Next: El Bulli

For over two years now, Sarah has been carefully keeping a data collection of our eating-out habits. She logs every receipt, notes what we both ordered, and then we rank the experience; her goal is to visualize this data artistically, possibly highlighting patterns or features that we might find interesting and seeing what we can learn about our habits and preferences. The ranking part of things originally started as a scale of 1 to 3: “1″ was “definitely wouldn’t eat there again” and “3″ was “All the way awesome.” We found this compelling because it meant places like Cafe Polo in Wellington would stand next to places like Alinea if we anonymized the names of all the restaurants. We eventually moved to a 1-4 scale, because a good deal of the places we ate were “just ok”, and we felt we needed a hair more granularity to hint at whether we’d choose to eat at a certain place again or not.  “2″ is “Eh, not terrible, but I probably wouldn’t do it again” and “3″ is “Yeah, pretty ok, I’d try it again”. An interesting question that’s arisen during this is “If you had that same amount of money to spend, would you spend it there again?”, and we now ask ourselves this for every meal we eat.

This past Wednesday, Sarah, myself, my sister and three friends all flew to Chicago from various locations to dine at Next for their current El Bulli menu.

If you worry I’m going to launch into a detailed play-by-play of our meal, please don’t. The food was good, the beverage pairings really good, and while I’ll elaborate on this in a moment, it will be only slightly.

I’ve been excited to dine at Next since it opened. Having gotten to play an extremely tiny but awesome role in the early days of it’s launch, I’ve had a slight emotional investment in it as its grown, and have always kept my eye open for an opportunity to visit. I also, for obvious reasons, have an acute fascination with El Bulli itself; I tried for years to secure a reservation at the restaurant (all unsuccessful), and its closing–that finality of knowing I’d never get to experience firsthand something that clearly represents a cultural revolution–was a little heartbreaking for me. So when Next announced that this menu would be an homage to El Bulli, my interest in visiting went from “next time we’re in Chicago we should try to check it out” to “This is a moral imperative.”

I don’t fly to Chicago terribly often; it’s expensive and mandates me taking time off work to spend any significant amount of time there. But for this very special, once-in-a-lifetime thing, I decided I was all in. I convinced Sarah and four other great people that this meal at the Kitchen Table at Next on a Wednesday Night would be worth not only its own total value of $2863, but also worth the nearly $600 per-person extra it would cost each of us to fly in and stay in a hotel for 2 nights. This is not an insignificant sum for any of us at all.

I find that the thing that tends to earn eating-out experiences the highest marks on our spreadsheet and poshest vaults in our memory banks isn’t really only the food. We tend to ask ourselves to regard the experience as a whole. Of course the food should be great, but usually there’s an element of magic involved beyond just the edible that causes us to leave feeling dizzy and bursting with gratefulness. Our most recent rating of “4″ for ourselves (there aren’t many; barely enough to count on one hand) was Plum in downtown Oakland. We sat at the bar (our favorite–I like to watch everyone as they craft the dishes); the chefs picked up quickly that I have more than a passing interest in cooking and started offering us introductions to specific ingredients or extra plates of this or that, encouraging us to taste everything. They were eager to talk with me about techniques and ingredients, geeking out with me at one point about how awesome fresh garbanzo beans look. The pastry chef stopped work during a flurry of dessert orders to talk shop with Sarah a bit about a crumb crust we had and loved (Sarah is to baking what I am to Alinea-cookbooking). The staff was effusive, honest, approachable, perfectly lovely. We left feeling as though we’d just made some new friends.

I like to think (and hope it’s not delusional to do so) that my sincere gratitude, enthusiasm and interest for their work made more of an impression on their night than did the gratuity we left.  I think it’s a natural and honest thing for a person to want to surround themselves with other people with shared interests and passions…this is generally how I regard good friendships. I wasn’t interested in edging for special treatment by the chefs (“schmoozing” isn’t my style) so much as I was geeking out with people who like the same things I do, and I choose to believe they weren’t interested in edging for a fat tip from me so much as enjoying someone taking genuine interest in the minutiae of their work. Enthusiasm begets enthusiasm, and I find that a precious and delightful enough gift to want to share it recklessly.

(I understand that the above sentiment, in the wrong light, implies I think saying “thanks” precludes the need to leave a gratuity. No, I am not suggesting this. But I would imagine tips are more forgettable than enthusiasm.)

Of course, it goes without saying that our first meal at Alinea created in both of us these same feelings; the food was amazing of course, but the experience was so much more than that. It painted an ideal, it set a bar, it codified a perspective that is so compelling and sincere that I’ve felt strongly enough about it to embrace it nearly every day for years (if it’s not obvious, this project demands way more consideration time than just that of weekends). Even awesomer, we walked away from our second meal at Alinea feeling exactly the same way.

Given the way I tend to think about things, the amount of consideration and deliberation I put into choosing to go to this meal, and the cost involved for me and my friends…it should probably be obvious that my expectations were a little on the high side.  I hoped for magic.

Unfortunately, I didn’t quite experience that at Next.

The Kitchen Table at Next is a large round table behind a wall of glass that looks into the kitchen; one is meant to be able to watch the magic happening right there, just inches away.  It’s special in that it’s meant to allow a relationship to exist between the kitchen and we, the diners, but the terms of that relationship weren’t what I hoped for.

One of the first courses of the evening was presented tableside by the executive chef of Next, Dave Beran. He appeared behind a cart lined with smoking vessels of liquid nitrogen, and without much in the way of greeting/welcoming/acknowledging us he launched into stirring and mixing and ‘doing stuff’. In a quiet moment, I (sitting immediately near his right arm) offered congratulations for the recent (Monday evening) win by the restaurant of a James Beard award (for “Best New Restaurant”). In general, lay people have as little reason to know about this award as they do knowing about VES awards for visual effects artists; I hoped my mention of it would suggest to him that I noticed and cared about the intricacies of his work. Without looking up he responded somberly “Yeah, 1 out of 3 isn’t bad I guess” (1 of the 3 nominations was for him personally, Chef Beran, for Rising Star Chef, which was won instead by Christina Tosi of Momofuku Milk Bar). I couldn’t tell if my attempt at giving him a verbal slap on the back offended him or if he felt it was ill-offered or what, but I immediately felt self-conscious and apologetic. For the duration of our meal my impressions of him were that he was relatively disaffected and didn’t really care much at all about conveying a sense of welcome or warmth to the one table in the restaurant he could have easily done so. He spent most of the evening checking his phone or scowling gently at people entering/leaving the kitchen, or at us. There were a few moments when diners were allowed into the kitchen to greet him and get a glimpse of our luxurious view of the kitchen in full action,each of which he paused to speak with before resuming his duties.

The experience of sitting at the Kitchen Table as a whole was a slightly stressful one for me, I found. The chefs shot us concerned glances every few minutes, smileless and scowling…no doubt they were minding the timing of what I know is an incredibly-complex 29-course menu, but I felt less like a guest and more like a specimen, and the barrier between us felt thicker than the plate glass suggested it should. There was no sense of shared enthusiasm, no nod from the action side of the glass that said “Hey, thanks for thinking what we’re doing is rad.”

When Francisco rose at one point to go to the men’s room, it touched off a flurry of points and in-ear whispers and snapped glances at us as they threw the production line into a holding pattern. This I know is standard operating procedure at a high-end place like Next, but God I felt fucking terrible watching it happen. All I could think was “Shit, we just wrecked their next half hour”. Worrying about being wrong for needing to pee isn’t very fun; a part of me hoped they’d built an intermission into the pace of things or otherwise anticipated the inevitable call of nature that accompanies a 29-course wine tasting bonanza, but they had not.

Because some of the seats at the table face away from the kitchen, my friends decided a nice thing might be to trade places halfway through the meal (they chose to action this during a moment when some of us were in the restroom, in an attempt to minimize interruptions to the staff’s flow). Doing this might as well have been akin to whipping out a pile of dynamite and sitting in near the rose vase centerpiece, such was the wave of glances of concern and scrutiny set loose amongst the waitstaff and chefs. I was torn between wanting to apologize profusely for overcomplicating things momentarily and wondering “wait, is this really unreasonable of us? Because Sarah, who’s put up with me talking about this meal for months, has her back to the window and I’d like for her to be able to see some of what’s going on behind her.” Of course no one on the staff openly suggested it was unreasonable of us; I admit this might have been just my own paranoia and clumsy attempt to empathize with them.

The waitstaff themselves were perfectly great; our main waiters were attentive if a little stiff (one’s sense of humor and tone bordered the condescending for my taste), but much of what they had to say felt over-rehearsed and lackluster. I went to see a stand-up performance by Mike Birbiglia once, a comedian who’s hailed for his casual way of storytelling. His routine had the trappings of casual storytelling, but the surgical placement and timing of pregnant pauses and enunciations made it clear that this ‘casual conversation’ was a finely-polished one, and there was no magic to it. So it was with the waitstaff. This meal is meant to sort of be a retrospective history of El Bulli, or as Nick Kokonas described it on Facebook once, “a celebration”. I have several books about El Bulli, have seen the documentary “Cooking, In Progress” 3 times, and in general have a pretty decent understanding of the restaurant; in short, I’ve ‘read the brochure’. But I was greatly looking forward to hearing intricacies of how it was for Next to work with the chefs of El Bulli to recreate things, what problems and collaborations arose from one team striving to replicate and honor the work of another, etc. I mean, their story with El Bulli is my story with Alinea in larger form, so I savored the hope of discovering parallel challenges and/or lessons to be learned. What is it like to try to replicate and honor the art of someone whom you admire? What (omg what) did Adria himself think when he came to see what they had done with his legacy? What should I expect when I have the chance to serve Chef Achatz my interpretation of his own creations?? (I’m seriously kidding…I never, ever expect to do this, nor would I ever hope to. Jesus the pressure).

There was none of this to be found in the waitstaff’s script for the evening, unfortunately. I tried to ask questions that offered them space to talk in this context, but they kept their answers brief and unelaborative, no doubt keeping a sharp eye on the clock for this marathon of a meal. Delaying a minute or two per course chatting with me could tack hours onto our meal, which had a final running time of about 5 hours. But even their clipped responses had a quiet lack of enthusiasm, an absence of recognition of how excited I was determined to stay for this very exciting event.

The food itself was, as mentioned, very good for me, in the same way that I find watching early episodes of the Simpsons to be very good. I.e. it was delicious and–while not the most mind-bogglingly new thing that I’d ever seen–clearly laid the groundwork for restaurants like Alinea to build upon. I Appreciated it with an intentionally-capital A, because examples of the first foam or spherified flavor are like viewing fine art paintings for me, and I greatly respect the effort and consideration involved in replicating El Bulli’s work, the sensitivity with which one must approach interpreting or modifying aspects of things, and the sheer volume of work the chefs have sluiced through to arrive at what was a very nicely-paced and -balanced menu.

Because I think it’s a natural and honest thing for a person to want to surround themselves with other people with shared interests and passions, I dislike the idea that the relationship between staff and diners need be one-way (I also dislike the idea that bidirectionality can only be achieved with fat gratuities). I don’t like being only a taker; I like to try to offer something back–if only the most meager of gestures–and I feel comfortable showing genuine  gratitude for things. To this end, at the conclusion of our meal I paused as we exited and asked if I may step into the kitchen (as I’d seen others do) to thank Chef Beran and offer him some words of appreciation. The kitchen was largely falling quiet at this time, most of the restaurant had finished, and he was working alone at the center countertop cutting up some fish for the next day’s menu. He looked up at me (through me?) a few times, but made no effort to pause his work or acknowledge me, and though a staffmember went to whisper to him that I’d wanted to offer compliments, he forged ahead with the fish butchery until one of the staffmembers uncomfortably stuttered that he might be busy for some time and that maybe I should just leave.

We stepped next door to the Aviary for one final drink to finish the night, and I took a moment to Tweet to him my thanks, suspecting that his proximity to his phone all night would offer some immediacy to this. There has been no response.

I left feeling a little disappointed about the whole thing.

In the time since the meal, I can’t help but reflect on it heavily. I mean, I’ve been planning for this for months. The financial side of it has abbreviated other plans I might have made this year for travel with Sarah. It was hard not to want it to be 100% awesome; for it to be magic.

I find it curious that so much of my impression of the experience extends beyond just the food; is it unfair of me to regard a dining experience based on the relationship I had with the staff? Have I lost sight completely of what I should be focusing on? In addition to being virtuosos in the kitchen, do chefs also need to have reasonably nice personalities to sate my interests, and how obscenely unreasonable is that of me? Or, is the fact that I spend a lot of my reflection time trying to talk myself into or out of perspectives (“Well, Wednesday is their Monday, and everyone hates Mondays; maybe everyone was just kinda tired and not on point, and maybe tomorrow night’s diners will be just blown away” or “Maybe Chef Beran’s dog died just minutes before our meal started” or “Maybe my breath was terrible and the staff just couldn’t deal with my booze-addled questions”) just a lot of rhetoric, and maybe it’s ok for me to regard an experience as, well, an experience?

I’ve tried to be very careful to posit all of this from my own admittedly-unique perspective. I realize my expectations might have been unrealistically-high, that maybe I’m just too close to this stuff, and that my companions for dinner had a totally wonderful time themselves. I get it; this is unique to me, and I wouldn’t suggest others would experience Next this same way. I’m almost apologetic to everyone that I came away feeling this way; I feel bad about it, even, and willing to acknowledge much of it as my own doing. I will deliberate the public airing of these thoughts for a long, long time before having the courage to commit them.

What I will say strongly and without apology though is that thinking of onesself as too busy or important–as Beran seemed wont to do–to take a moment to accept gratitude and praise from someone so clearly invested in the experience of this meal is de facto lame and ungracious. I’m unmotivated to offer further enthusiasm for his work.

“I’d give it a 2, I think”, I told Sarah the next morning. “Maybe a 3. I’m not sure, honestly.”

The “would you spend this same amount of money here again?” question is particularly interesting with Next, because I was forced to buy “Season Tickets” to get access to this one meal. This means I have tickets to two more meals with them. If I didn’t already own the tickets, I wouldn’t spend this same amount of money again there. And even though I do own these other tickets, I’m not sure I’d spend the money it costs to make a special trip to Chicago for 3 days to go to these meals.

As it stands though, Sarah and I have to be back in Chicago in a month to go to a wedding, so we’ll be in town, and the meal is already paid for. At this point, I’m not sure if we’ll go, or if I’ll sell the tickets and see what else Chicago has to offer.

Honestly, for that amount of money, I’d much rather go to Alinea.

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Postscript: a few of the waitstaff offered glimmers of excitement and enthusiasm, most notably one with a nice set of dreads to whom James mentioned that I’d been working on this project and had been especially excited for this meal. The dreadlocked man turned to me with raised eyebrows and asked “Do you keep a blog?” When I (a little embarrassed) nodded in the affirmative, he asked the name and then sort of did a “Ohhhh yyyyeahhh…I think I might have heard of it?” thing in a way that didn’t inspire a ton of confidence but was generous nevertheless. (Perhaps he was thinking of Alineaphile?) As I was leaving Next, he made a point of stopping me to say “Hey keep up the blog, man. It’s cool.” I don’t know if you’re reading this, Mr. Dreads, but that was the highlight of my evening. Thank you.

 

 

3 Comments

  1. Posted May 14, 2012 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    Bummer that the Next:El Bulli experience was a bit of a letdown. We had the great luck to eat at elBulli in 2005 and it was…in short…the exact opposite of what you experienced Allen. The staff, chefs and Ferran where gracious, playful, fun and engaging the whole way through. It felt like the most relaxing 3-star restaurant in the world, almost casual but insanely polished. too bad we will not be able to go back now, but it is certainly a 4 :-)

  2. Peter
    Posted May 16, 2012 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    Oof. Thanks for posting your thoughts on this—it’s wrenching to read, and I can hardly imagine how tough it was to write. My wife and I have the great fortune to live in Chicago, so we’ve been to Next a couple of times (Paris, Thailand) and Alinea once (July 2008). While the food was terrific every time, and we still talk about the effortlessly welcoming service at Alinea, the service at Next was a mixed bag.

    The servers were friendly enough but certainly not chatty, and as with yours, occasionally condescending. The really weird thing was that one server on each visit (not the same guy, IIRC) seemed to be the designated “dumb joke teller”: when the other server finished describing the dish, the DDJT would jump in with a limp pun or some kind of anachronistic slang. (At the end of the Paris dinner, as they brought out dessert, it was “We’re droppin’ bombs on ya!”) They were the kind of awkward weird-uncle jokes customarily acknowledged with wan smiles and groans, but apparently our smiles and groans weren’t always sufficiently enthusiastic, because a couple of times he felt obligated to explain the joke. Yeesh.

    That said, the hosts were gracious and professional both times, first getting us a table at The Aviary, and then sprinting down the block in the rain to get us a cab home. Ten stars to them.

    I’m a little surprised Nick K. hasn’t checked in with you about this. Does he still read the blog?

  3. Posted May 17, 2012 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    Hey Peter!

    First, thanks very much for this comment…you’re right, it WAS hard to write, and I do that thing where I second-guess myself when proffering criticism for fear of irritating anyone (which I guess was stupidly obvious). Anyway, I appreciate the reassurance quite a bit. Thank you!

    Second: THE WEIRD UNCLE JOKES. YES. I didn’t even mention that, but that’s hilarious to me that you had the same experience. Our headwaiter threw a lot of puns at us, interrupting the normal flow of conversation at times to slip them in in an oddly-forced way. I didn’t really feel negatively about it, but it was definitely a “thing”.

    I’m not sure if Nick still visits; my email conversations with him have waned over the past few years, which I have to remind myself is most likely due to him just being terribly busy.