Sky Full of Bacon

Eater, and Camera Guy, Visit Achatz’s E-Ticket

Did I say that I was tired of Next/Aviary coverage? I meant, bring it on! All week long!

Okay, I think I said I was tired of people going nuts and acting badly in response to all the ticketing-mania. It was kind of good to have a week off from stories of people obsessively refreshing their browsers to go eat 100-year-old French food. But there’s still a great story or two in this culinarily ambitious new venture for one of the best chefs in [insert geographic level of choice here], and so I jumped like someone who just got their Next password when Ari Bendersky of Eater recruited me to film him getting a tour of everything— and it really was everything— in the Next/Aviary complex last Friday. Here was a chance to dig at least a little deeper than just stories about what a hot ticket Next was and to get beyond treating it like a culinary Justin Bieber. (All kudos to Ari for his cultivation of Achatz et al. as sources and for his ongoing first-in-line coverage of the openings; I’m just the camera guy he dragged along.)

Although we were there for barely two hours total, as usual with Achatz (notice how casually I worked that in) it was a whirlwind two hours so mentally and conceptually packed that you can barely keep up, and me-the-editor is left cursing me-the-cameraman for not getting a shot of this, or this, or one of those. We went in planning to make three short segments about Next and Aviary to run this week at Eater; we came out with clear ideas for five (and a weekend for me to cut as much final material as a full Sky Full of Bacon podcast). The first ran yesterday and was Achatz giving us the visual and atmospheric inspiration behind Next:

Eater Chicago

Today’s takes us inside the kitchen with executive chef Dave Beran. If you have any doubts about whether they’ve made a complete commitment to 1906-era L’Escoffier-style cooking, you won’t after seeing the full Gallic culinary-barbarity of the duck press and the rows of seafood and brigades of cooks breaking it down for cooking, which could have walked right out of a Parisian scullery… save for the multiethnic staff and the fluorescent lighting. And to think that they’ll spin on a dime in a few months and be making Thai street food— it’s either madness or a tribute to their astonishing discipline and thoroughness, in a few months we shall see. (Well, a small fraction of us will see.) As for what the rest of the week holds… come back to Eater each day for more, that’s my advice.

Eater Chicago

Not that I’m an expert Achatzologist, by any means, but having been behind the scenes now at both Alinea and Next/Aviary, there’s no question that this is not one of those examples of a chef downscaling his product for today’s more casual way of dining. Though in some small ways Next is less luxe than Alinea, everything about the operation bespeaks Achatz’s commitment to ordering his universe just so— and to hiring people who think like he does, in terms of the self-chosen paradox of achieving perfection in a profession that’s all about variation in product and pulling your butt out of the fire at the last minute. Talking to Dave Beran, for instance, he was constantly adjusting things— you’ll see him unconsciously straightening the spice rack twice as he speaks to us— and he interrupts a discussion of the crayfish they buy to zero in on and remove, in an instant, the one crayfish in an army of a hundred that isn’t quite up to the standard set by the other 99. (Why? I couldn’t begin to tell you how it fell short.)

Eater Chicago

Likewise, Craig Schoettler, the chef of Aviary (that title in itself is a typical Achatzian touch; no mere bartenders making mere drinks here) seems almost enraptured by the industrial sleekness of Aviary’s work stations, the sharp angles of its perfectly cubic ice cubes. (Will that translate into better cocktails? That question has to wait for Aviary to open, maybe later this week.) As with Walt Disney, would you want to be the worker who has to realize such a vision of ordered perfection on earth every day? I wouldn’t; I’m not that type. As with Disney, is it worth spending a fortune to experience such a vision a few times in your life as a customer? Surely. (The Disney comparison is a problematic one for Next— it would be easy to push the evoking-another-time-and-place side of Next too far and make Next feel like its version of Paris 1906 comes from Epcot’s mall of nations. If anything Next lands on the side of minimalism to avoid that comparison, as you’ll hear Achatz explain in the first video. But the comparison to another visionary trying to bring the totality of the idealized world in his head to paying guests is entirely complimentary— Achatz only creates E-tickets.)

Eater Chicago

As for Achatz the individual— I don’t know him, I’ve just had a chance to point a camera at him a couple of times. But to paraphrase the Wine Spectator, video’d twice with consistent notes. I was thinking about him when I shot with Jared Van Camp at Old Town Social; Jared’s smart as a whip, he’s opening restaurants at a plainly ambitious clip, and his outstanding charcuterie is a reflection of how hard he’s thought about how to improve it. In its own way, he’s approached it as scientifically as Achatz has anything at Alinea, because you really have to with charcuterie, bad charcuterie can kill you. But at the same time— he’s a let’s-have-a-good-time guy like his old boss Paul Kahan; his idea of a restaurant from 100 years ago would be a gemütlichkeit German place, not an exacting French one. Where Achatz has a relentless drive in him that you don’t see much in life, except at the top of anything. At one point we asked him how the dishes at Next were being received and he made a special point of saying that other chefs had praised a certain dish—the one dish that has often been reviewed as just being okay. But Achatz wasn’t going to give an inch; if he has to he’ll will it into being just as great a dish as everything else on the menu.

I was a little startled when I first encountered him this time; his voice was ragged and he looked tired and not especially happy to have to talk to two more journalists. He looked like what he obviously is, someone’s who’s been working 20 hour days since he can’t remember when to make a new business perfect. But it’s amazing how quickly that sensation went away; in seconds he got into the subject of his restaurant and I had a palpable sense of color flowing back into his face, energy rising through his body, even delight twinkling around his edges. Okay, that sounds like something writers just say to get flowery, but dammit, I have video of it as it happens. You can see him recharging himself as he turns to his subject, the only subject that matters, the absolute and total vision of your dining enjoyment as a paying guest in the environment conceived at every possible level by Grant Achatz.

Eater Chicago

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