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The individual brass woks for the beef cheek curry course; Photography by Christian Seel

True to Form

by Lisa Shames | Men's Book Chicago magazine | March 15, 2012

With a nine-course menu that included fermented sausage, prawn cake, salted duck egg, wild catfish braised in caramel sauce and beef cheek curry, you’d think the most stressful part of the opening night of Next restaurant’s Thai menu last July would have been the food on the plates. But, as it turned out, it was what lay underneath them.

Only hours before had the custom-made silk table runners (a different color for each day of the week, in accordance with a Thai tradition) arrived at the West Town restaurant. “It came right down to the wire,” says chef/owner Grant Achatz. “It was the one thing we truly underestimated.”

From Paris 1906 to present-day Thailand to childhood memories from the 70s and 80s, the concepts at the almost year-old Next have changed every three-and-a-half months—and that goes for the plates, serving pieces and table accessories, too.

“You can be a great cook and chef, but to have a great restaurant you need to have a great story, otherwise it doesn’t feel complete,” says Achatz. “I relate it to if the food were alive and could talk, you would need to dress it in appropriate clothing.”

Take, for instance, the Thai street food course. To give it an authentic feel, newspapers were placed on top of the tables. But, says Audio/Visual Director Christian Seel, “We thought it would look silly if we served Thai food on Chinese newspapers.” So, once a week at 3pm, a delivery of current Thai papers would arrive at O’Hare for the restaurant.

Then there were the lunchboxes for Childhood, the restaurant’s third incarnation, used for the School Lunch course. For those, which were bought off of eBay, Achatz instituted an $18 spending cap per box. About a month and a half later they had collected the 40 or so vintage boxes they needed. (Interesting tidbit: “Surprisingly, there weren’t as many lunch boxes designed for girls in the 80s,” says Seel.)

Then there was the “log,” also from the Childhood menu, which was Next Executive Chef Dave Beran’s favorite piece so far, as well as one of the most difficult to conjur. Used for the Autumn course, the hollowed out piece of wood had an aromatic component to it and was designed by Beran and Achatz, then executed by a local woodworker. “We knew what we were looking for, so it was a matter of figuring out how to create it,” says Beran.

The bar was set high at Next from the beginning, with the initial Paris 1906 Escoffier menu. “One of the major debates we had conceptually when opening Next was that we didn’t want it to become Epcot Center,” says Achatz, in regard to the restaurant’s transformations. “But when you’re serving dishes that date back 100 years, it seemed weird to serve them on contemporary plates.” (There’s a similar philosophy at The Office, the old-fashioned cocktail lounge downstairs from Next, where you’ll find an antique caviar server and hand-cut crystal coupe glasses.)

To find the slew of vintage pieces needed for the restaurant’s debut menu, six staff members were sent on antiquing road trips to three states. Beran, along with his sous chef Rene DeLeon, headed to Michigan, where they “stumbled upon” the prized egg carousel, an early 1900s piece from a British hotel. “We struck out 90 percent of the time, but the ones we hit on were really good,” says Beran.

Back at Alinea, Achatz would give a thumbs-up or -down to photos his staff sent him via their iPhones. “I don’t know what we would do without those,” says Achatz.

While the menus have varied dramatically, that do-it-yourself mentality when it comes to sourcing the various serving pieces has been a common denominator. As has the extensive research, including some major Google work by Seel, prior to each change.

It’s de rigueur for this crew. “We’ve been doing this at Alinea with the customized service wear and modernizing the way we eat,” says Achatz. “We’re doing the exact same thing at Next, but in reverse.”

For Beran the point is to create an experience and take the diner somewhere else, whether it’s Paris, Thailand or back to their childhood. “A lot of things we do are about more than just the food on the plate in front of you,” he says. “We’re really trying to craft something that appeals to all the senses.”

Beyond the “fun” factor for Achatz, it also comes down to completing the vision. “Once we did it for the Paris menu, we knew we were going to have to do it for all of them because it felt right,” says Achatz. Plus, “When the menus are over, I’ll have an amazing selection of stuff at my house,” he says, half-joking. There are, in fact, three storage units used for the overflow. “I understand that a couple of things are going to get broken, but I feel really bad for whoever breaks the caviar server. Someday, it’s going in my house.”