Did you really expect Grant Achatz to stick to the script? When the incessantly innovative chef of the cutting-edge Alinea opened his second restaurant, Next, the story was that it would change its menu every three months to feature different—and mostly traditional— cuisines, from disparate places and times. And yet, as Next makes its first cross-global change from Belle Epoque Paris to a present-day Tour of Thailand, the chef is already itching to break out of the mold.
You can start to sense this in the stunningly delicious, very unusual Thai food at Next, where tradition and homage are both at play. There are nearly by-the-book hits like raw shrimp served with a fire-breathing spike of garlic and, unexpectedly, the best shrimp chips anyone's ever had. There are subtle liberties, like a tom yum soup enriched with pork fat, whose limeade pairing provides the telltale aroma of lemongrass. And then there are the full-on Alineafications, none more obvious than a coconut dessert that involves distinctly untraditional ingredients like saffron and, well, liquid nitrogen. (Those sweet noodles made of egg yolk, though? That's pure Thai, and a reminder that that not everything you haven't seen before is something they've invented.) After this meal, (full disclosure: I attended a "practice dinner," meaning that the kitchen was using it to iron out the kinks of the menu, and meaning that no money changed hands), I talked with Achatz about the challenge of "authenticity," what he's learned about Thai food, why he's afraid of getting bored, and future menus he's planning for Next (including one recreating the cuisine of a very famous Spanish chef who is about to close his own restaurant).
Next's opening theme of Escoffier's Paris seemed like an obvious place to start this project—he's the father of Western haute cuisine. Why go from there to Thailand, with no historical focus?
Well, Escoffier was drippy rich, over-the-top, opulent, and antique. We wanted to do a 180 from that, a complete turnaround in technique, flavor profile, and feel; we're serious about this concept, creating a completely different experience. I like Thai food, but I honestly I don't necessarily love a lot of the funk of it, personally. My palate isn't trained for it. The duck egg relish we're making is actually little much for me. But we wanted people to know what this is. It's the exploration of gastronomy.
But now you're opening yourself up to a kind of criticism you've never had to face before: Are you being "authentic" enough?
With Paris, it was easy—no one had ever eaten in Paris 1906, so no one had anything to judge it by. But entering the realm of "ethnic" cooking, we're subjecting ourselves to the "pancake theory": You grew up eating your mom's pancakes, they might be great, they might be terrible. But you grew up on them, and so that's what they're supposed to be. When we go into a cuisine that people know or think that they know, they can tell you you're wrong.
We have to make some choices. We want to uphold that authenticity, but also make it delicious to the American palate. If your Thai cousin came, they might say this isn't hot enough, this isn't fish saucey. There's also product. We simply can't get coriander root. Are the chilies hotter in Thailand than they are here? Yeah. No, the banana didn't get picked right off the tree, nor did the coconuts. This is Chicago!
We know we're treading dangerous water.
But then are you backing away from the idea that you'd be really intensely recreating these different cuisines?
It's probably our fault, but I think people got the wrong impression of what we wanted to do. With Escoffier, maybe everyone was going, "Ok, they're going to be locking into a particular place and time." But on this menu, we're also going to do that coconut dessert, a re-imagined pad Thai, serve a rose-flavored dragon fruit. We took liberties with the tom yum, emulsifying in pork fat. It's kind of Alinea-fied. That said, on one of our first nights, a guest came up to Chef Dave (Beran, the Executive Chef of Next), asking how long the chef had trained in Thailand. She started crying, said it was the first meal she and her kids had since leaving Thailand that really reminded them of living there. But there will be another menu, I promise, where we lock ourselves to a place in time.
So what are some of those other menus you're planning?
We'll, we're always afraid of being bored. Maybe the better thing to say is that we see the potential of not being locked down to one style. Chef Dave is really inspired by a children's book right now, and our next menu can be entirely built on that. Or we can be an exact replica of another time and place. One menu might be from my memory: My first day at The French Laundry. It comes down to trying to be expressive. You can be expressive with a plate of food, or with the whole concept of a restaurant.
Another menu we're planning is El Bulli. One course from each year from 1983 to 2003. I'd work with Ferran [Adria] to choose the dishes that he feels are his most significant; I'd need to get him on board with that. We're barely into our second menu, but it's liberating to say here you have a bunch of Alinea cooks making food from 100 years ago, and now food from a place where most of them have never been to, and pulling it off. So where's the ceiling?
Speaking of pulling Thai food off, what new methods or techniques did you have to learn to make this menu? What excited you as a cook?
I'm learning so much about layering flavor. Normally, when you cook in the French palate, you have salt, fat, usually some form of acid—citrus, wine. Herbs, spices, but that's pretty much it. One thing that blew me away was the nam prik pow, the chile shallot relish we're making. You're going to get the snap of the chile right off the bat, but the finish is so layered: heavily caramelized garlic, the fish sauce, the acid punch. Not knowing all that much about Thai cooking before, I'm discovering a different way of building flavors.
There's always something really up front— raw garlic, raw chilies, these flavors are the first step, they push into your nose, you get them immediately. Then there's something mid-palate, then something stewed out and cooked down that gives you a long finish. It's fascinating.
The flavors are so loud: kaffir lime, limes, there are firecrackers of sensation going on. After the dish is all cooked, the flavors matured and mellowed, they'll reach for handfuls of raw cilantro, raw scallion, shallots—they go right back for the fireworks. It makes the cuisine so exciting to eat. I wish I could eat it more. When I taste our Penang curry, I'm on fire. Of course, that's me; the radiation made chiles really painful. We've adjusted the heat in the food up four times since we opened. And I'm appreciating the explosiveness of it.