'Or is. We're listening to the servers try to explain, "It's almost like the culinary Olympics. It's like the real Top Chef." It doesn't really describe how elaborate [the Bocuse d'Or is] and the fact that it's raucous and kind of goofy in a way. So we said, you know, the TV thing, we really should do that. We first thought about projecting it onto the walls.
GA: It was [Nick's] idea and I was like, "TVs? It's going to be like a sports bar." And he's like, "No, we're going to do it."
NK: At noon the day before we're going to open to the public, I got with Eric [Rivera] and said, just go buy TVs and we're going to figure out how to put 'em up and get the content on there. By 5 p.m. that day, we had three TVs running the Bocuse d'Or in here. It works, I think. It's all around you and now you're experiencing it. If it didn't work, you just take 'em down. I remember Dave had the idea for elBulli, it was traditional to have the rose on the table, but we didn't want to just put the rose on the table and so they hung one rose —
GA: Over every table.
NK: A single rose.
GA: You hated it!
NK: I hated it, I admit that I hated it.
GA: But it worked.
NK: Someone has an idea, you try it. Not everyone has to agree on it. If you feel passionate about it, you just go make it happen. As soon as I saw it, I was like, I was an idiot yesterday. That's awesome. It looked beautiful.

"Without throwing a wild card on the table, you don’t really see what you can do."

DB: I think that's a great example of the fact that the three of us really push each other. I'll have the roses idea and Nick will say that's dumb, but he'll let me do it and we'll see what happens. Without any one of us throwing a wild card on the table, you don't really have the opportunity to see what you can do or what you wouldn't have ever thought of.
NK: We have just such a cool group of people. People just make things happen. Say at noon we come up with some idea and we'll want it by 5 p.m. All of a sudden, we have it manufactured, made, and done by service. I don't know of anywhere else I've worked where you can gather up a group of people whose general attitude is, "Okay. Yeah. Let's go do it." Frankly, the rest of the world tends not to work that way.

Is that something you can tell when you're hiring people?
NK: I say no.
GA: I say no, too. It's really hit or miss. We've been very lucky. Like Nick said, up until this point, where we get the Chef Berans, we get the Chef Bagales, we get —
NK: We get lots of dogs, too. You know? Some people last five days. I like to think it's a self-selecting process.
GA: It is. People don't want to work that hard. They're like, "You guys work 15 hours a day? We don't want to do that."
NK: You could work at another restaurant and make more money for less.
GA: Less time.
NK: Less everything. Less time, less effort, less focus, less attention, less people giving a darn about what you're doing. You could hide some places. It's hard for anyone to hide here. That's a good thing. But certainly not everybody fits into that. You heard Grant and I giving each other shit earlier today. You end up working with people very closely for a long period of time, and you learn each others' quirks. But at the end of the day, I know for a fact that anything he touches he's going to make better. And that's a really strong thing that you can't get most places, I think.

How do you cultivate that in your staff? And get them to share your sensibility?
GA: Again, like Nick was saying, it is somewhat self-selecting. If they're successful here, that means they're drinking the Kool-Aid. We've had people that we thought were going to be great, but just didn't work out.
NK: I'll say this as well that we're not the kind of people that like to fire anybody. We actually assume the best of people, especially if we chose to hire them. So for a long period of time, I was bad at saying, "You know what? This person isn't working out." Because I want things to work out not just for ourselves, but for them. A lot of the time, people move across the country [to work here]. We're searching nationally for talented people. What I've learned is that you're not doing yourself or them a favor to prolong something like that. It's still very difficult.

I want to ask, too, about the different menu ideas you have had. How do you decide what to go with next? If two people are passionate about different menu ideas, how do you hash it out?

DB: Obviously my first thought is what do I want to cook, what does the kitchen want to cook, what's going to be fun? Whether it's a creative outlet or a learning experience or just that maybe we're all into Thai food this week. Not to speak for Nick, but I think he really comes to the table with a business perspective.
NK: Actually, I would say it's a customer perspective. I kind of feel like I know what people would get excited about. What would be something that captures their imagination? Childhood was Dave's idea, but it's a menu with some whimsy and captures that feeling of newness when you're a child. That's one that instantly resonates with everybody. Who doesn't like magic? So when I think about what menu should we do next year, I think of what would — the second people hear it — [make people] go, "Oh yeah, I want to eat that. I'm excited to go there." Whether that's exciting to cook or not, I don't know. So I think when there's tension, it's often, well, is that the best creative outlet? Even if people will be tremendously excited, is that something that pushes the creative boundaries of the kitchen? The answer is not always, actually.
DB: Like it's turning Fall. If you said, "Everyone wants chicken noodle soup and grilled cheese. That's what we should serve for the next three months." He might be right. We might get 10,000 people through here that want amazing chicken noodle soup and grilled cheese because that's just want you want in the Fall. A glass of apple cider or some cider doughnuts for dessert or whatever it may be. That will have us all banging out head against the wall in like 12 minutes.
NK: But that wasn't an idea. (laughs) Vegan is an interesting example because I think creatively that probably pushed the kitchen the most of any of the menus. And there's a very vocal but small minority of people who are vegan who were incredibly excited to come here. I learned a few things about this. We sold out every seat, but we didn't have an extra 100 people that wanted to come in like the normal menus. In fact, it was the only menu we did where some season ticket holders said, "I'm not even interested in vegan food." Now, they had no idea that it was actually an amazing menu. That pushed the kitchen the most, but it didn't impassion the diners the most. Those two things are not always in lockstep.

"What pushes the kitchen and what impassions the diners are not always in lockstep."

DB: Sometimes just because it's the best or the most inspired thing that you do, it's not always the thing that inspires everyone else. You never really know. I was certainly more excited about that menu than any one we've done.
GA: I thought Vegan was awesome. When you spoke to Martin [Kastner], his thing is creativity always stems from a problem. I'm sure he probably said that to you.

He did.
GA: And, in a way, doing a vegan menu was a problem in that Chef and I have never cooked an entire vegan menu. So when we were forced [to cook] with vegetables and no butter and no cream and no protein, you have to come up with creative solutions. I think like the cauliflower was awesome. A lot of those courses were really, really cool. And not only for vegetarians, but for everyone. And for the cooks. [For] the cooks back there, it's like getting your PhD in cooking because every three months they get to learn new techniques, a new historic point in gastronomy, and use new tools. I wish when I was a young cook I would have been in that kitchen.
NK: Also it's like you're getting a new job every four months. There's a pressure, too, with that.
GA: Matt Kim, one of the sous, said the other day to me, "Every day I come to work, I know I'm going to learn something new." That's really cool.

And you went vegan, you said.
DB: I mean, there's not a lot of research you can do on it. There's not a lot of opportunity to eat at other vegan restaurants. It's not like I want to do a great French menu, so you go to Ducasse and you go to French Laundry and you go to Robuchon. That's a way to learn modern French cuisine. You're not going to say, now I'm ready to go vegan, I'm going to go to...where do you go?
NK: I'll go so far as to say what they can't say and that's this: the vegans who came to eat this were probably — it's not universally the case — some of the most vocal critics of it. They're not typically used to eating things that taste like anything, in my opinion.
GA: They didn't even think it was vegan.

"Vegans didn’t think it was vegan."

Really?
DB: Yeah.
GA: Because it tasted so different.
NK: Because vegan food tastes like cardboard at 98 percent of the places in the world that serve vegan food, in my opinion. I'm sure that someone's going to say there's this amazing vegan restaurant here and in New York and you're right, I haven't been to a lot of them. I'm sure each city has one place that just kills it.
GA: Well, there was Roxanne's that Trotter collaborated with, and there's Dirt Candy.
DB: Alain Passard, who is mostly vegetable-focused, but not vegetarian.
NK: Right. And I didn't think that menu was any good. I'll be blunt. So this was a challenge and they pulled it off. But what was interesting is that the omnivores came and went like, "Oh I hate vegan food," and then they ate it and went like, "Oh I could live vegan like this." And the vegans came and they'd eat the risotto course and were like, "It was rich." Well, that's because it took days of stock-making to make it rich.
DB: "I feel really full right now." Well, of course you do. We made heavy cream out of sunflower seeds to make your barley and farro risotto really have the mouthfeel and the luxury and that satisfying component to it.
NK: It takes an omnivore to know how to make vegan food right. In my opinion. So that's why I thought that was the coolest menu. But it's also the most difficult one from a public perspective. So that's what you're trying to balance when you do those menus.

Is there an idea you have for a menu that you just haven't been able to figure out how to make it work?
DB: I don't know that there's any, at least for me. It's not that we haven't figured out how to do it. It's that it hasn't been the right spot in the season to do it. Vegan, I would have loved to do that right off the bat, but it didn't make sense to do it first. But in the series of menus last year, all the food was very similar, but one was meat, one was no-meat, and one was seafood-focused. So it made sense to do it last year. I've talked for awhile about being interested in doing Indian food. Maybe something pre- or post-Imperialism, something like that. But I don't think we've come across a point where this is the right season to do that menu.
GA: Chef and I talked about when the best season was to do Kaiseki. And we both agreed that it's Spring because of cherry blossoms and all that. There's so many things that collide together that help us determine what we're going to do.
DB: And then there's the argument of creativity. In this huge meeting [when we said] we should do it in the Spring, we said, "No let's not because everyone expects us to do it in the Spring." So we did Autumn, which I initially thought was kind of stupid. But the more I read about it, the more I found out there's a much deeper underlining to it. Ultimately, that became my favorite season for it.

Stay tuned tomorrow for the final piece in this four-part interview series, in which Aviary chef Andrew Brochu and culinary liaison Eric Rivera join Achatz, Kokonas, and Beran to discuss collaboration within the Next building and beyond. In the meantime, check out part one and part two of the series, conversations Alinea and The Aviary, respectively.

[Photo: Barry Brecheisen]

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