As part of the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, Eater interviewed chefs poolside at the Limelight Hotel. Up next: Grant Achatz (Chef/Partner, Alinea, The Aviary, Next), Dave Beran (Executive Chef, Next), and Mike Bagale (Executive Chef, Alinea).
From left: Dave Beran, Eric Rivera, Micah Melton, Grant Achatz, Mike Bagale. [Photo: Eater]
So how's Aspen?
Dave Beran: We haven't really seen much.
They're putting you to work?
Grant Achatz: I mean obviously the weather is gorgeous ... We all had our difficulties getting in. A lot of people did. I don't know about you guys but we had to drive from Denver. We had delays all the way through.
GA: Of course.
What's going on with the restaurant group? You guys announced possibly new restaurants by the end of the year.
GA: Right. There will be a restaurant by the end … not by the end of the year but …
Do you have a lease for the space?
GA: Yeah. It will probably happen February or March because it takes a lot to build a lot of restaurants as we all know, right? Once you sign the lease, it takes 14 months ... We wouldn't sign the lease without a concept. We have a very clear but evolving vision, let's put it that way, as with everything that we do. Why are you laughing?
DB: I just love all these clear but evolving visions. Next was a clear but evolving vision.
GA: Yeah, remember when we thought Next was going to be a bistro?
DB: Next was going to be a bistro, four course menu, in and out.
GA: That didn't happen.
DB: That didn't happen at all.
GA: Now we are 14 courses deep, right?
GA: Thank you, 18.
The Trio menu is coming soon.
DB: It is, three months out.
GA: Chef, August 25th is the last Chinese.
DB: How is that menu looking chef?
GA: Awesome. Looks just like 14 years ago.
How are you approaching visiting something from the past and making it feel now to you today?
DB: We talked about this a little bit because, I'll speak a little bit for him and he'll correct me when I mess up. Trio was a really magical place partially because there was no budget.
GA: No budget like not the sky is the limit, but as in no budget.
DB: Yeah, so like you and I can be dining together and get a lamb course and then the four of them could be getting the lamb course and they only have two of this plate and six of this plate so the plate wouldn't match. And so I think what we really talked about was the same approach we took with the elBulli menu. And that was we didn't want to change their recipes because the whole point of the elBulli menu was to show their progression and show their evolution.
I think with this there's certain things you have to tweak, mainly portion sizing, but I think it would be really exciting to basically to take Trio then and do it with all of the capabilities that we have now. We have 12 menus worth of plateware. We don't have two of one plate and seven of another. We have a really strong team who are used to doing these big large tasting menus on a consistent basis every night...
GA: There were nights where we'd do eight covers and be happy about it. I think what chef is talking about is, it's the same thing that we came up with the very initial menu at Next (which was Paris Escoffier 1906): Do we improve or do we make it a historic representation? I think the answer that we've come up with in our conversation has been both.
I can bring that full circle in saying at Trio was the first time that I ever reached out to Philip Preston [president of] PolyScience and it was at Trio in 2003 that we were thinking about the anti-griddle but it wasn't until Alinea, until we had the budget, until we had the resources, and the time to make that thing come to life. We would have used it at Trio but we didn't have it. Now it's like, I wish we would have had, where the hell is our tank at, Alinea, the nitro tank, how many liters?
Mike Bagale: 1500 liters.
GA: We didn't even have liquid nitrogren at Trio. So now it's like, we can showcase the best of Trio by improving on it with chef Beran and making it [a] representation of 2001 through 2004 but doing it in a way that everybody feels comfortable with. He feels comfortable with and I feel comfortable with. We are going to have to tread some lines, you know?
DB: Our goal from the kitchen's standpoint is really to craft the experience that you probably wish you could have.
DB: Not because you were or weren't good enough, but just the things at our disposal.
GA: I think Eric [Rivera] is going to have to sort out some of the stuff. I mean, I have stacks of recipes and menus and pictures ... Just to get the plating as we remember it. And plateware. Literally we would have served something on this [knocks on the stone fireplace], a slate of granite back then, and rolled up a napkin, put a spoon on it.
There's some things that might need to harken back to 13 years ago. What might be neat is showing like, let's say you have a two-top, this might be weird, doing a one-on-one and showing the evolution. So you have a piece of granite that Rick Tramonto might have used in 1996 when he was at Trio and we just found it because when we took it over that's what was there, it was like a garage sale in the best possible way. Roll up a napkin, throw a spoon on it and that was the black truffle explosion. But then as evolution went on, then Martin [Kastner] creates the antiplate so maybe if you guys are eating there, you'd get the granite with the rollup napkin and you will get the Alinea version and it just kind of … The answer, the short of it, is we just came up with three ideas while we're sitting here with you.
That's the way this group goes. We never put a ceiling on anything and we just go, "Let's just talk about it." When you get this group together, it's kind of silly, honestly. Because we can draw on so much stuff. That might sound arrogant, I don't want it to sound arrogant. But it's like with the experience that we all have and the depth of knowledge, not only with the cuisine that started back then but [Beran] working at Tru and MK and everybody just coming in at it from different directions, it's really exciting.
How are you guys feeling about approaching the 10th year of Alinea?
MB: It's really really exciting because, and this is something I was telling the staff the other day and thanking them for everything they put into that restaurant. I've been there for five years and I have seen an immense amount…
GA: I know. It's bananas.
MB: August 5th 2009. I've seen so much evolvement from restaurant and that's very rewarding obviously. It makes you realize that what we try to do is innovate, what we try to do is change, what we try to do is inspire. Like chef said, not to sound arrogant, but it sounds like we are succeeding. We are getting great press and we are getting a lot of attention because we are changing the dynamic of what we're doing. We are never, there is that one restaurant that just never stays still and never does the same menu. 10 years is, I mean I told you congratulations. But it feels awesome to me that we are still very relevant in the culinary world.
What do you see in the next 10 years?
GA: I think we are going to take the opportunity now, with the momentum that we have and the restlessness, if you will, to blow it up. We've been saying this for a while and we put the marker at 10 years. I feel like it's all coming full circle for us right now where on the exact anniversary of Alinea it's 10 years and the Beard Foundation will hold its awards ceremony in Chicago. But more than that it's about going, we have the opportunity to not be complacent. We are going to renovate the restaurant in a very significant way.
We have the opportunity to have a closure and I think that's really important. A lot of people, you look at right now French Laundry marking 20 years, right? Immense respect, amazing accomplishment. First of all, any restaurant that makes it five years as we all know that's like the cliché, great. 10 years, pretty awesome. 20 years at being at that level, pretty much undeniably the best. We don't want to be the same restaurant in 10 years and we are going to make a very strong mental, physical, and financial commitment to make sure that we are not.
Us three have been working on plans for renovation of the kitchen and the basement. Myself and Nick have been working on renovation plans for the dining room spaces. And the food. It needs to stay fresh. Everybody wants to ask us, "What does that mean? Give us an example of a dish." Well, I'll tell you what right now. If I had an example of a dish that's going to happen in the future, we would be doing it right now and then we would go, "Shit, what's in the future," and then I would go, "Here is the answer," and then we would be doing it right now. These things come quickly or long term.
We all know whether it's Micah [Melton] working on cocktails at the Aviary, whether it's Eric working on procuring truffles from France or working on a coffee program or fermentation of something for the steak menu, things happen either very quickly or very long-term. Completely unpredictable because it just goes. We are all going to walk away from this and go, "Hey, we should do this, we should do that." And that's the way it works, it's okay and it's really great.
Is the Alinea popup is going to make or break your decision to seriously consider opening in New York?
GA: It'll heavily influence it. But you know, and Micah can speak to this as well, our initial expansion plan right now is a restaurant in Chicago which we've signed the lease on and which we're aggressively pursuing. The various popups throughout the world. I'll say that and that's Alinea. And the concrete plans for Aviary and you know, Aviary New York, Aviary Tokyo, Aviary Singapore, Aviary Hong Kong. Somebody came to us yesterday with Dubai. St. Petersburg. It's going to happen.
What have you said no to?
GA: A lot. Way more than we've said yes to, right? There are just tons of no's. We want to find someone that wants to do it the right way. That's the coolest about it taking so long and the reason it's taking so long when it's done, it's done right. We are not trying to rush anything, just to put one in Miami Beach and New York and all over the place because we have to find someone that's going to do it right. Find the space that's right and do stuff to our standards. We don't want to hurt that.
Here is what I feel is great about the culture of the company whether it be Next and chef Beran or Alinea or Aviary. It's a very… like Daniel Boulud's company, like Thomas Keller, like TKRG. Whether it's a Bouchon, a French Laundry or Per Se, an Ad Hoc, there is a very shared philosophy, a very shared standard. For us thinking about popping up in New York with Alinea which is going to happen late October, we started talking about it as a group and I said, "If we are going to commit to it." And we all speak the same language. If chef Bagale says, "We are going to do X, Y, and Z and we need X, Y, and Z for mise en place," it makes sense to popup in Aviary.
After we said that, I said to him, "Do you want to do it at Next? Maybe we do it in the same space," which is what we are looking at right now. Wouldn't it be kind of neat to think about going to, for a New Yorker that's never been to Chicago, come to Next for lunch and then go home, travel around Manhattan, do your thing, come to Aviary for a drink at 8:00 o'clock, get an Aviary cocktail in Manhattan and then go to Alinea for dinner?
If we are going to commit to it and we have the manpower. We all speak the same language, we know the same mise en place. We know the knife cuts, we know the technique. And they fall over each other so much. If [Mike Bagale] is not in the shits and his team is tight, he can very well help Micah create cocktails. Then we could all fall on chef Beran and they show the Next menu is tight. It's crazy, it's great consistency. So look forward to that.