Recipe 695 in Auguste Escoffier's "Le Guide Culinaire" is Puree Palestine, a sunchoke and roasted hazelnut soup. The five-sentence recipe, much like the 5,011 others in the book, is rather vague. Few recipes even call for salt. Dubbed "Escoffier" for short, "Le Guide Culinaire" is Textbook One of French gastronomy and points in a general direction rather than offering turn-by-turn maps.
In researching the 100-plus potential dishes for their forthcoming restaurant, called Next, Alinea chefs Grant Achatz and Dave Beran cooked the sunchoke soup as Escoffier indicated. The result was a "cream bomb," Achatz recalled, lacking acid to counterbalance its intense richness. But Beran, the 29-year-old Tru and MK alumnus who will head Next's kitchen, suggested serving the soup as Escoffier intended and gauging reaction.
The response was polarizing. Some who sampled the soup thought it tasted "French" and "perfect"; others couldn't finish the bowl. And therein lay a philosophical debate behind this most ambitious sequel from the Alinea team: When a restaurant promises to transport diners everywhere and to every era, should authenticity carry as much weight as progress? It's a battle the Next team hasn't entirely resolved.
The success of Alinea — which recently got top honors from Michelin in the form of three stars — has afforded Achatz and restaurant partner Nick Kokonas a rare chance in the restaurant industry: bankroll a wildly radical dining concept. Next, scheduled to open in Fulton Market at the end of the month, will feature a menu that will change every three months, tied to a location and time period. Paris 1906 is its inaugural theme; Thai street food (time period undetermined) will follow in June. For future menus, Achatz has floated the idea of Prohibition-era Chicago, New York circa "Mad Men" and Hong Kong 2036. He's even considering "The French Laundry — Oct. 16, 1996," re-creating dishes from Achatz's first day working for Thomas Keller (and possibly bringing in Keller for a weeklong guest stint). It is the most anticipated restaurant opening Chicago has seen, period.
The inspiration for Next came on the day Achatz discovered he had stage 4 tongue cancer. (Achatz is now cancer free.) Kokonas had driven back from a golf tournament in Michigan upon hearing the news. When he arrived at the Alinea kitchen, Achatz cooked for Kokonas, improvising with the ingredients at hand — searing a duck breast with morels, adding freeze-dried peas, micro greens and Thai long pepper.
Kokonas was floored by the dish, one he thought worthy of the finest French restaurants. As Kokonas recalled in their memoir, "Life, on the Line," he told Achatz: "Why is it that I can't get that down the street at some French bistro? If we opened a place that did that we would kill 'em."
Achatz responded: "Where's the challenge in that?"
In launching with a menu based on Escoffier, the Next crew is opening itself to challenges — for one, the sky-high expectations of following a three-Michelin starred restaurant by cooking from a seminal but outdated book. Since the book was published in 1902, kitchen technology has improved and tastes have evolved — cockscomb and bunting, a type of bird, have fallen out of favor — and what was once palatable might be considered a cream bomb today.
"It's such a struggle between true authenticity versus the deliciousness factor," said Beran, most recently Alinea's chef de cuisine. "Ultimately, we're trying to be a great restaurant. We're trying to have our own identity, to produce the best food of that style as we can."
Unless you're a French culinary historian, or you ate at the Ritz or Maxim's in 1906 Paris, there's little you — or the chefs — can do today to gauge authenticity. The Next team pored over dozens of books in their research, and discovered few photographs existed of what dishes looked like, or how they were plated.
"I've been making it a priority to cook in a very progressive genre, and when you're asked to stop doing that and re-create something that's old, it's actually really hard and feels very unnatural to us," Achatz said. "Putting food on a plate that's not representative of who you are, personally, stylistically, it's weird. It's not what we do everyday. So it's been incredibly educational to everybody."
At a recent practice dinner at Alinea, the culinary team cooked through Next's 14-course kitchen table menu, a meal that spanned four-plus hours. This menu will be offered to just one table of six each night (the standard dining room menu will be six courses long).
If authenticity was an unknown, the dishes were certainly evocative. Osetra caviar served with Yukon Gold blinis (Recipe 952) arrived after hors d'oeuvres; turtle consomme was course No. 4 (Recipe 907); foie gras a la Strasbourgeoise — a torchon of duck liver baked inside a brioche loaf — was the final savory course (Recipe 3495).
The centerpiece was the Caneton Rouennais a la Presse — which as described in Escoffier (Recipe 3476) — calls for roast duckling served with a reduction of brandy, red wine, plus duck jus extracted from a nickel-plated press. (The antique duck press was purchased from a restaurant in Maine for several thousand dollars.) Beran cooked the duck sous vide in an immersion circulator, before theatrically carving it tableside. He reduced with cognac in place of brandy, and grilled the legs.
As for the sunchoke soup, Beran decided to take the Escoffier recipe as inspiration. He now finishes with Banyuls vinegar, cognac and lemon, and eliminated the egg yolk liaison used to thicken the soup.
"Some expert from Paris is going to say this is all completely wrong; for sure it's going to happen," Kokonas said at the dinner postmortem. "People are going to have opinions. But that's a good thing."
Achatz jumped in: "At the end of the day, who really knows what Escoffier's food was like? We can do our due diligence and really look at the cuisine, its history, its current state of gastronomy and project what we think it might be like. We have responsibilities as cooks today, just as Escoffier did 100 years ago, to utilize every tool we have to uphold his philosophy."
Kokonas and Achatz have been approached about expanding to Las Vegas, Dubai, Tokyo and New York City, but have turned down all offers. They did not want to clone another Alinea.
What makes Next interesting is that it's both a sequel and not a sequel: Whereas Alinea's cuisine was inextricably identified with Achatz, Next is an interpretation of others, a history lesson and an attempt at a transformative experience to another time and place. Its quarterly reinvention is a way of avoiding the inevitable comparisons to Alinea.
When Alinea opened six years ago, team members held two practice-run dinners in preparation. With Next, they're planning at least a half dozen. This time around, developing dishes might not be as instinctive as at Alinea — half the battle will be in researching unfamiliar dishes and training palates. And if you can believe it: In 12 weeks, Escoffier will be a thing of the past. They'll scrap the entire menu, recalibrate their cooking techniques from French to Thai and repeat the process from scratch.
Call them crazy ambitious or just plain crazy, but they may be the only chefs in America who've earned the benefit of the doubt.