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How the Teams Behind Alinea, Next, and The Aviary Collaborate

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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. Part four of the series explores the collaboration among all of the restaurants.

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Grant Achatz, Dave Beran, and Eric Rivera in the Next kitchen. [Photo: Barry Brecheisen]

This interview series was supposed to be split into three parts, exploring creativity and collaboration at Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas' Chicago restaurants Alinea, The Aviary, and Next. However, at the end of the final interview at Next with Achatz, Kokonas, and executive chef Dave Beran, the conversation took a turn. Achatz called in The Aviary's executive chef Andrew Brochu and the group's director of culinary operations Eric Rivera to join in a more free-flowing conversation about how they work together with Alinea chef Mike Bagale to spark new ideas and, equally importantly, make those ideas happen.

What follows is a conversation about the trust the team has in one another, the ways they share their ideas, and how the ticketing system helps fund creativity. The men also discuss why they push themselves to go beyond sliders and wings on a bar menu and why their approach is different from any other restaurant-operated food lab out there.

Grant Achatz: I want to talk about Push because I feel that's a very indicative way that we approach collaboration and creativity. The five of us coming together to create a menu.
Dave Beran: So we're working with [Alex] Stupak and Empellon [Cocina]. He was Chef's opening pastry chef of Alinea. He sends us ideas and we send him ideas. [Edit: This interview occurred before Achatz's team and Stupak's team got together for the Push Project earlier this month. Go read about how the event went down here.] Ultimately we sat down and said, "Okay, how do we do this? What do we do that doesn't overlap with what he's doing?" Next thing you know, you're walking in the front door.

Andrew Brochu: And what's cool is we're sending him our menu descriptions. We have his menu descriptions, but he doesn't know what we're doing. We just sent him for instance a word.
GA: We have this trust. There is a common link. By the way, this is Eric Rivera. He is the jack of all trades. Research and development, everything. Give her your background.
Eric Rivera: I started here about two years ago, got my job via Twitter.

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Next chef Dave Beran, The Aviary chef Andrew Brochu, and director of culinary operations Eric Rivera. [Photo: Barry Brecheisen]

Oh really?
ER: Yeah, he posted a job, I responded to it and started writing a bunch of emails over and over and over again. Then three people interviewed and even while those people were doing their stages, I was harassing him as much as I could to at least get here. A week after that, they offered me the job. I was in the middle of opening a restaurant in Seattle, so it was really awkward because I came back and said, "Well, I gotta go." So basically two weeks [later], I settled everything up there, sold all my stuff, packed up my car, drove over with my knives, my books and some clothes, and then started working at Alinea. We started doing a lot of different crazy menus and side projects and off-site events and it just exploded to, well, I could stick at one restaurant or we can do everything and try to help everybody out as much as possible.

We started doing a lot of different crazy menus and side projects and off-site events and it just exploded. —Eric Rivera

Nick Kokonas: He doesn't have much of a work ethic, though. (laughs) It's insane.
ER: It's a lifestyle.
GA: It's like 24/7. At any point, if I go on Gmail, he's online.
ER: When we were doing like Kyoto menu, Chef Beran and I would talk at about 3 o'clock in the morning. I would stay up just to talk to people in Japan to ship serviceware over. We did the elBulli menu, I remember talking to a guy in Austria that collected elBulli paraphernalia and souvenirs and whatnot. He was the last guy to have a lot of the serviceware that we needed.
NK: So we had the actual elBulli serviceware, but [Rivera] tracked it down. It's hard to do. I think what's interesting is that customers don't see that. In addition to the obvious stuff, the menu development, you have to have a team of people to figure out what plate, what fork, knife, chopstick or whatever goes with that plate. We need a log to uphold whatever it is. We need all that in four weeks, and they need to be original and cohesive so it's not just some half-assed thing. And it needs to happen, because we've already sold tickets. People are going to walk through that door and it all needs to be sorted out. If we didn't have a whole team of people doing that, Eric kind of leading that other part that we're talking about...
DB: One of the things that happens with us, too, is we have a service piece that's a log. It's hallowed out like a half-pipe and painted glass is on top. That piece essentially stemmed from Eric sitting at the table while Chef and I went back and forth about, "What if we had something underneath glass" and me making a joke about a service piece we had at Tru a long time ago where they put a puree on a plate, put another glass on top so you couldn't eat the puree but you could see it. Then he goes to a wood box and I'm like, "Well, that's Heston Sound of the Sea box." That's another major part of it is it's not just come up with these ideas. [It's] who doesn't have it?
GA: It goes back to the editing. Because we don't want to copy.

These guys get mad at me for pricing [the menu] so low. I want to blow people's minds.—Nick Kokonas

NK: And at the end of the day because we know that we're sold out, we can offer that for what I think is inexpensive for what it is. We have all these aspects from cutlery to serviceware to stemware to tablecloths that get redone in four months. And you get an 18-course meal for $125. These guys get mad at me for pricing it so low.
GA: I get mad.
NK: I want to blow people's minds that we can do all that. But they also don't see everything that goes into it. It's like a seamless experience to them. If it were just that Paris 1906 restaurant for the last three years, that'd be pretty good. We wouldn't have had to incur all that other stuff. But in addition to doing it at $125, we have to redo it every four months. Actually we're building a storage facility upstairs for all of our old plateware. We have a warehouse full of stuff.
GA: Basically it's going to be a museum. But here's the other thing that I think is really unique to the company and what we do and how we collaborate. Eric and I and Chef Beran and I have traveled to Paris, Australia, Japan. So we're in Australia and we're eating these things called Aspen lemons.
ER: Aspen lemons and aspen berries.
GA: I'm like, "Holy shit, how can we get this?" And so then he goes and contacts the chef at Neil Perry's restaurant and goes, "How can we get those in the US?" And with Kinki, right?
ER: We ate this fish a couple times [in Japan]. It was something that you call ahead for at these amazing restaurants that you can't get into — except for [Achatz] can — and it comes to the plate and I'm like, "What, what is this?"
GA: It was like the foie gras of seafood.

If he says, "Go find this," yeah, we'll find it. But it's going to cost something.—Eric Rivera

ER: You lift it up and the fat just drips off, which I'd never seen before in a fish. We come back a couple weeks later and start to find out how we can get that from their fish market. Like 20 minutes later, "Chef, how many do we need? How many do you want? Let's go. I can get it here on Wednesday." From that point, we can trace back the entire trip by pictures, by information and then just go, "We can have all of that stuff here in a couple days. If you want."
NK: It's gonna cost.
ER: Yeah it's gonna cost, and it's high-stakes, too. If he says, "Go find this," yeah, we'll find it. If you need me to get on a plane, yeah, let's do it. But it's going to cost something. If it's really that important, we'll get it.

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Next chef Dave Beran, director of culinary operations Eric Rivera, and The Aviary chef Andrew Brochu. [Photo: Barry Brecheisen]

That's impressive. Nick, were you saying having the ticket system enables you to spend money on this stuff?
NK: Yeah, from my point of view, the ticket system allows us two things. It allows us to know ahead of time that we're sold out and it allows us to efficiently allocate every single seat in here. You have to understand that if you have four tables of three, that's an empty table of four. They're the same thing. When we first were doing this, when I first said we're only going to sell 2, 4, 6 —
GA: I got pissed. I was like, "No, no, no."
NK: I heard it from everybody that's not hospitality. So the tradeoff in my mind was, You're right, that's not hospitality. We're going to tell you that you have to come with two, four, or six people. But the benefit to the customer — and it's not obvious necessarily — is this: We're operating at 100 percent capacity and therefore we can invest more into each menu and we can do more at a lower price point. Now, we were just arguing over food costs yesterday because the food cost of our next menu is going to be very, very, very high.

People don't understand the economics of running a restaurant.—Grant Achatz

GA: People don't understand the economics of running a restaurant.
NK: I would argue that most restaurateurs don't understand the economics. I mean, seriously. You have to think about it a little bit differently in order to be able to accomplish more. So by having the revenue side be known and efficient and paid up front where you're not getting no-shows, you can run a higher food cost and a higher labor cost and do all that because you're not risking that revenue side of it.
GA: And it gives the chefs more freedom to do things that they might not otherwise be able to do.
NK: I'll say this, we're going to have to charge $20 more for our next menu and anywhere else it would cost $60 more at least.
DB: $20 more is not...
NK: (laughs) I know, this is why we're having the argument. I don't cook in the kitchen, but they cook in the finance, you know?
GA: I'm like, "Dry-aged beef, costs a lot of money." He's like, "Bah."
NK: I want it to feel like a ridiculous value even though I know I could double the prices. For this next menu, we're going to have 300 people a night who want to eat here, and we can only serve 120. I've had literally a Nobel laureate economist tell me I'm an idiot.

I've had literally a Nobel laureate economist tell me I'm an idiot. —Nick Kokonas

DB: I mean, the challenge is perceived value, too. If I put a one-pound steak in front of you, you immediately say this should be this much. You know that if you go to xyz steakhouse, you're going to pay $72 for that beef, which is how much that steak is. But, for example, the Vegan menu that we were talking about earlier, it blew my mind that people would say they didn't see the value in it. And it's a 24-course menu with handmade plates and tabletops changing halfway through, and they would say, "Well, it's all vegetables."
NK: How much is the cost of white asparagus per pound?
DB: Almost as much as $30 or $40 per pound.
GA: 40 bucks. For the big stuff.
DB: What people don't realize is that for us to serve the Swiss chard dish that we did, we basically had to work with a farmer to set up a greenhouse to plant it in February. So that when we opened this menu in May, we had Swiss chard from who we wanted growing it, the size that we wanted it, three months before the season started. So you may not find the value in that piece of Swiss chard on your plate because it's just a leaf or [you might think] that white asparagus should be a side for the piece of beef or chicken that it actually costs twice as much as. And it's more of a novel ingredient. It's more elegant. People only find that in a truffle.
GA: Same in the cocktail realm where currently Chef Brochu is like —
AB: Go ahead, spit it out.
GA: What do you expect when you go to a bar for food? Tater tots, hot dogs?

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Next chef Dave Beran, The Aviary chef Andrew Brochu, and director of culinary operations Eric Rivera. [Photo: Barry Brecheisen]

A burger.
GA: Yeah. That's not happening here.
AB: No.
GA: So you're sorting something on a different level, which I feel matches with the level of the cocktail. If we're going to present a cocktail at the most extreme level, why wouldn't we match the food? Why would a bar, any bar, make a perfect cocktail and then serve tater tots?
AB: Or at least what people think are tater tots. But yeah, absolutely. One of the first dishes that I put on [were] chicken wings because we were like, it's a bar. But instead we're using egg and parmesan and truffle to try to make it fit the level of the cocktail. However, at the end of the day, it didn't stay on the menu very long because I couldn't get past the fact that I was still just serving chicken wings. Just because I had truffle on the dish and they were more expensive than all the wings in the city, it was still just wings. So the thought process over there is how do I serve bar food that you can't get in any other bar, but still fits the mold of what you would get at a bar.
NK: Size, shape.
AB: Texture.
NK: Able to eat it casually, have a lot, have a little.

Why would a bar, any bar, make a perfect cocktail and then serve tater tots? —Grant Achatz

DB: What satiates those cravings. You're at a bar. You're not craving tuna tartare.
GA: But I feel it's beyond that. We don't adhere to the rules.
AB: At all.
GA: Which I think is kind of important.
AB: In fact, a lot of times when ideas come up, it's, "Eh, that's a little too safe." You know? That's too simple. We can push harder than that. We can do better than that.

What kinds of ideas are too safe?
DB: Putting a slider on the menu.
NK: But then I'll say this. Sometimes you can make the argument, well, it's limited to a slider, but make the uber slider.
GA: Oh, we could make the slider that's amazing.
NK: I'm okay with that personally.
GA: House-baked brioche, amazing beef, artisan cheese, house-made pickles, fermented kimchi. We could do it.
NK: That sounds good to me, I don't know.
GA: Oh stop it.
NK: (laughs) I mean sometimes the simpler stuff done at the highest level is really good.

[Edit: Conversation meanders into a brief discussion about the Gatorade that Achatz is drinking and jokes about whether they can get a corporate sponsorship.]

Now we're adding yet another restaurant, essentially. —Nick Kokonas

GA: Nick will show you [the office] upstairs.
NK: I think we should show her the private dining room as well. Chef Brochu is going to be doing the menu for the rest of the year there. It's a totally different menu. One of the things that's hard to imagine is that we have three different menus a year that happen in this restaurant, then we have the menu at The Aviary, then we have a completely different food menu — I'm just talking about food now — in The Office, and now we're adding yet another restaurant, essentially.
GA: Maybe we shouldn't forget about the four [menu] changes at Alinea.
NK: No, I'm just talking in this building. I was getting there. (laughs) In this building alone it's like four different restaurants.
AB: There's a lot of menus between us.
GA: There's a lot of food floating around.
AB: And they're all very different, but they all fit into the same family tree, I think, very well.
NK: So we're going to do the private dining room for the rest of this year. And then next year it'll be a private facility for menus for Next.

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Next chef Dave Beran, director of culinary operations Eric Rivera, and The Aviary chef Andrew Brochu. [Photo: Barry Brecheisen]

And so are you two collaborating on it at all? You're in charge now, Chef Brochu?
AB: The menu that we're rolling is a menu that I came up with just through January. And then it's going to be —
DB: Same thing you did [upstairs], but down there.
AB: Yeah.
GA: Which I think is really cool because Chef Brochu has a very Southern background and influence in his food. So for instance when we gave Nick his meal [in the private dining room], there were Anson Mills grits, but we shaved white truffles over them.
NK: Not really your typical grit dish.
GA: But here's my point, you blend them both. Which I think is indicative of his cuisine.
DB: I'm starting my third menu development since he's started here, and there's a lot of the stuff that we used to do at Alinea when we worked there five years ago. We're sitting there, he's throwing a flavor at me that I didn't think would go [in a dish], but it makes sense. I'm doing that with him, too. I think it's adding another level to both of our food. We always argue back and forth. I want to add lemon, he wants to add vinegar.
AB: You want to add carrots, and I want to add celery.
DB: And I hate celery and he hates carrots.
AB: Right. When Dave and I are downstairs —
GA: We're back on the carrot train?
AB: (laughs) — We do a lot of basic conversing.
DB: It's helping refine our palates a lot, for sure.

How do the ideas flow among the restaurants in that collaborative atmosphere?
DB: I just think we talk.
AB: We've known each other for a really long time.
DB: There's never bruised egos.

There's never bruised egos. —Dave Beran

GA: Amongst Chef Beran, Chef Brochu, Eric, myself, and Chef [Mike] Bagale [at Alinea], we text, we email. Like I said, if somebody has a product like the Hawaiian shrimp, Bagale goes, "Hey, I have a bunch if you guys need it, we can send it over." We have a very cohesive network.
DB: Bagale was working on burning parsnips one night for a new dish, which I think ultimately turned into charred beef or something. He was sending pictures all night, and I was looking for inspiration for new menu stuff. We had no parsnips, but we had carrots, so I pretty much spent the evening doing everything I could with carrots and sending pictures back and forth to him, saying, "Well, I just tried frying this to this temp and it puffed." And he's like, "I just tried burning it like this." Something may or may not have come out of it for that dish, but I learned something about carrots and he learned a new technique. We're not staying in the same building, but with our phones sitting there we basically are. [Brochu] and I do the same thing where he'll hand me something, and I'll walk up here and throw it on the flat top and burn it. And he'll say, "Stop burning it." [Everyone laughs]
NK: They're burning food at both ends of the city. Perfect.
GA: And then either one of them or myself will go to Eric and say, "Where can we get this fish? What can we do with this?" And then he'll Google it, put on his chef coat, go downstairs and cook it. And we'll sit there and we'll taste it. It's not normal.

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Alinea chefs Mike Bagale and Grant Achatz. [Photo: Barry Brecheisen]

Not normal?
GA: No. What other restaurant does that?
AB: I left the company for a little while and worked at a small-time privately owned place and struggled, and I worked at a big-name chef's place. Neither one of them operate even close to the level this company operates.
GA: It's just not normal.
AB: No. But I think the results speak for themselves.
GA: Oui Chef.
NK: You can't say that.
GA: Yeah they can.
NK: They can say that?
GA: Yeah.
NK: You can say that?
GA: Yeah. I just feel like — and Eric can speak to this probably more accurately than I can — but you have restaurants that have food labs and they have dedicated areas. What are they doing?

[These gigantic food labs] detach themselves from service too much. —Eric Rivera

ER: It's really detached. I've been to a lot of them and even the biggest one, Modernist Cuisine. That was basically my back yard and my best friend works there. So I've seen all these gigantic food labs. They try to detach themselves from service too much to that they're not communicating with the chefs [for whom] they're actually trying to find these extra little things. If things were set up, I could have done the projects for carrots or fermenting or spoiling something or having something burn or explode or whatever else. A lot of the ways the other guys operate is, "We've been doing all these experiments." They force it on the chefs, [who] then have this negative thing toward it like, "I don't want this stuff to be forced on me. I don't want to have to do this just because you made it." I've seen that with every single food lab situation. That's not the way it's supposed to work. I should be going to them, "What are you guys working on?" We have a five-minute conversation, I come back in a couple days, and I'm like, "Aha, what do you think?" And then they adjust it from there.
GA: It's more about the guest experience for us. It's not about creating new technique. I mean, that's important but —
ER: You can say that for ego purposes, like, "We created something new." But really at the end of the day, are you?

· Part One: The Alinea Team on Creativity and Collaboration [-E-]
· Part Two: Grant Achatz and The Aviary Team on Cocktails and Group Creativity [-E-]
· Part Three: The Next Team on Making Decisions [-E-]
· All Grant Achatz Coverage on Eater [-E-]

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