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How Next in Chicago Transforms Your Favorite Movies Into Edible Art

A look at the making of the Hollywood menu

Next, the Chicago restaurant that reinvents itself around a new theme multiple times a year, is currently dedicated to Hollywood. That means guests arrive on a “step and repeat,” as at a red carpet premiere. It also means that each course in the tasting menu is somehow tied to movies generally or a specific film.

To executive chef Jenner Tomaska, food and film are a natural pair. “Whether it be the focal point or not, there’s always some type of hospitality or food related scene in a movie. To me, it’s cool to see when it happens and it’s the focal point.” When it came time to create the menu, Tomaska says he and his team shed their typical “less is more philosophy.” Observers of Next will see a link to some past menus in the look of the food itself, but probably not in the serving pieces. “We had to hit enough nostalgia points and enough movie points, so that every diner that came in could have a reference to something,” the chef explains. “Whether it be to all the movies, or to more than half, is what we really wanted.”

“Although the service pieces have strong visual connections to the films, the dishes themselves are much more interpretive,” says Greg Morabito, who covers pop culture for Eater. Some dishes are quite literal — the Ratatouille course, for example, is basically gourmet ratatouille served on a mousetrap. But for the most part, Jenner says he “kept it open,” playing with flavors and ideas, making “food replicate what the movie stood for.” Beyond highlighting specific movies, Tomaska’s menu also tracks film history, following a chronological progression.

Gone With the “Caviar”

The dish: A cheddar bay biscuit, apples “compressed into an elixir,” topped with caviar. The movie quote is written in potato starch and edible ink. Served with Champagne.

The presentation: Some are real film reels, other are props, says Tomaska. Servers present the dish to guests and then pull out the paper strip with the golden quote, a familiar line from Gone With the Wind that’s completed by the word on top of the caviar bite.

The ideas: “When you think black and white [movies], you think either subtitles or movie quotes and that’s kind of how this dish came about,” Tomaska says. “So, it’s caviar and Champagne, which are two staples of early Hollywood and that glamorous era that we wanted to open the menu with... Caviar and champagne, you really can’t go wrong, right? ... And everyone, whether you’ve seen Gone with the Wind or not, you know that quote’s from that movie.”

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

The dish: This film gets two courses; scallop crackers served with passion fruit, seaweed, and raw walnut and also braised octopus.

The presentation: This course takes place during the “sci-fi block,” a group of courses themed around classic science fiction movies of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s and served on a red tablecloth. This course is served in a porthole (an actual porthole, not the Aviary’s oft-imitated cocktail service piece) purchased from a shipping yard in India.

The ideas: “The Porthole that they use in the Aviary is designed after a porthole, that’s what they used for a jumping-off point,” Tomaska says. “I was like, ‘Oh, we should plate it actually in the porthole or on the porthole’ and the dry ice aromatizes the seaweed and the shells that are underneath it... The flavors aren’t exactly representative of the movie. Not so literal, just more of the idea of the sea.”

Star Wars

The dish: Frog’s legs, ground with yellow split pea and seasoned with berbere, an Ethopian spice blend.

The presentation: Trying to source Han Solo’s blaster, Tomaska started by finding replicas of stage props — but they were prohibitively expensive. So he and his crew got toy guns and spray painted them, and put in some elbow grease to achieve the right look. If a guest pulls the trigger, the gun makes a noise.

The ideas: “In Return of the Jedi, Jabba the Hutt eats the paddy frog,” Tomaska says. “So, I was like, ‘Wouldn’t it be whimsical if we did a frog bite and served it on top of the Han Solo blaster?’ We talked about light sabers, but [the dish] came to this and circled back to that scene.”

And here now, for your perusing pleasure, the entire Next: Hollywood menu.

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