When I asked Grant Achatz if Next, his new shape-shifting Chicago restaurant that explores historic eras in gastronomy, was a physical manifestation of his creative restlessness, the chef took the question and sprinted off in various directions, many more than we could print in this week’s Q&A.
Here’s the rest of his answer, which invokes one of Washington’s most famous food writers:
A couple of months ago, my girlfriend and I ate in New York. Clearly there’s many, many great restaurants in New York. It’s really funny; I talked to Mimi Sheraton and I talked to Ruth Reichl [Note: both former New York Times food critics] and I talked to Phyllis Richman [The Post’s long-time food critic, now retired].
I wanted to time-travel while we were in New York, and I wanted to experience food that was from a bygone era. And all of them said you have to go to La Grenouille, which is basically the last bastion of uber-classic French food in New York. I mean, they’ve all closed. Nothing like that exists in Chicago. So we went, and it was magical. Because it was so incredibly old, it felt new. I was like, ‘This is amazing! We need to revive some of this! We need to go to Sicily in 1949, and we need to go to Kyoto in the spring in 1967 and eat a kaiseki meal. What would that be like?’ So on and so forth. That in itself is creative because [you’re] trying to insert yourself into that aspect of gastronomy, culture [and] what was going on politically at that time. Taking all of that information in and then kind of spitting it out in your voice in present-day times is fun. It’s really fun.
Given your sensitivity to service, decor and feel of a restaurant, how much of this are you going to change every time you switch to a different cooking era? How specific can you get to re-creating something that you obviously have never experienced yourself?
Right. So clearly a tremendous amount of research and development goes into this. We have a team of about five people that are constantly flooding over books, Internet resources and actually talking to people.
I mentioned Mimi and Phyllis: We’ve already talked to them about trying to put together a New York menu that is indicative of the ’60s or ’70s. We can’t create Epcot Center. We don’t want to, because then no matter how true the food is, based on our research and based on [our] skills as chefs, it will feel inauthentic. It will just feel too cheesy.
There’s a core interior of the restaurant that will not change at all. What we’ve tried to do is create a very vague interior, but also there are certain design elements that hint toward one common theme, and that’s basically travel. The service will kind of change slightly. So for instance, with Paris 1906, we’ve actually gone out and procured a bunch of antiques that will help us serve the food, to give it a backdrop and try to create a little bit more authenticity.
If our second menu is, I don’t know, let’s say Kyoto, then obviously instead of serving wine in Spiegel or Riedel crystal, we’re probably going to be using earthenware saki cups and chopsticks instead of forks and knives. So we’ll have to hint toward that. Like the opening menu, we’re going to drape our tables in linen because that was more indicative of Paris 1906. If our second menu is Kyoto, it’s more appropriate to strip those tablecloths off and have beautiful bare-wood tables.
So we’re going to hint toward it, but like I said, we don’t want to dress the staff up in the white shirt, black vest, bow tie and make them all put fake curly French mustaches on. You know what I mean? That just won’t work. [He laughs.]